Oh, Oxford! In my next life I will stay forever. Of all our journeying, this destination felt most like pilgrimage to me. I have loved – perhaps better, lived on – Lewis and his way of seeing the world since I was a young adolescent. No other author has shaped me thinking or given voice to my spirit. I identify with him. It’s not just him, either. The life of the soul (I do not think I mean “the mind”) within that place we call a university is the life I find I’m best at. It makes me inordinately happy. So to be wandering the colleges of one of the greatest cities of learning in the history of the world made me a little giddy.
My poor husband wasn’t quite in the same boat. Academic though he is, he’s more of a technician than a philosopher. But he found more than enough entertainment in the enormous music wing of famous Blackwell’s Books, the very gratifying pub, and the cute girl on his arm. Not to say he didn’t enjoy Oxford for Oxford’s sake, but just that there were a couple entertaining conversations acknowledging the discrepancy in our perspectives on this town. For Mike, this was the end of his first wind. For me, it was the beginning of my second.
Oxford was the only small town in which we stayed an entire day. Even in Cinque Terre, our days were spread across its five villages. Consequently, Oxford stands in my memory as the best relaxation of our trip, possibly excluding the leisurely hours we spent in Cambridge with my sister and her husband. (Their pace always reins mine in…) After sleeping in late we did everything at a slow pace, even walking down streets. And at the end of our visit there was no traveling to a new destination. We just returned to our nearby room and crawled into bed.
The other thing which makes Oxford stand out is the company we kept unexpectedly. Classmates from St. Olaf, living there for a couple years, ended up spending the entire day with us, taking our wandering pace and adding to it their own expertise. What might have been a frantic and baffling day with less than satisfying results (how would we know which colleges were best to visit and how would we be sure we could get to them while they were open?) became a guided stroll. For this one day of our trip, we didn’t have to keep a map in our hands constantly. Not only were they great guides, they were good friends, and we had a delightful day of conversation ranging widely from our shared memories to our very-unknown futures. It was a magical day of the best double-date you could ask for.
Three memories stand out specially for me, besides an acknowledgement of my first experience of Pimms, an almost embarrassingly girly drink, a tradition of British summer time, served (in this case anyway) with fruit garnishes like a sangria, including cucumber. We split a pitcher with our friends as our first round of drinks at dinner and I went back for another glass of my own before the night was out.
More significant, the souvenir we took away from Oxford. In fact, it was really the only souvenir we brought home from England, since our focus in London was on our work, and the pace was exhausting and unrelenting. So from England we brought home a simple little bag full of bulbs to plant, acquired for a mere 2 pounds under the famous covered market in the center of the town. I was surprised that the market was a permanent structure, having come to expect the street vendors and umbrellas we’d seen so far. We ate lunch there and window shopped awhile before emerging into the pouring rain.
The sung worship of the day held some enormous personal significance for us, adding a sweetness to the memories. First there was Great St. Mary’s, which we loved immensely. We were expecting something more akin to the lofty cathedral experiences we’d had thusfar, or at least something to reflect the absurd significance our tourist’s eyes brought to it. Instead, it was a simple parish, which delighted and refreshed us. There was evidence all around us of the kind of familiarity we’ve known in our own “home churches.” It was clear to the people sitting around us that they weren’t coming for the culture of it, or coming from far. They were there because it was Sunday morning and they had the best kind of business to do. Yes, it was a parish in the brilliant town of Oxford. (Ever stop to think about the average IQ there, where even the tourists who come come not to see some sight but to say “I was in the town of such and such famous intellectual person or accomplishment.”) But there was no glossy sheen to it. It was just church. The sermon was expertly crafted, igniting our imaginations (with the story of Peter walking on water) in the best possible way, even if his exegetical premises were far afield from our own. The singing and liturgy were down-to-earth, no different from our own. Our friends remarked that we came on a particularly good day, since often the hymns are much less the cream of the crop. As it was, though, they were among our favorites, and among the richest tunes English composers have offered. Best, All My Hope on God Is Founded, a hymn that we sang week after week for years at St. Olaf, integral as it was to several liturgies we loved there. The last line had been our life-line, hope for us through the most uncertain seasons, first, of our friendship, then, of our love: “Ye who follow shall not fall.” We haven’t sung that hymn together since those days in college. Now approaching five years of marriage, there they were, and there we were, feeling not the hope that “we” would make it but the satisfaction of looking back and seeing how we’d tried it and found it true.
