The great Christian apologist, author, and scholar of the 20th Century passed away 47 years ago today. While I was studying at Oxford, I took an opportunity to go to the Kilns, Lewis’ home just outside Oxford, and then visit his grave at Holy Trinity Church. I recorded my thoughts while I was there:
I wrote this soon after an excursion to Canterbury, sponsored by Exeter College at Oxford. This meant an approximate 2 1/2 hour journey to get there. I guess that kind of factors into what happened…
I went to Canterbury on Saturday with about 45 people from the Exeter college program. This offered us a chance to visit Canterbury Cathedral in all its vastness, walk the pathways of the Canterbury pilgrims from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and see many of the other historic landmarks and cultural highlights which make up this ancient city.
Arriving at 11, we had about 6 hours to explore the town. We were to be back at the bus no later than 5:15 to return to Oxford.
Guess who was late. By 30 minutes.
I had a wonderful time perusing the ruins of the St. Augustine Abbey, marveling at the structure which had stood there since 598 AD before the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII. It is purported to be one of the oldest monastic sites in England. I have a real interest in Christian monasticism and the types of communities which formed under the Rule of St. Benedict, so this was definitely a treat.
Around 4:45 I decided to wrap up and head back. Now please let it be known that I have NO sense of direction whatsoever. It’s only through literature that I know the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. This puts me in company, happily, with GK Chesterton, who once famously had a taxi take him to an address which was right across the street from where he was standing. But since I lack the inherent joy and adventurous spirit of GK Chesterton, my situation was a little less charming. I panicked.
Reading the map incorrectly, I went to the wrong bus station, which was clear across the other side of town. Then Vicky arrived. In my growing panic I collared the first person I saw on the street and asked “WhereamIandhowdoigettothebusimsolatetheyregoingtoleavewithoutmehelp?!?!?!” This fantastic person walked me all the way back to the station, about a 25 minute walk, taking time out of her day to help a strange half-witted American. I did not get her email or phone number to call and thank her. But Vicky- Ph.d student in Statistics living in Canterbury- thank you so much for your heart and kindness in leading me back home.
Needless to say, there were some grumpy people on the bus, but most were gracious and kind and forgave my blunder. Except for Isabella, for whom I owe dinner and a drink. (But now that she’s in Spain and I’m in the States, I might be off the hook).
You try to look for blessings in all things. For me this is a constant struggle as my mind usually veers toward worrying about the edge of the cliff. Given that I’m the type of person who always likes to be “in the know,” the experience of being lost and having NO CLUE was disconcerting to say the least. And yet what happened? There was a person out there willing to help. Not exactly the end of the world, right?
Funny enough, the lectionary reading for the next day was about the Good Samaritan. Happy to say I met her.
I realize that the last I posted on my experience at Oxford was near two weeks ago, but the thing about experiences such as this is that they keep happening, so actually settling down to write about it while its happening is like petting a kitten while mowing the lawn. It’s either one or the other, or someone loses their head.
For that last simile I claim myself under the influence of Terry Pratchett, of whom I have been reading in my spare time. At Blackwell’s, I picked up The Wit and Wisdom of Discworld, a collection of pithy comments and funny lines from the 35+ book series.
So, in lieu of Oxford, here is a Pratchettism for you from his Discworld novel Interesting Times, especially fun if you are a teacher…
“You sound like an educated man for a barbarian,” said Rincewind.
“I didn’t start out a barbarian. I used to be a school teacher. but I decided to give it up and make a living by the sword.”
“After being a teacher all your life?”
“It did mean a change of perspective, yes.”
“But…well…surely…the privation, the terrible hazards, the daily risk of death…”
Mr. Saveloy brightened up. “Oh, you’ve been a teacher, have you?”
On Erin’s second-to-last day in Oxford, we took a literary pilgrimage to the Kilns.
Before this, we searched out the lamppost from Narnia- yep, the one Mr. Tumnus was under with his books in Lewis’s first images of Narnia. It is in an area called Parson’s Pleasure- a park with wonderful hiking and bike paths, and much to Erin’s delight, baby swans.
