“You are now what you weren’t before.”
A matriculated member of Oxford University.
Thus said the Vice Chancellor to all of us gathered and smart in our “sub-fusc” at the Sheldonian Theater yester-rainy-day.
All I have to say? Glory be.Read More
Thus said the Vice Chancellor to all of us gathered and smart in our “sub-fusc” at the Sheldonian Theater yester-rainy-day.
All I have to say? Glory be.Read More
To be a “fresher” in Oxford means a free pass into the mazed mysteries of the “fresher’s fair.” When I first heard this term and found a purple paper bracelet in my pigeon hole offering me admission to this gala event, I had no idea what I was in for. A few booths in an echoing university hall? Free candy? A dozen or so student societies vying for my signature on their mailing list?
Dutifully, I followed the directions one autumn afternoon down the windy, leaf-strewn Parks road with the sun winking through the copper leaves. I passed the Radcliffe Camera, regal and golden under the sapphire of an autumn sky, and turned down the cobbles of High Street. I marched to the entrance of the famous Examination Rooms, home of the Fresher’s Fair, and joined what I suddenly realized was a rather massive group of students, all surging toward a back entrance, shepherded by security guards and staff through two widely opened doors. I suddenly couldn’t hear myself think. Sucked into the mass, I was pushed by crowds behind, drawn by crowds in front, and found myself through the doors and up a flight of stairs before I knew what had happened. With a last shove, I had arrived.
I found myself in a wide, bright room so crammed with people I could barely step sideways. A thousand voices rattled in my ears. The air thrummed with sound, thickened with noise so that I felt that I pressed against it as I walked. Countless booths lined the walls and marched at angles down the center of the room, decked out in various enticing signs, manned by persuasive, smiling people who reached toward us, pressing papers, food, pencils, packets into our hands. The whole of it felt like a jungle path down which we freshers began to run. Yes, run; the hurry of it was like a hand shoved hard against my shoulders. I passed from booth to booth and face to face in bewildering speed. Philosopher’s cocked studious eyebrows at me and shoved their mailing list in my hands. The Green party smiled amidst a rainbow array of pumpkins and sunflowers. The dance society twirled amidst their music and handed me a card for free lessons. The bearded Communist representative solemnly handed me a manifesto of some sort with dates for upcoming events. The Oxford Students for Life (check them out, they’re grand!) handed out packets of seeds, and the local Domino’s Pizza exchanged free slices for email addresses.
And that’s only a tiny sample of the first room. What we found as we stumbled along, friends trying to keep each other in sight, was that eight, nine, ten more rooms awaited. Door after door, hall after hall, booth after booth, all vying for our interest, grabbing at our hands and attention, smiling, calling, yelling, cajoling. After half an hour, my ears ringing, my hands overburdened, I began to panic. Our Bodleian Library induction was minutes away, and none of us could find the exit. Breathless, we pushed through two more rooms and found a stairway out. When I emerged into the cold air of the High Street, the wind tingling with a sudden rain, I took breath, and felt that I hadn’t really breathed in an hour. My heart raced as I ran to make it to our appointment in time but I felt strangely relieved to be free, as if I’d survived some strange ordeal.
Rarely in my whole life has an experience so overwhelmed me. Or marked my heart in so deep a way. But it took me a few days to discover exactly what epiphany had begun in me during that bewildering hour.
Meanwhile, orientation week took place. First, I fell in love with Oxford all over again. The throb and ache of this city with its countless hungering people, its ancient beauty, its rainy, leaf-starred streets is a beloved presence. I made myself at home in my little room, culling pictures and random crockery from the great little “charity shops” round every corner. I live in a rambling old hall with a chapel all dappled and quiet at its heart and classrooms up one set of stairs and a library down the other. The first week, known here as 0 Week, or “Nought Week,” was a round of orientation talks explaining just exactly what I’d gotten myself into. I discovered more libraries, and was inducted into the mysteries of more library systems than I probably can use for the rest of my life. I heard talks on mission, apologetics, communal living, time management, and Oxford expectations. (One of the talks, I’ll share here with you soon.) I signed up for classes, gaped at the reading lists, and bought my sub fusc (look it up). I registered for Old Testament, New Testament, Church History, Doctrine, Spirituality, and Christianity and Science (taught by the inimitable Alister McGrath). Oh, and I arranged a side tutorial in C.S. Lewis. You can be jealous now.