Second, there was Queen’s College Chapel, where we heard the most absolutely stunning choral performance either of us had ever experienced live. High schoolers! The group was prestigious – one of the most renowned programs of choral training in England. It was the end of what amounts to a rigorous choral summer camp, which I wouldn’t be surprised to learn had only filled a week’s time. But those kids could sing! The service for the night (In the Anglican tradition of Evensong, the center is the “Service,” comprising first Magnificat and then Nunc Dimmittis.) was by Dyson, a post-Romantic English affair that is not short on color and fire and everything extravagant in its idiom. The fun of it was that it was on our own docket for the coming week, so we were already growing quite familiar with it. Being ushered into the space at Queen’s was unforgettable, too. Just like at Christ Church the night before, the college opens to anyone who wants to come hear Evensong, whereas otherwise the tradition of Oxford colleges strictly limits visiting. So without an entry fee, you walk right through the gates, across the quad, and into the astounding chapels. By the time we entered, ten minutes before the service was to begin, the choir was full of people. (The “choir” is the area behind the screen, where these services take place; in fact, many college chapels don’t have anything more than what you’d identify as the “choir,” pointing to their almost cloister-like function within an educational context.) Eventually a dozen more chairs were set up in front of the choir stalls, and so we found ourselves sitting right in the center of it all. This half hour is certainly on the short list of our trip’s most inspiring, satisfying moments. If someday we could create (or even participate in) worship like this as a matter of routine you will have a hard job finding a happier pair of people.
Sunday 10 August, 8:30 p.m. Oxford, The Eagle and the Child
We slept in this morning to the sound of heavy rain. It felt so good. We caught the 9:40 bus into town, dropped a couple pounds on large, delicious pastries, bought a map and a bus for Merry, and attended morning worship at St. Mary’s, where we sang O Praise Ye the Lord, Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, and – of course!! – All My Hope on God Is Founded. At the Gospel we turned to spot MM and CM in the back row – St. Olaf friends who live here right now. We’d known they were here but not followed through with planning to meet. After the wonderful, nourishing worship service we connected with them and ended up spending the whole day together. They were like tour guides and like a double date. We had a perfect afternoon. At the covered market we ate a cheap lunch and I bought crocus and snowdrop bulbs. We walked around in the rain awhile, went into Blackwells… The sun came out and we abandoned hopes of a tour of the Bodleian (all but those concurrent with Evensong were full), going on to see 4 or 5 colleges. M’s employee card got us in for free. It was bewitching – Merton, Exeter, Christ College’s Meadow, a few others. Best of all by far, Magdalen. In those moments I was “C.S. Lewis’ kind of happy.” The most amazing part was that for some unknown occasion, its bells were pealing the whole time we were there – a half hour at least. I think I can die happy now. Finally, we climbed the tower at St. Mary’s to see the whole town at our feet. We climbed down just in time to hear Evensong at Queen’s College Chapel – Dyson, Howells, and Tallis, sung expertly, magnificently – by high schoolers culminating a week of the Eton Choral Course. It was head and shoulders above every other worship experience we’ve had on this trip. Even the Psalms – 126, 127, 128; I’ve loved that setting of Psalm 126 before I ever knew Anglican Psalmody. It was all just too perfect. Absolutely satisfying. Deep, complete joy.
We’re ending up the day at The Eagle and The Child. We sat long and lively over dinner and drinks with M and C and now they’ve left and we’re nursing another round of drinks into the night before we leave this city of joy.
Oh Jack! What a world you lived in! It’s been so moving, wandering into each college with its own chapel, and each chapel still an active place of worship – daily worship, as part of the business of education. All I need to say is (of course) we are IN. LOVE.
Here we sit in Lewis’s pub. The glass ceiling above us has turned to a mirror in the dark and I see our reflection – hand in hand, reading into the night. I wish my phone’s battery wasn’t dead so I could have a picture of this moment.
We took a taxi back to our car since the last bus had gone. As we walked out of the pub we saw the full, lovely moon. We walked down St. Giles’ Street toward High Street with it in view, colleges rising in the foreground. As we stood at the corner, across from the Randolph, it was perfectly framed by a building and a tall tree, casting its light on the Martyrs’ Monument just across the street from where we stood. A perfect farewell to the day. Tomorrow, to London and to work.