The Kilns was CS Lewis’ home for the last thirty years of his life, so named because it was previously a brick making plant, and the super hot furnaces in which they used to bake the bricks were known as kilns. The CS Lewis Foundation has spent the last decade or so restoring the home, and it is now a center for Lewis scholarship and seminars. Kate Simcoe is the current steward of the Kilns, along with Kim Gilnett, and she graciously invited us to come over for a tour at 2.
Following the “friendly” advice of a local bus driver, I took the 7C bus from Oxford to Headington, instead of the 9. This meant a bit of a hike to the house, but let me tell you, it was well worth the hike.
Lewis’s home is off Kiln Lane, tucked into a corner at the end of the street. It is, in a word, beautiful. Gravel crunched under my feet as I made my way to the front door, the heady fragrances of flowers wafting from the ornate English gardens. I joined the tour as they were meeting each other in the Common Room, where Lewis often greeted visitors. Kim ran through the history of the house, and led us through each room telling Lewis anecdotes and filling us in on the role and function of each. We saw Lewis’s study, Joy’s room, Warnie’s study and bedroom (Lewis’s brother), the Music room where Lewis collapsed in 1963, dying within one hour of JFK. The Kilns also has the original sign for the Eagle and Child Pub (aka the Bird and Baby).
Erin joined me after completing a tour in Oxford, and we trekked up Shotover Hill behind the property and got a great view of the countryside. We got a little goofy with the pictures and- I swear- a Sound of Music reenactment (singing courtesy of yours truly). From there it was about a ten minute walk to Holy Trinity church, Lewis’s final resting place. The light gray stone marker is adorned with a simple cross and the dates of Lewis’s birth and death, with the quote from Shakespeare’s King Lear “All men must endure their going hence.” His brother Warnie lies right beside him.
After a number of years intently reading Lewis’s works, it is still hard for me to articulate the impact this author has had on my life and faith. There’s a hearty handshake and an offer to sit with him with a pint, and after a bit of conversation, and some anxious questioning on my part he jumps up and says “Let me show you something,” and leads me out the door to show me the landscape of faith, with its towering mountains, leafy glades, and roaring seas. We go hiking, swimming, climbing- and he knows or has struggled with every root in the path, every crested wave, and scrambled to find every foothold. And the best part is after a day’s journey finding an out of the way pub, where we sit and he pontificates on the sheer joy of the landscape and breathing the fresh air. He is not there to revel in the obscurity of it all, but the remarkable clarity of all things.
Coming across Puddleglum’s assertion to “Live like a Narnian,” in The Silver Chair, the peeling off of Eustace’s dragon skin in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Wormwood losing his patient in The Screwtape Letters, longing for the irrigating of deserts in The Abolition of Man, tin soldiers becoming New Men in Mere Christianity, and impatient chargers stamping their hooves in Miracles, and Aslan’s roar throughout…there is much much more, but these images and situations have resonated within me, urging my soul to look up instead of down. Lewis allows the world to become larger because he sees the eternal beyond it. Not many writers do that nowadays. Lewis still does. And I say still not in the sense that he is still here among us, but in that larger sense a good writer attains when his/her work is around long after they have passed.
It is the second day of my program at Oxford, and the third day that I’ve been in town. Much has happened in that time and within that time a sense of the inability to actually sit and write down some impressions and experiences, for fear of missing something. So it is with a sense of relief that I am finally sitting down in Blackwell’s Bookshop on High St, directly across from the Bodleian Library and typing on this laptop.
If I try to encapsulate my experience thus far, I have to begin with standing up.
Not right now in Blackwell’s. I mean two nights ago, in the Exeter Dining Hall. Here’s what it looks like:
And here’s me with a drink in hand in the Dining Hall:
Notice I’m wearing a suit? Required. Our first night consisted of a champagne meet and greet in the Fellow’s Garden, and a four course welcome dinner with wine flowing freely, served and poured by Exeter’s wait staff. But what really struck me was what happened before we ate.
We stood up. But why?
As sudden as a light switched turned off, all pre-dinner chit chat in the dining hall stopped, and we all stood as the faculty made their way to the high table, their black robes flowing behind them. The sense of ceremony in the room was palpable during that moment, and to me, it set the tone for the whole program. This was a tangible statement of respect for learning. The positioning of the head table and this ceremonious walk stated very clearly “Learning is set on a pedestal here. It is worthy of respect.” For those who are teachers out there: Can you imagine your students actually standing when you walk into the room? I really liked that moment. One might think it smacks of elitism and inequality, but the fact of the matter is, I am not their equal. They are my literary and educational betters. But that’s ok. Because they are taking time to teach me, and who wants to be a student and have a teacher who knows just as much as you do?
