His breath made a rope of mist in the icy air. Like a dancer, it whirled and climbed toward the brightening sky as Father Jonas turned two merry little twirls beneath it. His old bones were stiff in the bitter cold of the damp courtyard, but the sun was sitting in triumph on the chapel tower, and a brave bird was crying so wild a good morning that his heart leapt up to meet its note of joy.
Christmas Eve had dawned and Jonas felt as weightless in spirit and free in soul as the misty air. Birdlike, he hopped through the courtyard, chirping a carol under his breath. Despite his thin skin and rheumatic bones, he felt this lightness most days, for the self he had always been was slipping away, replaced by something that felt like sunlight. He was very old and couldn’t remember much, even his own name at times. But oh, he was happy.
For a child reared in the back alleys and knotted lanes of East London, to slip unnoticed out a window as dawn breathed blue beneath the stars was easy as taking a breath. The man and woman in the next room did not even stir. To patter down the tree-lined street of an Oxford neighborhood was even easier, and to slip into the shadows at sight of an adult, like a slim, swift shadow himself, was easiest of all. When the neighbors were questioned later that day, not one of them remembered seeing a small boy, freckle-faced and thin, though many had passed him unaware on their way to work or early church.
Bren loped through the dim streets, loving the ease of his stride. He did a small dance, and shook his skinny arms as if to rejoice that no hand held his own and curbed his movement. When he crossed the bridge by Magdalene College, he knew himself safe and free as one of the birds cutting circles through the cold dawn sky. The morning crowd was at flood tide; at the least scent of danger he could disappear within it, darting through its flow like a minnow disappearing in a stream.
Father Eric knelt to pray in the college chapel just before Evensong a few days before Christmas. The long, high dark of the church leapt away behind him, a dusk he used to love for the star-like glimmer of the stained glass and the whispers that filled its watchful heights. Tonight though, it was only a vast, chilled cave at his back. Even the rustling far behind him in the shadows did not turn his head.
It would have once. When he first came to be chaplain he knew, sure as he took his own breath, that the great angels carved in the dark wooden rafters of the ceiling sometimes stirred. He could swear it. A half smile, a teasing beat of a great wing just to keep him lively as he went about his work in the echoing old place. They laughed at him, they sang, even if he only caught the faintest echoes of their song when he entered and they froze in holy mischief. Once, the whole world hummed with music and the birds told of a country far up in the sky and the trees he passed in the lane looked as if they knew great secrets if he could only learn their language.
But now, all was silent. The music was gone, the angels did not laugh or stir, and the rustling in the far back pews was only old Father Jonas with his wild eyes and shuffling steps, setting the hymnbooks straight and lighting the candles for the choir. Since the letter had come a month before, Eric felt that a great door had slammed in his face, for the world had become a silent place in which he was utterly alone. The day the letter came, he had staggered into his chapel and knelt, as he did now. His own voice echoed off the stones in the awful dusk of that afternoon, rose to the rafters and when he was exhausted, died. That was when the hush began, a silence so mighty he felt that he must have gone suddenly deaf. At his first cry the angels froze and the music ceased.
Elbows on the stainless steel kitchen counter at a recent weekend retreat, I listened enrapt to a high school violinist describe his experience of music. With the waving arms and burning eyes of a poet or madman, Steven described music as an encounter with a whirlwind of color. Not a note could he play on his violin or a concert could he hear, but it came to his mind as a picture, a swirl of color in motion. Even better, he explained, each composer had a hue all their own.
Beethoven, he said, worked in blues. Cool, deep, starlit blues of pain and passion and crystalline violets like the coming of dawn. Mozart? Crimson was his verdict. A definite theme of red, with great flares of orange and little bursts of yellow like sunlight. How about Bach? But at this he sighed, and smiled a very knowing smile. “Bach is the best of all,” he sighed, “his music is pure, pure gold.” At my raised eyebrow and obvious curiosity he smiled. “Let me tell you a story,” he said.
I write this from a seat in the waiting area of Heathrow Airport. My flight is delayed. I find it best to take these things sitting down, with a cup of coffee, and some means of writing. Pret-A-Manget supplied a cappuccino, my faithful little laptop the means to write, and here I am to scribble until my gate finally opens.
The post that I’m burning to write is the one (or three) I have all ablaze in my mind about my days on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. But I pause as I begin, struck by the vast differences between the utterly remote reaches of Skye, and the place in which I find myself at present. Here, countless faces bob round me in a waiting room, accents and loudly-spoken annoyances swirl and ebb, the flight screens blink their constant departures. I’m solidly back in the indoor realm of modern day travel, with its swift flow of talk and time. You might think that in here, my two short days in the wildlands of Skye would seem almost not to have occurred. Or at very least, rather irrelevant.
But au contraire. Right here, right in this skinny airport seat of navy vinyl, with pop music thrumming in the shop nearby, I can still taste Skye. Breath its calm. Get a bit giddy at thought of the walk down to the shore. For Skye, my friends, is now a place of its own at the center of my heart.
Dark is thick, and I am weary as the frayed last light dying out beyond the trees. The mud and cold stick to my boots and my sigh etches a frozen circle on the air. The river path I walk home at night in Oxford is a shortcut to my flat, but also a reprieve from the clatter of the streets. Sound is swallowed here, mostly, by the brooding water and untrimmed woods. Houseboats dock along this path and I cannot help but spy through the round windows as dusk falls and sets the inner rooms in bright relief against the night.
