Morning dawned gorgeous on May Day in Oxford. I was up at 5, out in the blue tinted air with the burnings embers of a new kindled sunrise on the horizon. Girded with good friends and the energy of dawn and motion, I joined the gathering river of people streaming through the early morning streets of Oxford, to gather in a slightly sleep-eyed crowd at the foot of Magdalen Tower. At 6 a.m. on the dot, a bell struck from the tower and the crowd shushed itself, the insistent sound like a sudden wind in the street. And the choir, watching the sun rise from the top of the tower, faced the dawn and began to sing:
The song is a traditional hymn of praise called “Hymnus Eucharisticus” and this is the translation from the original Latin:
O Thee, O GOD the FATHER–Thee,
All worship, praise, and glory be!
Thy hand bestows our daily bread,
And that wherewith our souls are fed.
To Thee, O JESU–Thee, the SON–
To Thee, alone-begotten One,
Who for our sakes didst not abhor
The Virgin’s womb–our hearts we pour.
When Thou upon Thy Cross wast laid,
To GOD a willing offering made,
The hope of life first dawned below–
Our joy, our only Saviour, Thou!
To Thee, O HOLY GHOST–by whom
The Babe was born of Mary’s womb,
Both GOD and Man–to Thee we raise
The hymn of everlasting praise.
O THREE IN ONE, Who didst devise
Such pathway back to Paradise;
This mystery of Love be sung
In every age by every tongue!
The quiet was deep, the music in rich threads that seemed to twine with the rising light. And when the hymn, and a beautiful prayer, and another two songs were finished, thousands of people cheered:
And another marvelous May Morning joined a grand parade of other celebrations in Oxford. I could have danced right along with the Morris dancers with their bells and flowers twirling up and down the streets as we walked back to breakfast. And now, the sun is risen, the sky is blue, and my mind echoes with the music. Rejoice. Rejoice! Spring is here and life leaps up anew.
(PS. I’ve been absent from here for awhile. I’ve needed some space in which to reconnoitre the intensity of this season. I shall return soon.)
Three days of hard writing. One day in Paris. Worth every ounce of work. Tonight my mind is rich with Impressionist splendors and unicorn tapestries and the opulence of the hall of mirrors at Versailles. But at days end, after twelve intensive hours of adventure, our little expeditionary force was tired out. So as the sun set, we walked a last few blocks up from the Eiffel Tower (which, I have decided, is lovelier than I expected, as if it was woven of steel lace that seems to glow gold) and went to Cafe Constance, a local place with little baskets of tender, crusty bread, with tables and patrons all jostled gladly together, and simple food that is the essence of comfort. I filled a stomach emptied by a day of hard walking with butter roasted chicken and potatoes simmered in herbs and bacon.
And then I glanced over my shoulder and saw one of the best sights out of a day crammed with unforgettable images. In a corner table under the stairs sat a very old woman with a round, pink face, seated on a red velvet bench. Swathed in a lovely wrap, her white hair was piled in a soft bun high on her head, and she sat very straight. But her air was gentle, slightly plaintive. Her fur coat was draped over the chair across the table, her hands rested quietly on her napkin, and the whole of her essence bespoke an old world gentility.
Until a tiny, spry little Yorkie suddenly dashed from under the table, sprang onto the red velvet and merrily stole her napkin.
“No, no!” she scolded. Then smiled. Laughed. And scratched his ears. The waiters were not in the least phased by the extra customer, and seemed quite familiar with the duo. They bent close to laugh and talk, take her order and acknowledge her canine companion. She smiled at the world and ate her excellent dinner with relish. In the hour we were there, she finished two entrees and four glasses of wine and was just leaning forward to order again. She was rosy, happy, attentive, alive.
