Tag Archives: Oxford

My Work Here is Done

It’s amazing what a week of focus, peace, quiet and no distractions can do for a writer. Being at the Kilns this past week has been that for me, and it’s paid off. I wrote two whole chapters in my book (I am now two chapters away from the end!), plus the preface. Being in C.S. Lewis’ house has been quite an inspiration, and I’m so blessed to have had the chance to come here.

The week here has been something of a blur (probably because I was plunged into writing so wholeheartedly), but it’s been full of great moments of spiritual rejuvenation and sensory delights. I’ll take you briefly through some of them:

-Eating Ben’s cookies in the Oxford covered market. Anyone who’s had these cookies knows what I’m talking about.
-Waking up whenever I wanted to for seven days straight, with my window open and songbirds singing right outside. Truly glorious.
-Spending time with the two people who are also living at the house right now—Donna and Tammy. So great to hear their stories and share mine with them, and to know that our paths crossed in this place at this time for a reason.
-British grocery stores. I forget how fun and clean and interesting they are. And MAN have they mastered the art of self-checkout technology!
-Watching collegiate rowing on the river in downtown Oxford while drinking Pimms and eating strawberries and clotted cream. Apparently this is what they do here in the summer, and it’s fantastically British.
-Meeting Douglas Gresham, C.S. Lewis’ stepson, who popped in to the house a bit today.
-Having coffee in the morning, tea and crumpets in the afternoon, and some sort of wine at dinner. If this is how retirees live, I want to be old.
-Watching no television for a week. Good thing all my shows are done for the season.
-English cheddar cheese. Amazing. And combined with fresh herbs from the garden and organic eggs, it makes a mean omelet.
-Being part of the tour. As tour groups came through the house (usually 1 or 2 a day), I was often sitting at a desk somewhere writing. “Oh, this is one of our resident writers,” the tour guide would say when they came into my room. Among the tourists in these groups was Dr. Timothy George, renowned theologian and Dean of Beeson Divinity School.
-Hitting the hipster jackpot in the Hackney borough of London on Sunday. The church I visited (Grace Church Hackney) was a great place to worship and will be featured in my book.

All of these things have made this an incredibly memorable, enriching, useful week for me… one of those weeks that feels more productive and full than the average month of “regular life.” I’m so incredibly thankful that I am here, and when I leave tomorrow it will be bittersweet. But it’s off to the next exciting place—London (for 3 days). And then Paris for the final 3 days of my trip, before returning home to California next Tuesday. Until then—Further up and further in!

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What Does “Mere Christianity” Look Like?

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“It is at her centre, where her truest children dwell, that each communion is really closest to every other in spirit, if not in doctrine. And this suggests that at the centre of each there is a something, or a Someone, who against all divergencies of belief, all differences of temperament, all memories of mutual persecution, speaks with the same voice.”

-C.S. Lewis, preface to Mere Christianity

I always loved C.S. Lewis’ idea of “mere Christianity”—that there are fundamental beliefs about God and Christ that bind the church together, even while so many of the particulars might be different or contradictory. It’s an idea that makes sense. And it’s comforting. It helps explains why Christianity as a belief system has managed to survive so many centuries and penetrate so many disparate cultures. There are certain core beliefs (amazing, world changing beliefs) that can’t help but endure. And as I’ve spent the last few days in Lewis’ house here in Oxford, his idea—“mere Christianity” is one I’ve thought about again and again.

I think about it while I’m writing my book, for one thing. If there is any underlying reason why I’m writing the book, it’s that I think the church today needs to rediscover “mere Christianity” as opposed to “cool Christianity” or “jazzy Christianity” or “online Christianity” (or whatever other conflated, stylized “Christianity” you can think of). I think we’ve become obsessed with the form and presentation of the Gospel while forsaking its substance (or divorcing substance from form, which is equally problematic). And I think a good dose of “mere Christian” back-to-basics and unity-mindedness could do us some good.

I also thought about this idea as I was in downtown Oxford today, looking at old cathedrals and convents and churches and vestiges of Christianity’s indelible impact on this place. I especially liked seeing the Oxford Martyrs monument, on the spot where Thomas Cranmer and 2 others were burned at the stake for their beliefs. Though the church is not alive here like it once was, the physical and spiritual remnants are enough to inspire anyone. Sitting in the University Church of St. Mary’s on Thursday I was able to catch a free chorale concert by a touring choir from William Jewell College in Missouri. It was sad to me that beautiful cathedrals like this in Oxford are now primarily venues for concerts and tourism, but then when the choir started singing the American folk hymn, “What Wondrous Love is This,” it didn’t matter. It was beautiful and transcendent. When songs like that are still being sung in places like this, the worldwide church is alive and well.