They draw and, somehow, dismay me–these long, low dwellings with narrow rooms, docked low in the muddied stream, ever in a lilt and knock against the riverbank. Most are a clutter of cups and books, clothes and logs and old plants piled on the decks, whole lives crammed into a space too narrow to contain them. They remind me of myself.
I am a gypsy soul, a restless-hearted wanderer. For far too long now I have sought my place on earth. My life, outer and inner, feels ever crammed in suitcases as I soldier on to one more new frontier. Though the journey is bright and the changing landscapes rich with adventure, come night, I am weary. My hope grows frail as I trudge alone, again, to a temporary home. The loneliness of my one, striving self far from home; the constant fight to work, to perform, to achieve; the sense of being adrift in an unsettled world: these cluster about me at night. The dread of my own unmoored existence is something I can almost taste. If only, I think, if only I could find my place on earth.
Stories always seem to go in circles, especially the real life ones. For a year now, I’ve had a fairly settled season of work and study. But I’ve come round back to the open-ended life, and with the close of my time at Oxford, I face an uncertain future. Again. I feel rather testy about it. Old prayers, old needs, old questions rear their heads as I enter the realm of home life. Often, of late, I find my heart tightening with the strain of trusting God. So in my daily devotional wanderings, I tend to head toward familiar places and I’ve camped, of late, in the old realm of Genesis.
Today I read the story of the woman whose name I bear: Sarah. This was a woman who knew the weight of hope I carry today, the ache of many unanswered prayers. The story did nothing to reassure me at first. I struggled to suppress a sudden rush of bitter amusement, for the name seemed like a joke to me. What sort of princess is asked to wander the desert for decades, barren not just in heart, but in body, her arms empty of the son God promised her? I nearly stopped. I did not want to be reminded of how long Sarah waited for her own prayers to be fulfilled.
But my eyes slipped down the page to the story of Isaac’s long-awaited birth and there, staring up at me, was a single word. Laughter. Isaac. The name of the promised child. What a name for such a baby. In the face of my own weariness, God’s little boy of laughter seemed almost cruel, as if a divine joke had been played. For oh, I knew how hard the waiting must have been. Years of wandering, years of hoping, years of disappointment as Abraham and Sarah stumbled through barren lands and dreams and wondered what God was thinking. After all those silent years without a baby, why would God give their child the name of laughter?
“Please don’t gush,” I was told as I set to write my first paper on the work of C.S. Lewis. I’m sure Oxford has seen many wide-eyed, all-too-vocal Americans awed at the books and town of their favorite author. I held my tongue and curbed my pen, but as I entered the realm of the man whose stories shaped my childhood, it was hard not to slip into amazement.
The honored presence of Lewis, for those keen to notice, is everywhere in Oxford. He peers out from a portrait in the Eagle and Child where the Inklings are memorialized in a wall of old photos. He is discussed and debated at Tuesday night societies. His home is a short bus ride from the city center, and one may visit the very study where he composed the Narnia books. I even spotted his name in a Bodleian exhibit of medieval literature where a book of Old English poetry from his own library was on display, opened to a page of his meticulous notes. I knelt down so I could see right into the glass case and read those tiny lines of literary brilliance. I rose and sighed at the sheer amount of knowledge those lines reflected. The man basically footnoted his own footnotes.
My formal study of his life for one tutorial only deepened my admiration. At Oxford, where it takes hard work and excellent grades to get a “first class” degree in even one subject (equal to a summa cum laude designation in the U.S.), Lewis took three “firsts” in difficult subjects: Philosophy, English Literature, and Classics. He read and wrote in numerous languages, including Greek, Latin, German, and French, and like the scholars of old, carried out entire correspondences in Latin alone. My stock of awe was increased by the accounts I heard of his excellent philosophical conversation at high table, his vast knowledge of literature, his ability to quote from various classics, and his fearless confidence in debate. I didn’t gush but I was awed. Overawed.
A pearl-bright morning lit the sky my first Sunday in England as I set out to find the church in the village where I spent my first few days in the UK. A walk down deserted, cobble-grey lanes brought me and a few friends to the open door of the church. The main door, sturdy as fortress gate, was still closed for “choir practice,” so we turned through a narrow entrance to our right, thinking it would lead to the balcony.
But the higher we climbed, the farther went the stair, and the narrower too. Lancet windows let in a cut of light now and then, but the passage narrowed and darkened as we climbed the chipped stairs until we were almost on hands and knees at each step. Go back? Never. The height and mystery egged us on, faster and faster, until, with a startle and stumble, we arrived at a square little room. It was crammed with people. We eight joined eight more, six elderly men and two women, all of whom stared wide-eyed at our accidental intrusion.
Oxford may produce cool-minded academics, but I think most new students are all jitters at the first tutorial. The system of learning here is different, individual, and oh so intense at first. There are very few lectures and even those are optional. Almost all learning happens in once a week, one-on-one meetings with a professor who is an expert in your area of interest. During the tutorial hour, the student reads aloud a previously assigned essay, hears the professor’s critique, and is given a reading assignment for the next week.
The day of my first one was chill and bright when I set out. A week before, I received an email instructing me to find my way to Dr. so and so’s rooms “in college,” on “this day week.” I left far too early, but this was grace, for I was swiftly lost. I wandered at least two wrong lanes in my hunt for the right college. Oxford is a series of narrow cobbled streets threaded twixt creamy, high stone walls. Massive oaken doors etched by iron studs rise every block or two amidst the stone, and behind these, like tiny, hidden cities lie the colleges.