Today I visited Saint-Chapelle. And was glad to remember these words from an author who is quickly becoming a favorite:
“We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether he admits it or not — can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”
I’m in a writing vortex. Have you ever experienced this? It’s when you eat and sleep and breathe and wake up in the night thinking about a project until you feel just a tad, the smallest tad, mind you, insane. Writing is hard. Sweat and tears hard. People always seem to have this image of writers as lounging in a high-backed chair sipping tea and being inspired. For me, it’s an almost painful exercise in wrangling the inchoate, intuitive things I know on the level of deepest soul into the cramped containers of words. It takes hours. It takes intense, ridiculous focus. It takes a vortex.
This is the only way I know to get a book written.
But at dusk tonight, as a round, flared crimson sun shimmered down the horizon and the world got misty and cool, I sat with my lovelies and we took a deep breath. You have to do that, you have to make the space in which to breathe and claim it as a discipline, a grace. We talked and wondered, discussing how life is richly blessed. But we also spoke of how it is never easy. How good relationships, like good books, take an immense amount of work. How life demands much more, sometimes than we think we can give. Easy? I don’t know that it ever will be.
For a long time, I felt that my life was somehow all wrong, that the pace and stress and work and swiftness of the days were an imbalance. I kept looking for a life of calm in which to finally settle. But it never stopped, and finally I understood. I think this swift, river rush of a life is where creativity and love, good work and hard choices are forged. Anything worth doing is difficult. And a breathless heart can follow you even into the calmest life.
The secret I think is in a Psalm I recently quoted to a friend – Psalm 131 – “I have composed and quieted my soul…” I thought of that this evening, breathless and strained as I was. In the middle of this muddle, this work, this swiftness, the secret of it all is learning to quiet and compose my soul so that calm rises up within me, an inner room in which I may dwell if I so choose…
I stood at the sink tonight, in a tiny house in a country I’ve never visited before, up to my elbows in sudsy water. I’m on a brief, and wholly working holiday with half of my family. Tomorrow, we work on a project, and work darn hard. Tonight, however, after a trek to a village shop for a week’s supply of crusty bread and cheese, we rested. And ate with relish. A little of the weariness of the travel day sloughed away with the salad and bread, the dark wine and soft cheese. We lit candles. Listened to music. And as I washed up, my brother sat facing me over the counter playing samples from Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for Interstellar. Funny how weariness can both heighten and blend the senses. In the slowed consciousness of my growing exhaustion, the warm water was a grip on my skin, the music not just a melody in the room, but somehow suffused throughout it, one with my gentling pulse. I felt that I stood soaked in music as in water.
“Listen, listen,” said my brother, explaining the intricacies of harmony and counterpoint that made the rich soundscape, that made of notes and instruments a narrative unfolding in my imagination. “He’s not just making music as a background, he’s using the whole soundscape to help tell the story.”
Show, don’t tell, says every writing instructor I’ve ever met. Taste and see, says the Psalmist. Abruptly, immersed in music and sleepiness and grace, I wonder if God evokes as well as dictates his love. For weeks now, I’ve studied the Incarnation. I finished my doctrine project on the train this morning, thank you very much. My mind is crammed with theological points about the embodied Word that speaks in the tiniest particular of human physicality and experience, that narrates itself to us in touch and taste and sound and sense. But my mind and body have been in ceaseless, unseeing movement; I have been too busy with outlining the Incarnation to experience it.
Yesterday, I had an hour of panic over many things. I fretted. I squirmed. And wondered why I couldn’t gain center again.
Stop and taste. Halt and see.
I stood at the sink tonight, beloved souls near me, the water hot and gentle on my hands. food in my stomach, a tender, pink sky fading out the window, music, that music like air in my lungs, and in my weariness, I stopped. I tasted and saw. I savored every sense as it tingled with given life, even felt the heavy, rich exhaustion of the moment. And I saw.