I think about the idea when I’m chatting with Tammy, the other writer who is currently staying at the Kilns, or Donna, who is the caretaker of the Kilns and also lives here. We are all from different backgrounds and Christian traditions, but we are all fond of Lewis and fond of “mere Christian” fellowship. It’s been great hearing about Tammy’s passionate and daring preference for the book of John over anything Paul wrote. It’s fun having an afternoon Pimms-and-pineapple juice with Donna and talking about our mutual appreciation for Tim Keller. It was fantastic when the three of us had dinner and drinks at a restaurant on the banks of the Thames last night in Oxford. The C.S. Lewis Foundation always has a knack for bringing unlikely groups of people together and allowing them to experience the heavenly feeling of mere Christian fellowship… and this week has been one more instance of that.

I will probably be thinking of this idea tomorrow when I go to London and visit some churches (Grace Church Hackney and Hillsong London). I love going to Christian churches in foreign countries (I love going to churches just about anywhere) and seeing how the Christians in a given community worship. I love having communion at these churches—jumping right in to this ultimate sacrament of community, like every Christian should wherever they are in the world. Every church is a little different, and some are very different—but ultimately they all are centered around the same Someone—Jesus Christ—and speak praise and thanks in the same voice—that of the worldwide body of Christ, the Church.

Finally, I think of Lewis’ idea as I sit here, in his bedroom, thinking about the type of Christian he was. Lewis gave so much of himself when he was alive. I think about how he took in some kids from London during the war, and how he gave away most of his income from book sales, and how he replied to every fan letter he ever received. And this is to say nothing of his immense scholarly and literary contributions to the Christian tradition and the world at large. He was a man of God, to be sure, and if I can be a mere Christian in the Lewisian mold I will certainly have lived a good life.

First Day at The Kilns

I’m writing this on the bed of C.S. Lewis, in his second floor room in his beautiful home—The Kilns—just outside of Oxford. There’s a little brick fireplace in the room, a creaky wood floor, and an adjacent study where he did a lot of writing after his wife Joy died.

It’s a ghostly little room, haunted by the absence of a legendary literary hero as well as the curious visage of what looks like a photo of the shroud of Turin, hanging above the fireplace mantle. The curtains are brown burlap and the walls are painted bluish gray. Outside the gardens are thriving and green, with hydrangeas and begonias and apple and pear trees enjoying their early summer growth spurts. Down the path there is a hidden pond, sodden with algae and leaves. I went hiking back there tonight, after dinner. I climbed to the top of Shotover Hill, on a muddy, well-worn path that Lewis himself took many an evening. That Lewis had trod on these very paths and slept under this very roof was indeed an inspiring thing, but more than Lewis himself (or his writings or his legacy), these things brought to mind a longing for something other and separate and elsewhere. Fitting, I suppose, as this is an idea Lewis frequently explored.

In The Weight of Glory, Lewis wrote this:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust in them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing… For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

This house is not the thing itself, and yet through it comes so much. It’s more than just Lewis for me. It’s a stream of memories of the weeks I’ve spent in Oxford in summer past, with amazing people I might not ever see again. It’s the smell of the rain and the bright green trees and all the memories of grasses and habitats I’ve had occasion to roll around in over the years. It’s listening to Debussy on damp blankets under the stars at Tanglewood one summer in the Berkshires. It’s the echo of a tune that I have not yet heard.

It’s beautiful, and I’m so blessed to be here.

Heading Across the Pond

I’m leaving on Saturday on a “research”/“writing” trip to New York City, London, Oxford and Paris. The reason I’m going is threefold:

-I wanted to visit churches in New York City, London and Paris (probably the world’s three hippest cities) as part of my hipster church tour.
-I wanted to have a week in Oxford just to write.
-I needed new scenery and a summer vacation.

The coolest thing about my trip is that when I’m in Oxford, I will be staying at the Kilns—the quaint little English home of C.S. Lewis on the outskirts of the city. The house is owned by the C.S. Lewis Foundation, who I’ve been associated with for the last 4 years. The Foundation opens the home throughout the year to scholars and writers who need an inspiring place to get their work done. They call it the C.S. Lewis Study Centre.

