While it’s hard to journey from the intellectual legacy of the Blessed John Henry Newman to the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, it can be done.
This is a story worth hearing for those truly interested in centuries of Christian teachings about pain, suffering and loss, according to the social-media maven poised to become an auxiliary bishop in the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
“God’s providence is a mysterious and wonderful thing,” noted Bishop-elect Robert Barron, founder of Word of Fire ministries. “One of the most potent insights of the spiritual masters is that our lives are not about us, that they are, in fact, ingredient in God’s providential purposes, part of a story that stretches infinitely beyond what we can immediately grasp.”
Thus, a story that ends with Colbert begins with Newman and the 19th Century Church of England. Newman’s interest in ancient doctrines and worship led the famous scholar-priest into Roman Catholicism. Called a traitor by many Anglicans, Newman started over — creating a humble oratory in industrial Birmingham. Eventually he became a cardinal and, today, many consider him a saint.
The next connection, noted Barron, writing online, was the Rev. Francis Xavier Morgan, a priest in that Birmingham oratory who shepherded two orphaned brothers after their mother died in 1904. Her family had disowned her when she became a Catholic.
One of the brothers was J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote “The Lord of the Rings.” As an adult, the Oxford don wrote a letter in which he addressed pain and suffering. A key point in the letter directly links this story to Colbert, an outspoken Catholic who is one of the most outrageous, controversial figures in American popular culture.
The comedian — youngest of 11 children in a devout Catholic family in Charleston, S.C. — has frequently discussed the deaths of his father, a former Yale Medical School dean, and two of his brothers in a 1974 plane crash. But Barron noted that, in a wrenching new GQ interview, Colbert dug much deeper than before.
During his work with Chicago’s Second City troupe, Colbert was taught to risk failure, to push comedy to the point of transforming pain. A mentor told him: “You gotta learn to love the bomb.”
Ultimately, Colbert learned to link that concept to the 1974 crash.
“It was just me and Mom for a long time. And by her example am I not bitter. By HER example. She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no,” Colbert explained.
“It was a very healthy reciprocal acceptance of suffering. Which does not mean being defeated by suffering. Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is just awareness. … ‘You gotta learn to love the bomb.’ Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it. … That might be why you don’t see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It’s that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”
Colbert then quoted Tolkien’s letter to a priest who questioned a theme in his fiction — that while death can be a punishment for sin, it is also a gift.
Tolkien responded: “What punishments of God are not gifts?”
The comedian struck the table for emphasis and writer Joel Lovell noted that Colbert‘s eyes filled with tears as he added: “What punishments of God are not gifts? … So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”
This is, noted Bishop-elect Barron, the final act in a mysterious drama.
“Were it not for John Henry Newman’s establishment, through much suffering, of the Birmingham Oratory, there would never have been a Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan,” he argued. Without that priest the “young Tolkien boys might easily have drifted into unbelief or spiritual indifference, and if J.R.R. Tolkien had not taken in the lessons he learned from his mentor, he would never have shared the insight about God’s gift that brought such comfort to a young Stephen Colbert in his moment of doubt and pain. …
“The line that runs from Newman to Morgan to Tolkien to Colbert was not dumb chance, a mere coincidence; rather, it was an instance of the slow but sure unfolding of the divine plan.”