This Word of ours, he’s not just making beauty as a background, he’s using all the world to tell his story…
I didn’t even wear a coat for the walk to my coffee shop today. The air is honey-toned and soft. The sky is so vividly blue it flashes in, arresting as flame through the windows of the lecture hall in the morning, drawing eye and heart into its promising warmth. Springtime is a dream blooming up at the edge of winter today. Daffodils huddle under the woven black of the bare, tangled tree limbs. The earth broods, damp, close to waking. The first snowdrops star the dark carpets under the trees. And birdsong wakes me early in the morning.
The life of this freshened day, the light, the searing blue, draws my sight up and outward constantly. From work, from screen, from dreams, my consciousness is drawn away from the clamor of my student life to a great, silent glory. I am challenged to attention by this beauty. The color of it is a kind of demand upon my eyes, a request I fully answer with my wholly given attention. Who could refuse an invitation to such magnificence?
Funny then, that Shrove Tuesday, the day in the church year when believers around the world prepare to abstain in some way from earthy luxury, should fall amidst such splendor. No rain, or dampened skies, no dim, dark hours are present this afternoon to match the self-denial so associated with the opening of Lent. Tomorrow, I’ll walk up to the altar in my church, confess my mortality, and receive the mark of ashes on my forehead. I’ll remember my sin. I’ll try to fast in some way for forty whole days. Incongruous, it might seem at first, to begin this Lenten season of self-denial just as springtime wakens in all its opulence.
But as I contemplate the coming season this afternoon, perched in my coffee shop window seat, I find in the gem-like world out the panes a perfect frame as I prepare my heart to repent. I think the sunlight, the searing blue, the quickened life, the fragile flowers are a fit and lovely setting to this opening of Lent. Because, though the practice of Lent is repentance and self-denial, repentance is simply the way by which I rid myself of the lesser things that distract me from their source. A great glory, greater even than the golden day out this window, dwells in the inmost room of my heart. The morning star of the universe has taken up residence in my soul, and Lent is the season in which I remember the single, blazing fact of him there, and journey back from all that draws my sight from his glory.
Lent is, I think, the answer of the human soul to the challenge and invitation of God’s love. Lent is the call to turn my face from the clamor of a thousand distractions, to the Beauty in which I have my being.
Yes, it is a season of denial. But the denial is of the non-essential things that make it a genuine difficulty for me to live in the presence of God’s essential Love. To confess is to name what hinders God’s life in me. Habits of sin or distraction, of hatred nurtured, of insecurity kept. To fast is to free myself from the niggling loves that lessen my response to the great one. To wait, to watch, to keep a season of reflection, is to grow quiet enough to meet the Easter event with clarified, adequate, renewed sight that greets the gift of the risen Christ in fully ripened joy.
Lent is a return, to the heart of all that matters most, the single Matter of Christ apart from whom nothing matters at all.
My Lenten practices this year? To give up some food or drink (yet to be decided). To try, as much as possible, to keep company with the wider Church by keeping a partial fast on Fridays and setting aside an extra space for prayer. Simple, small things really, little tests to jolt me awake to God.
The harder thing? A space of determined, daily, kept quiet in which technology is banned and prayer or silence is practiced from early evening until morning prayers the following day. It’s easy, in the busy days I lead, to collapse into my chair at the end of the day and open the computer. To scan, to click, to fritter an hour or two away on a miniseries or a few random articles. None of it evil, of course. But it means that I go to sleep with a busy brain and waken with an unquiet mind. I reach for my iPhone as I rise, wondering what deadline I’ve missed, or news I need to know. Before I’ve even been awake ten minutes, my mind is in a whirl from which it is difficult to emerge for even a brief time of Scripture and prayer. Lectures await. Essays scream to be written. And I, already amidst a whirlwind, feel that God looms somewhere beyond the whiz of it all, but I can’t really catch his eye.
Well, I plan to let him catch my eye in this season of quiet and catch it good.