Of course I feel completely lucky and spoiled that I’ll get to spend a week there—sleeping in the room where Lewis slept from 1930-1963. I’m immensely blessed to be able to write in the study where Lewis wrote the majority of his world-impacting texts. I only hope some of his brilliant, humble spirit will waft its way into my own hand as I write in that place. I don’t expect miracles—but Lewis would probably say that I should.

Anyway, I will be hopefully be updating my blog every few days throughout my time in Europe, wherever wifi is available. After my week in Oxford, I’ll be in London for a few days, and then in Paris for four days. So bon voyage, readers! Next time you hear from me will likely be Sunday night, from Brooklyn—where I’ll be writing from the cradle of hipster civilization.

Thinking of Another Place

I was thinking just now about how I’d like to return to this little seaside town in Northern Ireland called Newcastle, which I had occasion to walk around for about 5 hours one summer a few years ago, with my best friend. We didn’t really know where we were, but we spent the afternoon walking around, playing little storefront casino games and drinking some sort of ale in the lobby of a fancy hotel. The air smelled salty and vaguely Nordic. There were green mountains all around, and low-lying gray clouds, and a famous golf course that someone said Tiger Woods really enjoyed. It was a lovely afternoon.

The town of Newcastle lies in the County Down, which was an area of Northern Ireland that C.S. Lewis was partial to (he once said that his vision of heaven was Oxford picked up and set down in the middle of County Down). Now I’ve only been in County Down for about half of a day, but I can see what Lewis meant. It’s a magical place. And—like so many places we find ourselves rushing through between the last and the next thing—it feels more immense and wonderful in memory than it was in brief encounter.

Today I felt, as I sometimes do, a little bit distant from the world. A number of thoughts—none wholly new or original—collected in my mind. The thoughts included, in no particular order: “there is always something more that can be known about someone,” “humans are so aggressively distant from one another,” “the best moments in life are fleeting,” and “I shouldn’t have left that homemade focaccia uncovered—it’s totally dry now.”

I also thought about how, at the end of the day, almost all of life is just one big, reckless, haphazard attempt to be known. Every human—in seeking love, affirmation, success, significance—is ultimately just working through this most rudimentary existential dilemma: to be known, both by others, by oneself, by God. The little blips of joy when we feel known by another person, or by a place—what Martin Buber calls “queer lyric-dramatic episodes” and what I like to call “Lost in Translation moments”—become our sustaining nourishments, our water in the desert. But these moments are rare; they’re not the norm. Most of life exists in the lack, in the divine discontent. We can look back and towards the knowing, and experience it in fits and starts as we daily live, but it’s always elusive. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (I Corinthians 13:12)

Another moment I’d like to return to also occurred in the UK, this time in Oxford. It was a hot summer night inside University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, and an audience was gathered to hear a British actor deliver a re-creation of the sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” which C.S. Lewis preached on June 8, 1941. Up in the pulpit, the actor—who resembled Lewis in appearance and tone—bellowed the epic, soul-stirring sermon for the better part of an hour. It was hot, sticky, crowded, and not air-conditioned, which is how epic summer night sermons should be received. I think a thunderstorm might have been happening outside the church walls too (though I might be mixing memories here).

In the sermon, Lewis describes the word “glory” in two ways. On one hand, the “glory” that weighs heavy on our being is the glory of being “noticed” by God. We want to be known by him (1 Corinthians 8:3; 13:12), and we dread being cast away from him (“I never knew you. Depart from me…” Matt 7:23). But the other sense of glory, says Lewis, is more literal: luminosity. It is the idea that we don’t want to merely see beauty, but to be united with it, to “shine like the stars.”

But we are not allowed to do that yet, Lewis points out: “we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see.”

There is, of course, a deep sadness to the inability to fully touch this glory, to mingle with the splendours we see. This is probably why sunsets are so equally beautiful and tragic, why our strongest sense of “home” can sometimes occur on a brief afternoon on the Irish Sea. It’s the source of so much of our tension, our unsettledness, our petty preoccupations and quirks and insensitivity and malaise. It’s the thing that continually reminds us that we aren’t what we ought to be, that the world is aching for something better, that sometimes we just have to shrug our shoulders, take an aspirin, and be okay with a world that occasionally seems so present and yet so far.