But the golden core of it was my daily immersion in new community. Life sparkled and throbbed around me in a house full of people who made their way from countless corners of the earth to study Christ, to learn Scripture, to think deeply, to write with excellence, to question with keen intent. My favorite part of the first few days was the stories. What course have you started? Where are you from? How in the world did you end up here? And why? Each meal was a round of queries, all of us crammed next to each other on narrow dining hall benches, or gathered in the noise of old pubs, or walking to some new orientation event. And the answers came as varied as gems in a king’s wild treasure. From missions, from academic glories, from jobs in London, or backgrounds in finance, or years in medicine or the military. From Russia, South Africa, Australia, Sweden, or the good old U.S. To be a priest, to start a mission, to learn to defend my faith, to start a theological degree, to learn how to teach Scripture, because I just want to learn about God. Each answer the first chapter of a story it will take the rest of the year to read.
And each a story whose core is the central story of Christ: the Gospel.
You know, somewhere in the last few weary years, I think the word “gospel” lost some of its meaning for me. Sometimes, when you have grown up in ministry, known Christians all your life, struggled with doctrine rather than salvation, the earth shattering fact of the gospel can get a bit dimmed by the words that surge around it. I didn’t realize that grace had ceased to strike me dumb until I sat, on one of the first mornings, on a couch in the common room and heard the testimony of several students. To them, for them, the Gospel was a living power of love that put its gentle, inexorable fingers on their heart and called them into lives they couldn’t have imagined before. For them, the Gospel is something that changed everything; family, life, vocation, identity. And in their awe, I began to regain my own, to be aware of Christ, his kingdom, his daily grace, as a love demanding far more of me than I have lately given, offering far more than I have lately asked. Unexpectedly, I found that orientation here was as much a matter of soul as mind. I’m ready to study… and worship.
But several nights ago, with the verve and forward motion of classes still hovering on the horizon, I had a few hours of fear. I’d spent my weekend getting last details in place, finding books, ordering my room. And at times, it must be admitted, sitting in the quiet of a new place in which all the connections and friendships had begun… but weren’t yet fully grown. It’s easy to be anonymous in Oxford, to wander alone. It’s easy to feel, and be, unknown. And jetlag is a creeping foe, one that slowly weakens your every defense against weariness, fear, or pain. In the darkening afternoon, I knew a few hours in which the hurry and fun of the past week faded into an awful, murky quiet. A hush in which the old fears of loneliness or incompetence drifted into my mind with their gaunt haunted faces, the specters always attending any new adventure. I turned from them, a little panicked, and stumbled outdoors. I strode down the blustery St. Giles street, past the Bird & Baby pub, to an evening service at a church near the heart of town.
The hubbub of the gathered faithful in the nave was a beehive roar in my ears when I entered. I nodded shyly to greeters and made my way through crowds of strangers to find a seat. I’m sometimes tempted to think that I’ve outgrown my shyness, but moments alone in a roomful of strangers always prove me wrong. I felt my heart rate upping. I felt my soul snatching toward calm, unable to catch it. I felt all the fear of being alone far from home, a fear that for once, had stayed strangely at bay since my arrival. No more; it knocked hard on my heart. The noise around me felt almost unbearable, so many voices, too many strange faces. I considered bolting. Better a stiff slap of cold air in the face than trying to bite back tears.
But the music began. And the crowd around me began to hush. I was aware of the quieting almost like breath given fresh to my body. I eased. I knew the song and I let my tongue slip into the sweet old words of a hymn. Jesus. The name of Christ was often on our lips in that opening music. The noise of that big room and its many people gathered itself together into an uplifted harmony. I marveled at the way that a cacophony of disparate voices could merge, united inthe joined affirmation of worship.
