“I am in fact a Hobbit in all but size,” wrote J. R. R. Tolkien. “I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated).… I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field)….”
There is something charming and disarming about Tolkien’s professed kinship with Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, those delightful characters which he gave to the world. Truth be told, and following Tolkien’s example, I like to see myself as a hobbit. I also like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands, and I am very fond of picking wild mushrooms from the woods on our property. In addition, I would say that some of my best friends are hobbits, one of whom, Father Dwight Longenecker, has just published an account of his own adventure, “there and back again”, which will remind lovers of The Hobbit of Bilbo’s own adventure.
It is no surprise that Father Dwight should entitle his autobiography There and Back Again, which is the alternative title that Tolkien gave to The Hobbit, because Tolkien was a major influence on Father Dwight’s journey home to the Church. And it is a providential coincidence, therefore, that Ignatius Press should publish Father Dwight’s story during the year in which, on September 2, we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Tolkien’s death.
Father Dwight’s account of his own life’s adventure is subtitled “a somewhat religious odyssey”, indicating that his life, like all our lives, is a journey, or a pilgrimage, or a quest, the goal of which is, or should be, to get to heaven. Truth be told, Father Dwight’s story is also a somewhat religious oddity because he is a graduate of Bob Jones University, that most fundamentalist of Protestant colleges on the Deep South’s Bible Belt, which refuses to buckle to the demands of the Zeitgeist.
“We were weird,” Father Dwight says of his family. “We did not have a TV. That was my mom’s decision, and boy did it embarrass us.” He recalls the shocked response of the kids at school:
I might just as well have said that my mother was a three-hundred-pound professional wrestler who bit someone’s ear off the night before. They weren’t sure whether to pity me or mock me. I can remember some of them shaking their heads in disbelief. “Longenecker doesn’t have a TV. Can you believe it?”
Looking back, he is grateful for the lack of TV. It meant that the Longenecker family did a great deal of reading. Books were read and reread. It was in the pages of these books that he first developed the love of England, the Anglophilia, which would exert such a strange and strong influence on his life. “I was drawn to the romance of kings and queens and attracted by pictures of soldiers in bearskin hats, thatched cottages, castles, Robin Hood, red phone booths, King Arthur, Big Ben, Madame Tussaud’s Waxworks, and the white cliffs of Dover.”
In 1965, when he was nine years old, he read of the death of T. S. Eliot. He was fascinated to discover that Eliot was an American who went and lived in England and wrote poetry. “I was amazed. Could such a thing be possible? I thought it would be very terrific to go and live in England and wear three-piece suits and be serious like T. S. Eliot and maybe ride a double-decker bus and go to the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s.”
Dreams of England were a million miles from the backwoods in the mountains of Pennsylvania and the family’s weird religion:
Nobody can say our religion was boring. With the triple octave chimes, gospel magicians, and scary sermons about the end of the world, who needed TV? Why have TV when you could go to church and hear a traveling musical family sing gospel songs dressed in their full Native American outfits or listen to a traveling evangelist play What a Friend We Have in Jesus on a set of brandy snifters filled with different levels of water.
“We not only believed it,” Father Longenecker recalls. “We lived it.” As his mother followed the call to evangelize her neighbours, her son would cringe in embarrassment as his mother handed out gospel tracts when they were out shopping. “My friend,” she would ask the person at the bakery shop, “have you ever been born again? No? Well, I’ll have six bear claws, sticky buns, and a coffee cake, please.”
One of the wonderful things about Father Dwight’s story, apart from the great gift of storytelling itself, is the quality of the writing:
Adolescence is a time when the bliss of childhood makes a crash landing on the battleground of reality. For the first time, the breezy innocence and freedom of childhood come face to face with all kinds of gritty and grotesque truths – like seventh-grade girls, rebellion, breaking voices, braces, body hair, and that dangerous stranger called sex.
High school was huge. Scary. So were the older kids. They were huge and scary, and were utterly shameless in their bullying of those who were younger and smaller. As for the young Dwight, he was very much a misfit and knew it. While the other kids played sports or discussed what they had watched on TV, he was reading poetry, dreaming of England and was haunted by the ghost of T. S. Eliot. “I was a fogey,” he writes. “Even in junior high, I felt like J. Alfred Prufrock. I grow old…. I grow old. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”
When confronted with a bully, “one of the Neanderthals”, who knocked a book out of his hand, he wondered what T. S. Eliot would have done in such a situation.
On his first trip to Europe, at the age of eighteen, he smuggled Bibles into communist countries in a Volkswagen van and had his first close encounter with the Catholic faith. It was at the Basilica of Sacre Coeur in Paris. He was struck by the great darkness of the church, “punctuated with pools of light from the flickering candles”. There was a light shining over the altar, indicating the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. “I did not know what it was, but as I sat in a pew at the back, then knelt, I was aware of that same presence that had protected and guided me, but here it was somehow much stronger and more focused.”
Little did the young Protestant Fundamentalist know it, but a sacramental light was being lit in his own heart which would flicker for years until finally setting his very life on fire with the need to be received into the Church.
“I really knew nothing but I knelt there for a very long time … totally at peace in the presence – totally caught up in the Great Beauty.” Unknown to the one who knew nothing about Catholicism except what he’d been taught by those who believed that she was the Whore of Babylon and that the pope was the anti-christ, he had been touched by the beauty of the Faith, a Great Beauty which would triumph over the beast of bigotry.
• In the second part of the journey “there and back again” with Father Dwight Longenecker, we will cross the Atlantic to England and then we will cross the Tiber to Rome.
There and Back Again: A Somewhat Religious Odyssey
By Fr. Dwight Longenecker
Ignatius Press, 2023
Paperback, 220 pages
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