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Hello From Oxford

[Editor’s Note: Lanier Ivester wasn’t able to make it to Hutchmoot this year, but while we were convening in Nashville, she stopped by the original Eagle and Child Pub in Oxford, England where she sat down in the Inklings’ Rabbit Room and wrote this post. We read it aloud during “The Telling of Tales” at Hutchmoot.]

Oxford is a golden city. The yellow Cotswold limestone from which it was raised seems to have drawn into itself the warmth and light of all the sunny days it has ever known, so that even in the rain it glows like a watercolor of Turner’s. But in the last rays of a vanishing day it awakens to a radiance so aureate it will literally take the breath away, if not the heart along with it, while a crystalline fire kindles in every leaded pane and the cobbled streets, emptied of tourists for the day, grow quiet and begin to remember their past. Poets and martyrs, theologians, painters, and storytellers have all haunted these edifices for centuries, and the time-blackened passages between them are crowded with invisible shrines and unofficial monuments to greatness.

The first time I came here I was twenty-three years old and star-struck with literary hero worship. I wanted to see where a tongue-tied Charles Dodgson spun tales of Wonderland to a little girl named Alice, and I longed for a glimpse of the brown River Isis where Kenneth Graham had spent his school days messing about in boats. I gaped, agog, at Matthew Arnold’s “dreaming spires” from the top of St. Mary the Virgin and I knelt upon timeworn benches for evensong in the chapel of Tolkien’s Exeter. I even snuck into a lecture at All Soul’s—but that’s another story, and college porters tell no tales.

More than anything, though, I wanted to find C.S. Lewis. I wanted to walk the cloisters of Magdalen where he must have sauntered thousands of times, his hands tucked contemplatively behind his billowing black robe or gesticulating in lively debate with another don. I wanted to see his favorite path along the Cher, bordering the deer park, where he loved to stroll and think his long, lovely thoughts. Most of all, I wanted to visit The Eagle and Child, the pub on St. Giles enshrined in the hearts of all Lewisites and Tolkies as the meeting place of the Inklings.

“They called it The Bird and Baby,” my friend told me, who was a student at Oxford and self-appointed tour guide for the week. “And they met here every Tuesday night during term.”

He pointed out The Room as we came in, flattening ourselves against the ancient oak paneling to make way for other patrons going out. I didn’t know then that it was the Rabbit Room, or what that would mean to me in future days. And it was so crowded with locals vying for a spot near the little hearth on that January night, that I barely caught more than a glimpse of the brass plaque on the wall proclaiming its illustrious heritage. But it was enough. I was there, where titans had been. Surely their influence lingered, a bequest to the unlost wanderers who came here seeking they hardly knew what. Heavens! There might even be a portal to a place we had never been but were all homesick for.

We five ambled to a table near the middle of the pub, where we promptly instated ourselves, intent on soaking up the atmosphere with a thoroughness that would have satisfied Miss Eleanor Lavish’s most exacting standards for immersion. One of the guys whipped out a pack of cards and a game of Hearts commenced which lasted so long a bartender eventually came over to our table and asked us to leave. Evidently our one round of Coke was not sufficient inducement to prefer our patronage to that of the thronging customers who were standing about, drinks in hand. So, I guess I can say, among other peculiarities of my life, I have been thrown out of The Eagle and Child. But not before another long look at the Rabbit Room, and a certain photograph in particular hanging over the hearth of a portly gentleman with a penetrating gaze.

What was it about Lewis that prompted such a pilgrimage? I had been pursuing beloved authors all over Great Britain in the weeks previous, from Wordsworth’s Windermere to Bronte’s moors. I had traveled by ferry to the tiny island of Iona in the Scottish Hebrides to trace the miraculous spread of my faith, and I’d had an opportunity to worship at the lively and dynamic Holy Trinity in London. But—I was almost ashamed to admit it—nothing had moved me to quite such an intensity as this crowded pub on a winter’s night. The magic was so palpable I could almost touch it. Lewis’s writings had both validated my longings and touched a blaze to them. Where well-meaning others had offered me my faith as a morality play, he had given me a fairy tale. And I had seen, with that unmistakable stab of confronted reality, that I was in it. Perils and imponderables and impossible joys: these were my lot as a child of God, and Lewis had shone an ancient lamp upon my birthright. I wanted to verbalize my gratitude, here of all places, but the words at my command were inadequate. Fortunately for me, I was in company with those who understood. We had smiled, and clinked our Cokes. And known.

Ten years later, it happened again. Only I was at home in the States, staring at a computer screen, alone at my own desk. And yet, not alone, as the vigorous virtual community I had just stumbled upon was so insistent to avow. Not alone. Was that not, perhaps, Lewis’ greatest gift: the assurance that God had entrusted the same visions to other souls; that this was no solitary pilgrimage through enemy territory, but an intentional campaign of an organized host? It was as if for years I had been huddling over my own little blaze of artistic hope, endeavoring to keep it alight, only to look up and realize that the hillsides all around me were dotted with bonfires and beacons. A cloud of flaming witnesses. A fellowship.

What I had stumbled upon, of course, was a gathering of God’s artists who were compassionate enough to allow their hearts to be broken over this world’s sorrow and brave enough to believe in beauty, truth and goodness in the face of it all. They, like Lewis himself, were saying things I had always known but hadn’t known I’d known. In short, They were telling the Truth, and they were telling it in a way that was alive. These people not only believed in fairyland–they knew it was Home.

Last summer this community took on flesh. I still remember how nervous I was, walking into the Church of the Redeemer, clutching Philip’s hand and feeling like something stupid was just on the tip of my tongue. It was, of course. I immediately mistook Pete for Andrew and called Evie “Ee-vee.” But it wasn’t five minutes into that invocation of Andrew’s that my mind was drawn blessedly away from myself and my silly inadequacies and swept up into the remarkable story that was telling itself all around me. And just as in the very best stories, I was an indispensable part of it, ludicrous as it might seem at first glance. An unlikely heroine, in a room full of people who felt exactly as I did.

The friendships inaugurated that weekend had an air of Kingdom freshness about them and a sympathy as of long years’ duration. This was the real Rabbit Room, embodied in a living conviction that there was a meaning in joy, even at its most inexpressible and fleeting and a reason for hope, even when the world seemed crumbling to tragedy all around us. And that any effort to contribute to the great undergirding conspiracy of goodness by creative human effort had its resounding affirmation in the heavenlies.

I had a striking realization in the middle of Jennifer and Pete’s wedding not a month before, so thunderingly obvious it nearly bowled me over right there in the pew. It was during Russ’s reading of the Gospel, the centerpiece of an Anglican service, and as the holy words filled the room a holy awareness settled itself in my heart. This was it: The Gospel was what it’s all about. It was the hilarity behind all these kindred connections in the Rabbit Room; the essence of all the “what, you, too?” moments at Hutchmoot last year. It was the author and end of all these artistic ambitions and it was the immaculate original of the deathless vows that were being taken before our eyes that August afternoon. In the way that only the most stupendous things can do, the truth overwhelmed me with its titanic presence, like the giant sustaining Jennifer’s Mount Majestic.

We Rabbit Roomers are not just lovers of Lewis and Tolkien; we love who they loved. We’re not out to solve the mysteries of the universe, but to celebrate them. Philip and I are here in Oxford, but our hearts will be in Nashville this weekend, with a curious and courageous band of artistic adventurers, gathered not merely to share their stories, but to tell each other the Gospel in a thousand unique ways.

The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and give you peace.

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