And then… hush. All at once. As the leader spoke the opening prayer, the music ceased, and in that grand old hall with its echoing corners, not a voice disturbed the silence that followed his invocation. “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” The words wove a fierce presence about us. I thought of the Gospel, a fresh, and living word in my heart. I savored the name of this God made flesh, renewing all things, and I listened as that name above all names drew our many voices into one concentrated instant of stillness.
And then I thought of the fresher’s fair.
I thought of the thousand competing voices screaming for the attention of every student that entered that hall. I thought of the noise. The way that, instead of uniting and hushing the heart, the thousand voices shattered it. I thought of the unceasing bewilderment. The way that an untethered heart could be buffeted from booth to booth, and with it, faith to faith. For that fair wasn’t merely a gathering of casual clubs, it was a marketplace for ideas. The fresher’s fair imaged Oxford itself, a place of privileged gathering for students from around the world, a city in which the competing philosophies of the whole world are on offer. This is the place where the next leaders of world culture come to form the answers to their fundamental questions, choose the philosophies they will use to craft governments, economies, art, novels, and discovery. But the whole world vies for their hearts, the rulers of the age and ideas of the moment contend in a wild frenzy for the souls of these young, hungry students. And in that wild milieu, the voice of Christ still calls, calls, calls, ready to answer every question they bear. But in the cacophony, will they hear it? Who will help them listen for that still, small voice?
In the silence of the church, I knew the whisper of Love in my own heart. Tell them. I thought of all my new friends, the ones whose stories had so quickened my weary faith. I thought of the thousands of students walking round Oxford, bearing a far worse loneliness or isolation than I could ever know, and I thought of the love that might shine in their darkness, the words of life that could tell them into, not just a philosophy, but a story. But more; the whisper was strong in my waiting mind. Love them. For love is the stillness that enters a life with a calm beyond the reach of fear or guilt or worry. The love of God is the great answer to the myriad hungers that jostle in our hearts from birth. Love is the word that names us and calls us home.
“Only the loved can love. Only the found can find.” I heard a speaker make that statement years ago (so long ago, I can’t remember his name), but it came to me as I stood in that quiet wrought by love. For I understood, in a way I rarely have before, the gift that my faith actually is. In a life like mine, with a long history of loving God and the many attending days of profound loneliness, of doubt, of new living situations faced, and abiding uncertainty, it’s easy to dwell upon all that I lack. To feel that I have more questions for God than answers, that I am adrift, unanswered, forgotten. But with the fresher’s fair vivid in my mind, with the restless, desiring energy of Oxford present in every pulse of thought, I understood that in knowing Christ, my essential questions have been answered. I have been loved. And found by a grace that forms and frees me. And my questions, the ones about identity and destiny and the hope of happy endings, have been profoundly, unequivocally answered.
And I must live from those answers. I must embody and sing them. I must, in my own life, and in the life of the Christ who illumines me, be an answer to those thousand questioning hearts at the fresher’s fair. The stakes here are higher than I have known them before. In a secular atmosphere, in a learned city in which faith is just one option, the imperative rests with those who embrace it to speak out the answers they have found. In the silence of the church, I was keenly aware of the rustle of the streets, the bustle of the questing world beyond. A river flood of questing, driven minds passed the windows even as I prayed. And I knew that the work of my life, whatever else I do, must be to let the love of God so richly dwell in me that I become a refuge where the hungry come to rest. Where the questing discover their answer. And if that is the only truth I learn at Oxford, it will be enough.