My rooms overlook Ship Street, off Turl. I am situated right in the heart of the University, with Bodleian Library and the Radcliffe Camera and the Sheldonian Theater next door.
I’ve met many people thus far, and there is a whole coterie of us representing Florida, especially because of scholarships given out by the ESU. In addition to the US, however, I’ve had conversations with people from New Zealand, Pakistan, Denmark, Germany, France, and Australia.
Exeter is the college of Tolkien- this is where he studied English Literature and Languages in the early part of the 20th Century. There is a bust of him in the Exeter Chapel, sculpted by his daughter in law in 1977.
My mind still feels a bit scattered, but I feel totally at home here. I am surrounded by wood and stone and grass and books and coffee shops and PUBS. I am sitting in places my favorite authors sat, and looking at buildings and structures which have been here for centuries. tolling church bells tell me when to go to lecture. I was sitting in class in the Morris Room, and noticed elaborate tapestries showcased in each corner. One girl said, “Those are great replicas of William Morris’s work!” Our professor gave her an odd look and coolly stated “Ah. Actually, those are the originals.”
I am still echoing many of my fellow summer students: “I can’t believe I’m here!”
Next: A trip to Canterbury, and what the heck am I actually doing here?
Bit of a lag in blog posting lately, thought much is on my mind, so I will proceed here with a “ramble post,” which invites to the dinner table both connected and disconnected thoughts which have merrily jumped around my head lately.
Great post on Internet Monk by Chaplain Mike on the Church calendar as we in the faith enter into “ordinary time.” It was this sense of liturgical time which has given an enormous sigh of relief to me in my journey with Christ. The ecclesiastical idea that there is a “time for everything,” really resonates here. Instead of the need for a single spiritual high from one Sunday to the next, the recognition of a steady ebb and flow to the life story of our faith, much more conducive to reflection and spiritual growth, is sought after and lived on a month to month, year to year basis. We have our Christian Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter.
This is complemented by the “infinity of little hours:” the Divine Hours, which pattern our reflection and prayer for the day. Lest one begin to think, with typical American indignation, that this hampers our “freedom” in faith, it is worth noting the number of monks, among them Thomas Merton, who relay, from practical experience, the tendency for this daily pattern to free, rather than quell, our spiritual growth. More on that can be found here.
BTW, a great online resource for the daily office can be found at Brother Stendhal-Rast’s site here.
I tried to post a “Vlog” on Youtube, but the audio is completely out of sync, apparently a widespread problem for Youtubers.
Off to Oxford in (yikes) 22 days. Currently reading (sporadically, even though I set myself up with a schedule) Bleak House by Charles Dickens, of which I am enjoying. He has such a democracy of characters- we are all allowed, with our innocence, quirks, faults, and hopes to be in his novels in one form or another. Next up, Middlemarch. Then Return of the Native. Why oh why did I sign up for Victorian Literature?
Reading and listening about GK Chesterton thanks to this little hidden site. Here’s a little gem from Chesterton:
“When it comes to the World, we have to hate it enough to want to change it, but love it enough to think it worth changing.”
Here endeth the Ramblepost.
I am pleased to report I have won a scholarship to attend the English Literature Oxford Summer School program at Exeter College in July. I’ll be spending three weeks under the spires where JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, and the rest of the Inklings taught and created their works. Just imagining I’ll be in the place which was the genesis of Narnia and Middle-Earth gives me the chills. The scholarship was provided by the English Speaking Union of Central Florida, and you can find their website here.
My wife and I journeyed to England this past summer (2009), and I was able to record some video focusing on Oxford to show my students in the fall. Here’s a brief discourse on Addison’s Walk at Magdalene College, where CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien used to take long walks:
While I was in England, I had a much anticipated pint at the Eagle and Child, otherwise known as the Bird and Baby, in Oxford. This was a pub where my two favorite authors, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis used to meet and share ideas, a place which had a role in the creation of Middle Earth and Narnia!
Here are some pictures from my time in Oxford, including the Eagle and Child, Addison’s Walk, and Magdalen College: