“I can show the wise Hrothgar a way to defeat his enemy and find respite-
…I can calm the turmoil and terror in his mind. Otherwise,
He must endure woes and live with grief…”
~Beowulf, lines 279—284
I never expected to be diagnosed with cancer and when it happened, it caught me completely off guard. Sitting there, in a dark room in the Emergency Department, all alone, with the doctor explaining the results of the abdominal CT scan, I was at a complete loss. The next few days were spent in a daze as I tried to sort through the myriad of emotions to try to make sense out of what this would mean for my life going forward. To be completely honest, I was so busy writing lesson plans for my substitute teacher (I was teaching high school English at the time), making appointments, and consulting with my new medical caseworker, that I did not have a whole lot of time to seriously contemplate how this was going to affect my future. Being the bibliophile that I am, I love to just sit in my library, drink coffee, and stare lovingly at my ever growing collection of fiction.
It was during one of these passive moments that my eyes landed on a copy of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf and I distinctly remember a voice whispering to me, “read this book and discover how to become the warrior I am calling you to be.” I easily put it out of my mind, yet those words plagued me for some time before I actually picked up the book. I am simply amazed at the lessons to be gleaned from this story and I am growing so much for the experience.
At the time of my diagnosis, life was finally starting to loosen up. After years of waiting, I had successfully completed my Bachelor of Arts in English; two out of three of my children had graduated from our homeschool and were out on their own; our youngest and our “adopted” daughter were going to school full time, and I had just been hired to teach English in a small, private school. After 20 years of being a stay at home mom, I was incredibly excited to be reentering the workforce. Things could not have been going better for me, and I was ready to move on to the next stage of life, then the cancer struck. I found it was incredibly difficult to remain consistently in the classroom with the demands of constant testing and scans that required a full week to complete.
It was during one of these passive moments that my eyes landed on a copy of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf and I distinctly remember a voice whispering to me, “read this book and discover how to become the warrior I am calling you to be.”
The pain and fatigue caused by my monthly injections were keeping me in a perpetual brain fog. Finally, I had to resign from my job. Everything that I had waited patiently for was unraveling at an unnerving pace.
Feeling like I am slowly losing everything I had worked so hard to attain help me to feel a kinship with Hrothgar in Heaney’s story of Beowulf. He had fought bravely and worked hard to build a strong, formidable army. Once he had secured his empire, he turns to building a great hall that is to stand as a wonder to the world forever (line 70). Then, suddenly, there comes a terrible cancer that threatens to undo all that he is working so hard to attain. Sit back a moment and imagine the Scop telling the tale:
“Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark, nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him to hear the din of the loud banquet every day in the hall…so times were pleasant for the people there until finally one, a fiend out of hell, began to work his evil in the world” (lines 86-88, 99-101).
As the light begins to shine on Grendel’s handiwork, Hrothgar is struck to his core. He surveys the damage, stricken and helpless; a once proud king is brought to his knees by the loss of his guard (lines 129-131). The light of day reveals to Hrothgar a painful truth; no matter how secure one may feel, evil can and will strike. Satan is relentless and, if given a foothold, will hang on to see his prey come to a bitter end.
As part of his vicious onslaught, Grendel refuses to give Heorot any respite from his merciless attacks. Again and again he strikes the hall, leaving a trail of death and destruction until the once proud Heorot stands desolate and deserted. Grendel does not give Hrothgar time to mourn or form an effective offensive; Hrothgar needs to mount a vicious counter attack to hold Grendel at bay, yet this is the very thing he does not do. This once powerful soldier-king instead melts into despair. He feels lost, alone, and with no where to turn. As a result of this assault on his sanctuary, Hrothgar struggles to bear up underneath tremendous sorrow for his soldiers and his people. This man is now plagued by darkness, hunted by a demon, and all he can do is sit by helplessly and watch the terror unfold around him.
Hrothgar has forgotten who he is. It is not by helpless inaction that he is able to build a strong kingdom, a powerful army, and a hall to be the envy of all. It takes hard work, determination, skill, and, most of all, a confidence in God’s provision. While the hall is occupied, it is filled with stories of God’s faithfulness, His power as Creator of all things, and how He alone is the light of man’s world (lines 91-98). When terror strikes, however, Hrothgar’s hall is no longer sounding with praises to God; instead, his people turn back to their pagan ways and bow before idols, offering sacrifices and swearing oaths in order to find relief (lines 170-188). How easy it is to fall back on heathen ways when times turn dark. It is easy to see God’s provision in times of prosperity, but when times are difficult God seems to get lost in the shadows. The story speaks of such actions in times of woe:
“That was their way, their heathenish hope: deep in their hearts they remembered hell…Oh, cursed is he who in time of trouble has to thrust his soul in the fire’s embrace, forfeiting help; he has nowhere to turn” (lines 178-186).