Sirens wailed out the window. Raucous laughter split the air. A chorus of friendly song rattled round the doors. A year of learning brooded on the brink of the morrow. And I knew that the story was just beginning…Read More
My room is settled. The jetlag has (mostly) faded. And the splendor of this old, dear city settles around me, drapes itself over my shoulders like a good old coat that fits my odd knobs and soul bones and wraps me in familiar warmth. Adventures are never without trepidation, something I’ll be writing about in the next few days. New seasons seem to turn on an axis of anxiety at times. But for me, this time round, leaving home means a kind of coming back home to a place that I have known. More, a city that has known me and rooted me in joy.
Having a sister to greet me who lives just down the staircase helps too.
I think I am in for an excellent course. The conversations I’ve had thus far have been a lively mix of background stories and spiritual wonderings. There’s vivid life and swift friendship coursing through a place when every person has arrived on the doorstep by the long way of soul-deep questions. It’s a cut-to-the-chase kind of world, and I like that. I had an immensely entertaining and informative conversation with the dean (well, actually the principal, but the American equivalent is the dean) on the problem of evil. Tolkien came up. As did the Lindisfarne Gospels. You see? How can I not have fun?
And that’s not even mentioning the coffee shop deep in the stone roots of University Church, or the tousled meadow that lies a ten minute walk out my door, or the dubious joys of punting (this is not my area of giftedness), or the quickened wind breathing in my window every morning. More soon. Because there is so much to see, and tell, and to write is my way of “pondering these things.” But dusk is coming and I want my Port Meadow ramble. So over and out for now from Oxford. And a beautiful Saturday to you all.
In case anyone was wondering, I make the best scones ever. No, really. I should here be humble and admit that this is mostly due to the fact that I found a superb scone recipe. Which you can also find here. But after an afternoon in which a bit of baking and a good cup of tea seemed the fit and right and lovely thing to do, and the resulting splendor was a plain delight, I couldn’t resist a bit of boasting here. And I thought you might like to try them yourself.
The cultural overtones of scones and tea, however, fit a general theme of my life right now (as if tea ever didn’t fit my life) and it is with a cup of tea raised that I inform you of my upcoming move to Oxford. Oh yes, I’m headed back to the city of dreaming spires.
The story is long, the pieces that fell into place rather countless, and startling, the surprise of it almost overwhelming (it was all rather last-minute this summer), and the delight of it palpable every day.
I’m starting a year-long course in theology at Wycliffe Hall, and hope to do a bit of C.S. Lewis study on the side.
Just wanted you to know, so that when I post a bevy of Oxfordian pictures from my ramblings, you’ll know why. England in the autumn… now that is a full delight I have never tasted.
I’m sorry I’ve been absent from the space here for a bit. It’s been a whirlwind of a month. I will tell you, though, that I finally launched the Storyformed.com website, and released my new book, Caught Up in a Story. The delight, and let’s be honest, utter relief, of having those projects complete is profound. And to hold my finished book, a book in which I fought to express some of my deepest beliefs about story, in my hand, is quite satisfying to the soul.
I will be posting again soon. First, a companion post to the first one I did on the Lake District. I found some unexpected depths of thought waiting for me on that supposed vacation, and I’ve slowly been untangling them into a coherent essay. And then, who knows. Whatever new wonder I find.
For now, briefly, a few things that have caught my eye, riveted my mind, or challenged my thought of late.
First, the children’s novel I Am David. I’ve been perusing some children’s books I missed in childhood as part of the book lists and reviews I do over at Storyformed. I checked this one out from the library, sat down to skim it one early morning, and found myself riveted by the spare, frank, somehow tender prose recounting a little boy’s escape from a concentration camp, and his gradual education in what it means to be free. Not merely physically liberated. Not free simply to do what one wants. But free to experience the beautiful. To encounter joy. And even to submit to the holy bonds of love.
Second, I’ve returned to Thomas Merton’s The Sign of Jonas, a really soul nourishing collection of contemplations and journal entries from his early years at Gethsemani. This isn’t dramatic reading, nor are these long, well-argued chapters for devotional study. Rather, they are pieces, bits and gems collected from the years in which Merton was fresh to his vocation, daily formed in his views on silence, community, contemplation, prayer. He watches the sky, observes his own heart at prayer, marks his many frustrations, confesses his inconstancy, glories in a storm, or a swift bird in flight. It’s the kind of writing that settles me into my own ordinary, remarkable round of hours, reawakened to the possibility of an encounter with God in every nook and cranny of existence.
