Tolkien stated once that the lembas;
"...also has a much larger significance, of what one might hesitatingly call a 'religious' kind. This becomes later apparent especially in the chapter 'Mount Doom'." [Letters p.274-275, 1958]
This 'religious' significance of the Lembas that becomes apparent in Mordor is the ability to rely solely on the sustenance provided by consuming it, and the strength it gives to the wills of Frodo and Sam.
"The Lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam's mind was occupied with food, and the longing of simple breads and meats. and yet this waybread of the elves had a potency that increased as the travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind." [LotR p.915]
This 'magic' or supernatural effect of the Elven-waybread has been commented upon by many who have read the story. Catholic commentators have often pointed out the similarity between the effect of the lembas and that of the Eucharist or Blessed Sacrament.
And why is this? Or what is the Eucharist?
For anyone who has read anything about Eucharistic Miracles [go here and here] the Lembas is extremely evocative of this sort of phenomenon.
The Eucharist, which is Greek for thanksgiving, is often used to refer to the Mass or to the True Presence of Jesus under the appearances of bread and wine at Mass.
When Catholics go to Church on a Sunday [or during the week] they receive Spiritual Food [even though some go without any idea of what they go to]. At Mass, Catholics partake of the Bread of Life, which is eating and drinking Jesus under the appearances of consecrated unleavened bread and wine.
The Mass is the most important prayer of the Church. It is celebrated everyday of the week all round the world.
The Mass is the memorial of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus; and because it is a memorial; the Sacrifice of the Cross and its fruits are present and flow from the Altar of the Mass. For a more detailed explanation of what Mass is go here.
Throughout the history of the Catholic Church there have been thousands of instances where believers have experienced miracles when receiving Jesus under the appearances of bread and wine [Eucharist] at Mass. In fact there are many miracles where during Mass, the bread has transformed into Real Flesh and the wine has changed into Real Blood; like God is wanting to remind his people that Jesus is really there.
There have been miracles of healing and visions; many Saints have survived on the Eucharist alone for years. While in France, I visited the home of Marthe Robin, a holy French woman in line to be beatified, who lived solely on the Bread of Life for 50 years. She ate nothing else as she bore the Stigmata of Christ. There are other true stories of this phenomenon in the history of the Church, where believers relied only on the True Presence of God in the Eucharist, thus fulfilling the words of Jesus that, ' if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will have no life in you. [John 6:53]. [go here and here to read about Eucharistic miracles].
This True Presence of Jesus under the appearances of bread, [often a wafer-thin unleavened bread called the Host] can be placed in a receptacle [Monstrance] and put on display on the altar in a Catholic Church so believers can come to worship Jesus sacramentally present. This type of prayer is called Adoration and is a powerful prayer. Songs can be sung and structured group prayer can be setup. It can also be a time for silent personal prayer. Many monastic orders revolve their day to day life around Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Tolkien often frequented Adoration.
The consecrated Hosts are kept in a Tabernacle [a holy enclosure] in the Church and fulfils the prophecy that God 'will live among his people'.
Jesus being present in the Tabernacle of a Catholic Church is a fulfilment of the Jewish Tradition of God's presence residing in the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle of the Temple in Jerusalem. But now he resides in every corner of the world.
Tolkien had a huge love of Adoration as is shown in this letter to his son.
"Out of darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the complete surrender of all, and yet by the taste [or foretaste] of which alone can what you what you seek in your earthly relationships [love, faithfulness, joy] be maintained, or take on the complexity of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man's heart desires." [Letters p.53-54]
"But I fell in love with the Blessed Sacrament from the beginning - and by the Mercy of God have never fallen out again..." [Letters p.340]
Regarding receiving the Bread of Heaven:
Tolkien: "Seven times a week is more nourishing than seven times at intervals." [Letters p.338]
Sometimes processions are carried out with a Priest at the head carrying the Monstrance containing the Heavenly Bread. If you've seen the movie The Mission  with Robert Deniro and Jeremy Irons, the final scene shows this. There have also been miracles of healings and extraordinary happenings when the Eucharist has been carried in Procession through villages and nature.
The lembas, the Elvish way-bread, gives an incredible strength to those who eat it. Not just a physical strength, but also strength to the will. Considering Tolkien's love of the Eucharist, one can see how this has influenced his writing.
Gollum in his evil state [almost possessed by his lust and desire for the Ring], is repulsed by the lembas when he tastes it.
"Frodo broke off a portion of a wafer and handed it to him on its leaf-wrapping. Gollum sniffed at the leaf and his face changed: a spasm of disgust came over him, and a hint of his old malice Dropping the leaf he took a corner of the lembas and nibbled it. He spat, and a fit of coughing shook him..." [LotR p.608]
This ties in with the moral and spiritual order that exists in Middle-earth: the Elves having made the lembas and having seen the Light of the Two Trees, and Gollum who lives under the darkness of the Ring, corrupted and twisted. They are diametrically opposed.
The following are the references to the lembas found in the text;
• When Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are pursuing the Orcs across the planes of Rohan:
"Often in their hearts, they thanked the Lady of Lorien for the gift of lembas, for they could eat of it and find new strength even as they ran." [LotR p.417]
"Legolas still stepped as lightly as ever, his feet hardly seeming to press the grass, leaving no footprints as he passed; but in the way-bread of the Elves he found all the sustenance he needed..." [LotR p.418]
• When Merry and Pippin are escaping the Orcs:
"Lembas does put heart into you. A more wholesome sort of feeling..." [LotR p.448]
"The taste brought back to them the memory of the laughter and fair faces of the Elves... " [LotR p.447]
Tolkien replied to a letter he had received regarding certain symbolism in the story:
Tolkien: "...another saw in waybread [lembas] = viaticum, and the reference to its feeding the will and being more potent when fasting, a derivation from the Eucharist... "
Tolkien doesn't deny the comments, but refers to his belief and desire that in reading the Myth one is drawn to the Truth. The meaning and origin of Viaticum sheds even more light upon the origin of the lembas and the use of the word in reference to the Eucharist in the Church.
The Catholic Encyclopedia explains the historical development: [Catholic Encyclopedia]
"Among the ancient Greeks the custom prevailed of giving a supper to those setting out on a journey. This was called hodoiporion. The provision of all things necessary for such a journey [food, money, clothes, utensils and expense] was called ephodion. The adjectival equivalent in Latin of both these words is viaticus, i.e. 'of or pertaining to a road or journey'.
Subsequently the substantive viaticum figuratively meant the provision for the journey of life, and finally by metaphor, the provision for the passage out of this world into the next. It is in this last meaning that the word is used in sacred liturgy by the Church."
[read the full explanation here]
Thus, in Catholic terms, viaticum refers to the last reception of the Eucharist before death and before the journey into Eternal Life, but the use of the word has evolved from a physical journey one took in life.
With this explanation, one can see that in the lembas, Tolkien has amalgamated the supernatural qualities of the Eucharist with the original journey understanding of viaticum: the lembas sustains the characters supernaturally on their journeys in the story.
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