This month I’ve been re-reading A Severe Mercy and while I have limited patience for the lovey-dovey beginning, I love the Oxford era Sheldon Vanauken describes mid-book.
It’s always an energizing, painful experience, talking to other folks who lucked into studying abroad in the city of dreaming spires. There’s so much I wish I had done, seen, explored, but it was only a single fall term, and I was only 21, on a budget, and had to, you know, actually study, too (which may have been one of the best parts). Vanauken writes evocatively,
“Coming back to Oxford, we were always, it seemed, greeted by the sound of bells: bells everywhere striking the hour or bells from some tower change-ringing, filling the air with a singing magic. We explored every cranny of this city of enchanting crannies and unexpected breathtaking views of towers and spires. We were conscious all the time of the strong intellectual life of a thousand years. Despite the modern laboratories, Oxford is still ‘breathing the last enchantments of the middle ages’: this wall was part of a great abbey; the Benedictines built the long, lovely buildings that are part of one college quad; the narrow passage where we bought tea things has been called Friars Entry for centuries; the Colleges bear names like Christ Church and Mary Magdalen and Corpus Christi; and the bells with their lovely clamor have rung through the centuries.”
Unlike trying to find someone from the tribe we lived among in Uganda (hasn’t happened, eight years and counting), it’s relatively easy to find friends who enjoyed a stint at Oxford. A friend here studied at Oxford a whole year, including the Michaelmas term when I was there, and he attended Mass at ancient churches while I vacillated lackadaisically between the union and the Oxford Oratory. Pip’s godmother was an RA for a study abroad program there the summer before I arrived and lived near Black Friars, far from the “slightly dodgy” flat I’d call home, near Christchurch. I keep in touch to some degree with two of my three flatmates and another woman who studied in our program but lived in a different flat. My freshman college roommate studied two terms before me, and caught so much more: May Day, for instance. And so we reminisce, and I think for the umpteenth time of all the things I didn’t do, forgetting the things I did do: learn to enjoy Indian food, talk endlessly with my flatmates, take early morning walks just because, never ride a bus if I could help it.
Sometimes I regret that I only studied one term, instead of staying a full year, but I would have had to delay our wedding, which seemed like craziness after dating since 17, and I still stand, reluctantly, by that decision. What’s more, I was comforted by Vanuaken’s reflection, after spending three whole years in Oxford, that:
“[T]here we did feel that despite all that became part of us — bells and spires, C. S. Lewis and a host of friends, the face of the Warden of All Souls and the River Cherwell on a sunny day — there was something more, something still deeper, that we hadn’t time enough – world and time enough — to reach. We didn’t at all feel that we were unable to reach it, only that there wasn’t time enough.”
SV argues that this is evidence that we are out of place in time, made for eternity. Our longing that we continue to be surrounded by such beauty is natural, or rather supernatural: we are meant to be surrounded by the beauty of God, forever.
What’s more, Oxford isn’t a forever place for most of the students passing through, even if they’re lucky enough to take a degree there. It’s part of the wild, wandering freedom of college, if you’re fortunate and get to do things right, without the obligations of a family or earning an income as you go along (noble as those things are, of course). Vanauken notes,
“In a way all of us at Oxford knew, knew as an undercurrent in our minds, that it wouldn’t last for ever. Lew and Mary Ann expressed it one night by saying: ‘This, you know, is a time of taking in — taking in friendship, conversation, gaiety, wisdom, knowledge, beauty, holiness — and later, well, there’ll be a time of giving out.”
Though we might be wistful for that time of taking in as we find ourselves deep into an era of giving out, it’s a lovely thing to have the memories.