Third, I really love woodcuts and engravings. So when I discovered that Mary Azarian, the woodcut illustrator of some of my favorite children’s books, has a whole website devoted to her art and books, I was elated. And I acquired two of her beautiful books. If you, like me, love the spare, clear cut artistry of this kind of image, you will revel in her website.
Anyway. That’s that, my friends. I hope your summers are drawing to a satisfactory close. As I type, I’m watching the sun send a last flow of honey light down the valley. The aspens are beginning to shimmer in gold. The air is cool, sweet, tanged with the musty spice of dying leaves and damp earth. And a swift, fairy wind stirs the pine boughs and startles the birds in the dappled, purple sky. And an old lyric sings in my head…
There is something in October sets the gypsy blood astir…Read More
For this, I see now, blessed, You gave me flesh,
The point of sense and muscle’s grip and skin
Was full immersion in this lavish earth,
A world to drench my senses; rough and tender,
Ardent lover, made to meet what reaches
Ever out in me, the whole a gift
To this five-sensed, sentient self; the means
By which I’m rooted in my place, but lifted
Too, in hunger, taught by every atom’s gesture…
Nestled on a knoll of sun-drenched grass, most of the way up one of the Grasmere fells, I scrawled the first of the poem above. For I was in love. And by that I meant in love as a swimmer is in water, drenched in the ardent beauty imagined and formed by the first and primal love “that moved the sun and spheres.” Tasting, touching, breathing a world so brimmed with golden air and undulating hills in carpets of shaggy, velvet green, and flowers in gemmed, wild profusion in old hedges, and ridges dotted with those clumsy innocents, the sheep, that every sense in me quickened, hungered, reached. And was sated by what it found.
I was in the Lake District for three days, a 30th birthday present to myself, a space of time in which I intended mostly to wander, to partake of beauty as if it were bread and I starving for it. A couple of days before I finally boarded the train to Windermere, I scrawled this in my journal: What do I really want while I’m there? I want my little girl heart again. I want that gentle, innocent self, the child, possible to me even now in adulthood if only I will make that inner room of quiet in which she breathes and sings. To work and bear and hurry are native troubles to adulthood in this world. But there is an essential rest that I think is reachable even amidst the whirlwind. A circle of hush in which that “still small voice” hums and speaks. That inner space, and the child who wonders within it, is what I hope to reclaim in my adventure.
And I did. But the wonder was that my guide and teacher was the gentle, gorgeous earth. I knew it afresh as the good gift it was in the beginning, the tale of God’s kindness told in every atom of existence, there for our daily renewal. I found the simple wisdom of the earth, it’s hush and humility, the way it retains and embodies the goodness to which it was called by its Maker, before the fall. But I found its profundity too; heard the low spoken prophecy that thrums in its beauty, it’s vivid, dying beauty, as it waits for the healing that will one day come. I walked and walked, muscles glad in their straining, skin livened by wind and sun and sweat, my whole self restored, returned to its rest by the taste of hedgerow blackberries, the swish of grass, the mad baa of sheep, the windsong, cloudbreath, and green, green laughter of the meadows. To share a bit of the glory here with you is my thanks:
Taken from the spot where I perched to write my poem. You see, I wasn’t exaggerating.
Bank Ground Farm, my home for a couple of days, and also the farmhouse on which Arthur Ransome based his “Holly Howe” in the Swallows and Amazons books.
Bank Ground Farm, the day I arrived.
Over and over, as I trod the long footpaths and bumped my way between towns on the rickety old buses in their dive down impossibly narrow roads, I struggled to describe the essence of the unspoilt landscape about me. And the word “benevolence” came again and again. This is a generous landscape. The sheer ebullience of vine and flower and color are a welcome in and of themselves, before you even step foot through the low, wooden doors of its houses.