I begin with an awareness of God’s full givenness to me, a grace that allows me to repent in loving response rather than guilt. Guilt is easy for me. I’m a perfectionist. It’s funny; the more I am drawn into the rhythms of worship here in Oxford, forms and prayers that answer some of the deepest hungers of my heart for shape, rhythm, physical expression of worship, the deeper my sense of inadequacy grows. I often find myself kneeling in an aching, angsty desire to somehow give or be more than I am in response to the God I encounter in worship. I strain, I grieve with the desire to offer more of myself in response to the Love given so freely to me. Much of my prayer boils down to a simple repetition, “I wish I could offer more.” A holy desire, perhaps, but one that, in a perfectionist heart like mine, can turn my eyes to my own faults rather than the Love that heals them.
But a few nights ago, I went to compline at Magdalen College. In deep shadow, amidst plain-chanted hymns to end the day, I looked to the altar where candles burned round a simple cross. Behind the altar loomed a larger than life picture of a sorrowing Christ, cross on his shoulder, garbed in brown, down on one knee as he bore the weight of the world’s sin and grief. Kneeling there in the lyrical, candlelit darkness, with the hymns almost whispered in a tender, gentle awe, I was aware of Christ’s givenness. Of the love poured without stint or measure. Of the grace that is with me now, regardless of what I offer.
I did not need to give, because all Love was already given to me. All that was needed was my joy in the fact.
Lent is, I think, the nourishment of joy.
It’s the honing of sight, the hushing of mind, so that Love can make his presence potently known.
If you’ve never practiced Lent before, well, join the club. Neither have I, at least to this extent. But I’m excited. Eager, like a child standing at the cusp of a journey. I’ve eaten my required stack of Shrove Tuesday pancakes (which, in England, are really crepes dressed with lemon and sugar). I’ve feasted at formal hall to end the evening. I’ve watched the day close with the knowledge that tomorrow a great quieting and centering of soul and self begins. Tomorrow I will speak these words:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.
Christ, in whom dust is formed back into living love.
To my shock (and slight panic), it’s already the third week of term, and my, but it’s off to a swift start!
I find it difficult to compose long contemplations amidst the here-and-there schedule of lectures (the required ones and the half dozen I attend just because, good grief, it’s Oxford and I can – I mean, could you resist attending a talk by Rowan Williams, or a lecture on Caravaggio combined with a study of the Bible as literature, or a meeting of the C.S. Lewis society with John Garth speaking on the Great War? – because I sure can’t). Between lectures, I tromp the cobblestones down to the Radcliffe Camera to cram in a few desperate hours of essay composition, I stop in every bookshop I can, haunt the Evensong services, and on Saturdays, I go for long walks in the fields and coffee-sipping, letter-writing sessions at a slower pace.
My goal is to return to a more regular rhythm of creative, contemplative writing in the next weeks, which should find its gradual way here. Though there is the constant, never-ending possibility of another social or academic activity here, there is also, to my mind at least, a daily invitation to step aside. I find the invitation, as you know, in morning and evening prayer, in the half hours set aside to kneel or watch in silence, to speak the old words of Scripture. A life this demanding isn’t sustainable without silence. I’m learning that, and learning how to fight for my quiet as an element necessary to the flourishing of soul and mind. I need hush in which to meet the one voice echoing at back of all the others, the one great Love whose pulse make every word and thought discovered here a grace. And to write about it all is, for me, a sort of prayer.
For now, in lieu of contemplations, I offer a brief summary of my current study focus, and the books stretching heart and thought and mind as I go.
My current work is on an extended essay in doctrine. When I glanced down the essay title possibilities page and spotted “Christology Explored Through Literature” guess what I chose? I’ve spent the past several weeks exploring various doctrines of Christology, focusing particularly on the Incarnation. I want to understand exactly what happened when Christ took on flesh, what redemptive quickening took place by the mere fact of his present, human life. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom come far before he died, and I want to understand, in rather technical terms, the salvific nature of the Incarnation as something distinct from the Atonement, and what this means for human relationships, and for our interaction with physical creation. God took on flesh. He hallowed the world with his presence. How should we then live?
