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.
The room where I now sit is pleasantly dim. A fire burns in an old black grate nearby, it’s light painting gold over the dark wood wainscot on the lower walls of this square room. The bee hive hum of a pub is all round – people hunched over pints and good conversation as the evening draws to a close and the windows fog up with breath and cold. I too have my pint of cider and sit perched on a stool at a small wooden table, my eyes in a wander over the honey-toned walls with their black-and white photos in weathered frames. But one small sign catches my eye. It hangs at the archway entrance and and has two rather marvelous words etched upon it:
That’s right folks. I greet you tonight from that Rabbit Room, the one in the Eagle & Child Pub, right in the heart of Oxford. The room where C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and a small host of thinkers like them tossed thoughts and growing tales back and forth amidst many pints and much laughter. The room in which the stories that shaped us all had at least a little of their making.
It’s been a month since my body arrived back in Colorado from my time in England. My mind and soul have taken a little longer to settle back in the circles of ordinary life. But this doesn’t phase me, because I’m not restless, or angsty, or resistant to normal life. It’s more as if the taste of my time away tinges my time here at home. The peace of it lingers. I’m loathe to let it go. Who knows, maybe it will stay.
Maybe the time I spent wandering amidst long, sheep-starred, dapple down hills…
One great delight of having a composer for a brother is the fact that he passes the best of his studies on to me. Joel explores reams of classical music that I could never find on my own, and every time he’s home from school he loads my iPod with a [...]
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It is always a bit of a mental jolt to discover that one of your best-loved authors greatly dislikes another of your very favorite authors. I felt this way recently as I read an essay by Wendell Berry in which he took great umbrage with the wanderlust of Tennyson’s title character in the poem, Ulysses. [...]