What a pleasant sign, yes?
One of my favorite things about England: public footpaths. Those little arrows gesture toward countless meadow tracks and forest ways. You might meet a few friendly (or taciturn) cows, scare a sheep, or find yourself in the far corner of an upland field, but the possibilities are endless. Just follow, not the yellow-brick-road, but the little yellow arrows, and you never know where the road might take you.
One of the best salads I’ve ever eaten. Found after a long ramble. Please notice the sprig of lavender on top.
Salad… followed, of course, by tea, and my ever-favorite walnut cake. Imbibed on a tiny table set on a terrace peering up the cloud-wreathed Coniston water on a blue and white and golden day.
Brantwood, the home of John Ruskin. I too could write brilliant tomes on art if this were my home.
The sheep here are such curious, but suspicious creature. I am helpless in laughter every time they scuttle away from me in terror after I’ve attempted to make friends. Their defiant “maaaaaa”s only worsen my affliction.
My first day’s view, the boon of a long hike in the afternoon sun.
A good walk should always begin with a hearty tea. Preferably replete with fresh scones and plenty of cream.
Or it can begin with a ploughman’s lunch. (Either way, good food is a vital ingredient to the success of epic, Lake District rambles). Another of my favorite English features. Pickled vegetables, chutney, cheeses, salad, and crusty bread… there are few better meals on earth, in my opinion, and few better repasts to set one up for an afternoon of exploration.
My view as I ate my ploughman’s feast.
On the last night, wanting a simple meal and a good long walk, I trekked the two miles into town and got fish ‘n chips, the best kind, from a little chippy shop. They were hot and greasy, spattered with vinegar and salt, bundled in newspaper. And I walked halfway back, to a bench with a view right up the lake. And then, these elegant friends joined me and made my day complete.
But I have to end with this, with the words I jotted in my notebook at the end of my time: “I have rambled and climbed and crept through giant ferns and scrambled over rocks and walked a streambed up a mountain and scolded sheep and sweated right through my shirt and met the brazen gaze of the sun with courage and I sit, now, by a river, little girl Indian-style with hair a-tangle and the glint of sun pennies flickering in my eye off the running stream.
I am the child I ever was. I’ve arrived back home in myself, at rest in the old, sweet ease that is the mark of a soul at rest. I do not strive. I do not fear. I do not fret. I said that what I wanted to find in coming to this place was little-girl Sarah, the old, enduring innocence that waits to return when I actually obey the Psalm and make myself still, let myself know again whose goodness underlies every bit of the beauty I love.
But this innocence is not a simple nostalgia. There is nothing backward about the return to simplicity. I haven’t dwelt wistfully for a few days in ease, now to return, with a sigh, to a busy, adultish, but ultimately, more practical self. So often in our modern world, childhood and innocence are viewed as simplistic states, almost infantile, a backward state cured by savvy and cynicism and the street sense of the world. If my innocence is a return, it is regression only insofar as it is a retrenchment from an incorrect course. I walk back from the wrong road taken, I regress in the same way that my body returns from disease to a wholeness of health and self that is the only state in which any growth or forward motion can be attained.
Child-heartedness, innocence, simplicity, these are conditions of holiness, that fundamental health to which the soul must ever aspire. Innocence doesn’t mean a separation from care and sin, it means a chosen state of faith. A willed decision toward purity of heart. A state in which wonder is the operative consciousness, in which hope is native to each decision, in which thanks, sometimes simply by way of revelry in what is to be found amidst the ordinary, is the ground of discovery, education, and creativity. It is, I think, a state of grace, that fundamental orientation of self required by belief in a Father God. For to him, we are all, eternally, children. The world is his ceaseless gift, and right action, even in the care and work of adulthood, is formed in the soil of thanks, begun by a seed of wonder.
And now, if only I can keep my grip on this knowledge when I’m wrestling my way through the crowds at Heathrow tomorrow afternoon…”