I’ve been reading T.F. Torrance’s Incarnation, a magisterial work of systematic theology that deeply explores the nature of the Incarnation. I’m fascinated by the concept of the Old Testament as pre-Incarnation history, by the realization that God began a process of incarnation in his dealings with Israel that culminated in Christ. And I’m challenged by the realization of what was accomplished by Christ’s human life as it was lived, and lived to the full in an active, loving obedience that offered every duty and goodness that humanity owed to God, but had, until Christ’s coming, failed to give. Torrance’s knowledge is a little staggering to a beginning student, but there is a wonder, a current of excitement thrumming through his writing. He uses superlatives to explain the beauty of what God has offered and accomplished. Sometimes, when I realize the intricacy of the plan that led to God taking human flesh, I get all bright-eyed and quiet right in the middle of the library.
Jon Sobrino’s Christology at the Crossroads has also been an immensely interesting, challenging work. He wants a Christology centered on the historic Jesus, with a focus on the time and space actions of the Son of Man and his bringing of the kingdom of God. Sobrino writes from the viewpoint of liberation theology, with a worldview deeply shaped by the suffering and violence he witnessed in El Salvador. Whatever you think about liberation theology, this book is worth investment, because Sobrino offers a profound understanding of Jesus as the bringer of the kingdom, the one whose incarnated, divine, historic life inaugurates the reign of God. Sobrino writes about Christ’s actions as modeling “filiation,” illustrating for us what it means to live fully into our identity as children of God, and as brothers and sisters to all humankind, with the responsibility attending that connection. He also focuses on the use of power, and its only right use in the service of Love. He leaves the reader with a clear sense of choice. To read Sobrino is to know with crystal clarity that to love Christ is not merely to trust him in a passive way, but to bring his kingdom about in the time and space contexts of our own lives. Anything less betrays the Incarnation.
The literary portion of my essay shall focus on… Wendell Berry! Can you believe that I’m supposedly studying theology and I get to pour over Hannah Coulter, and Remembering, and talk about the incarnational vision of the good Mr. Berry? Such good fortune. I’m focusing on the way that Berry’s fiction illustrates the kind of relationship we need to cherish toward the created world and to each other, and the way that human flourishing hinges on faithfulness (to place and the people of one’s “membership”) and chosen, cultivated love. For those who don’t know my adopted grandfather (he isn’t aware of this connection!), he’s a farmer by heritage and a scholar by training, and he writes from a Kentuckian, agrarian viewpoint, but the quiet challenge of every one of his books is for a return from the self interest and fragmentation of modern culture to a life of “fidelity” in which people and place are restored to what they were meant to be.
I reread one of his novels over Christmas while also reading Sobrino and Torrance and was struck numerous times with how the characters in his stories embodied the themes of incarnation and the kingdom come that I was reading in books of doctrine. His stories center on quiet, local, faithful lives in which the choices to love (or hate), become the catalyst for the healing of earth and community, or for destruction. His Christ figures aren’t necessary sacrificial, rather, they’re figures whose choices to love create new spaces of possibility and growth for those they encounter. His heroes are those whose lives have roots in a love that transcends time and he speaks specifically to that, especially in his novels Remembering and Hannah Coulter.
So. You can imagine me hunched over my MacBook this week as I finish this project. I’ll have the echoes and light of the Rad Cam to help, along with many cups of tea, and a few brisk walks. I love this study. I love doctrine. I love delving into the core ideas of human existence. It makes me love God with a depth and energy I haven’t fully touched before. I see him more wholly than I have before. And to see God is simply to love. All for now. More soon.
Oh, but I must tell you this before I go: it snowed in Oxford… !
Snowball fight to begin a midnight walk…
Untouched snow at the Sheldonian…
The Bridge of Sighs (and site of many snowball fights).
Ah. One of my favorite Oxford views. By snowlight.
A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Christ's Head, c. 1650