Pain is darkening hearts and minds are turning to the way things were handled in the past. I can relate. I had made plans for my version of Heorot before God, and I just accepted that He would bless my plans because, well, that is what I wanted. I never stopped to ask God what He wanted for my life and I was seriously taken aback when things did not work out according to my perfect plan. It is in these dark hours that it is so hard to see that God has a plan that is so much better than anything I could possibly dream, and, it sometimes requires God to use drastic situations to get me back on track. (Note: I am not saying God gave me cancer, that is a product of living in a fallen world. What I am saying is that He is using the cancer to give me a hope and a splendid future.)
He has set his sights too low, for it is his dream to create a kingdom on earth that will last and God wants him to shoot even higher. To help Hrothgar achieve this end, Beowulf comes to his rescue.
Now comes the beauty in Hrothgar’s story. God needs to bring him to the point of despair to show him that he is dreaming the wrong dreams. He has set his sights too low, for it is his dream to create a kingdom on earth that will last and God wants him to shoot even higher. To help Hrothgar achieve this end, Beowulf comes to his rescue. Personally, I have always read this portion of the story to mean that Beowulf’s promised relief comes with the destruction of Grendel and his mother, leaving Heorot free to resume it’s festive celebrations; however, when reading the text closely, this is not why Beowulf tells the sentry he has come. In fact, he does not even mention his intention to destroy the monster; this purpose will only provide temporary relief and Beowulf’s quest is to relieve Hrothgar permanently of his affliction. Listen to what Beowulf tells the stunned sentry:
“I come to proffer my wholehearted help and counsel. I can show the wise Hrothgar a way to defeat his enemy and find respite- if any respite is to reach him, ever. I can calm the turmoil and terror in his mind. Otherwise, he must endure woes and live with grief for as long as his hall stands at the horizon…” (lines 276-285).
The only way that Hrothgar can be completely free of this demonic plague is to calm the turmoil and terror in his own mind. It is impossible to be completely free if one continues to hold on to old ways of thinking and responding to trials; to successfully defeat his foe, Hrothgar needs to experience a renewal of the mind.
While it may appear upon a causal reading that Hrothgar’s enemy is the monster Grendel, that is only a small portion of his turmoil. His mistake was building up treasures on earth. Hrothgar is aware that God had blessed him richly and he determines to use his new hall as a means in which to “dispense his God-given goods to young and old” and to dole out rings and torques at his table; yet, like King Hekeziah, in his heart he seeks to establish Heorot as his lasting tribute for eternity (lines 67-81). However, as the text foreshadows, this hall is built where moth and rust destroy and soon it will be rendered but a memory by a barbarous burning (lines 83).
I was measuring success according to the world’s standards and I was willing to sacrifice all I once held dear so I could begin storing up treasures on earth. It took being diagnosed with cancer to help me to see that I was being conformed to the pattern of this world, and that I needed to have my thoughts transformed so I could really lay hold of God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will (NIV Ro 12.2).
Hrothgar has so much more to offer his people than a building and it takes a demonic assault on all he holds dear to wake him up to the truth.
In may ways cancer is acting as my Grendel. It is mounting a fierce assault against the walls that I am working ever so hard to construct, walls that are being built on the shifting sands of my own desires and not the rock that is Christ. God had spoken to me through checks in my spirit in regard to my desire to both discontinue homeschooling and to take a teaching a position; it was not the path He wanted me to follow. Despite feeling these stern warnings, I plunged stubbornly ahead anyway and it took some drastic measures to pull me back again. My dreams were selfishly motivated and failed to present my life as a “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (ESV Ro 1.1). I was measuring success according to the world’s standards and I was willing to sacrifice all I once held dear so I could begin storing up treasures on earth. It took being diagnosed with cancer to help me to see that I was being conformed to the pattern of this world, and that I needed to have my thoughts transformed so I could really lay hold of God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will (NIV Ro 12.2). While God has blessed me with the gift of teaching, it is not as a high school teacher that He desires me to exercise this gift; those dreams are way to small for a God like the one of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. By letting go of my smaller dream, I am now free to embrace God’s much larger plan and I have never been so excited in my life.
Biblegateway. Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Crossway Bibles. 2001. Web. 12 August 2016.
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf. New York: Norton. 2000. Print.
Sprit of the Reformation Study Bible, New International Version. Richard L. Pratt Ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 2003. Print.