Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Clear as Mud: I Can Do No More

            A few days before I left for Oxford, I bought a travel journal. I thought that the purchase would be an intelligent way to catalogue my upcoming trip, even though I’d never kept a similar log before. Today is our last in this beautiful town founded by the Saxons and the seat of such a great university. It is also the day when I realize that the journal is empty: I have written nothing—not even the start of a sentence. It’s true that I’ve been a negligent archivist of these past six weeks of study in Oxford, or at least that I haven’t recorded them verbally. But a travel log is easily lost or forgotten. Words fade from the page, or perhaps in retrospect one recognizes that the descriptions falls short of the reality of the memory.
            The last book that I read for my tutorials on G.K. Chesterton was one of my favorites, Saint Thomas Aquinas. Close to the end of the study of the Angelic Doctor, Chesterton portrays St. Thomas’ reaction to a vision that he received while celebrating Mass. Unquestionably, the humble friar had undergone a dramatic transformation which caused him to abandon his former habits of reading and writing. He explained: “I can write no more. I have seen things which make all my writings like straw.” No, I haven’t had a vision, nor do I intend to be blasphemous in my invocation of Aquinas’ experience. My intention is merely to illustrate a point, which is that I am rendered nearly incapable of doing justice to my time at Oxford. It has truly been grand—I am so greatly blest.
            We’ve tried our best to carry our story home through pictures of our adventures—but they too are insufficient. The pictures may capture the beauty of the Blackfriars Library, but they can never contain its contents. The books don’t fit in the photograph, and the legacy of generations of scholars is equally disproportionate to a tiny digital print. In his Autobiography, Chesterton has a fascinating insight based on a game that he played at various points of his life. He says that he used “to take a certain book with pictures of old Dutch houses, and think not of what was in the pictures, but of all that was out of the pictures. The unknown corners and sidestreets of the same quaint town.” In the same way, rather than claiming that a picture is worth a thousand words, imagine how much one can say about what lies beyond the boundaries of the frame.
            Indeed, it is what is unwritten about our time at Oxford and that which it is impossible to faithfully capture in a picture that is what has left the most indelible mark on my heart and memory. We try to enclose reality within the pages of a journal or perhaps in a photo album, but it’s not possible because reality is so much greater. This past Monday, for instance, a group of students from Blackfriars went on a walking tour in the country on a quest to see medieval wall paintings in various churches. I can show you pictures of the Last Judgment scenes, but I cannot provide an adequate context for you to understand how it is that we finally came to look upon them.
            You see, we trudged through deep mud as well as trekked through seemingly endless fields of barley and other grains (now I know where cereal comes from!). My shoes were so caked with mud that they became completely stiff. We walked for about seven miles in these conditions carrying picnic fare and finally encamping in a pleasant clearing—in the rain. We had quite a satisfying meal anyway and rewarded ourselves at a pub with more refreshment at the conclusion of our odyssey. Writing about a “country walk” or even taking pictures of the experience would be a deception because it would fall short, so I don’t pretend to accurately depict this episode here.
            It seems like we should just give up then, but I actually do think that there is a solution of sorts. Although I can’t promise a diary brimming with details of my stay at Oxford nor an extensive number of photographs, I can guarantee that I have changed. But you’re heard this before: the clichéd claim that the study abroad student cheerfully makes upon returning home. It is clichéd, but it’s true. I know it’s true in my case because I have never found myself so powerless to describe the numerous events and people that have comprised my life for the past few weeks. This helplessness is not a weakness or defect from my experience but instead indicates the profound wonder that has grown within me with the help of Chesterton. Wonder is perhaps the closest state of mind I can invoke in order to share with you the deepest intimacies of my study at Oxford, and so we must leave it at that—for I can do no more.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

At Home in Oxford

            The word hospitality dates from the fourteenth century. To be exact, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, (even more of an authoritative source now that we’re in Oxford) the word was first used in 1382. Oxford University was officially named a university in 1231, but though the college may be older than the word, it has been mine and Laura’s experience that the two have intersected countless times during our month-long sojourn. The OED defines hospitality as “the act or practice of being hospitable; the reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers, with liberality and goodwill.” Liberality of course connotes magnanimity and goodwill the state of wishing another well. It is certainly true that we have encountered hospitality in Oxford, but I would venture further to say that we have found love.
            While goodwill means that someone wishes you well, St. Thomas defines love as desiring the good of another—so it is stronger and oriented towards the Good. There is also a certain sense in which merely wishing one well signifies detachment and abandon: the kind of thing you say to an acquaintance whom you’ll probably never see again. But love isn’t like that. Love preoccupies itself with that which it loves and does not waver with distance or time. The pessimist will no doubt tell me that this is a vision hugely shy of reality; but I will respond that I have beheld this reality, and it is glorious.
            One of the first things that one of our friends here said to me was a simple inquiry: “are you happy?” I was rendered speechless by such a query because its candor made me dumbstruck. I responded that I was. “Who isn’t happy in Oxford?” I replied gleefully. Only more recently, however, have I come to realize the real explanation behind my confident assertion. I’m not happy here because of the seemingly unending supply of books in the university libraries as well as in multiple well-endowed bookshops in town—although they do help! I’m also not happy because of the fact that we’re studying at Oxford—a name that holds a hallowed place in the minds of anyone seeking knowledge and more importantly, Truth. What’s in a name, after all?
            Happiness means that our deepest desires are fulfilled, but it is clear that there is something greater than mere knowledge for which man thirsts. Pope John Paul II had a brilliant insight, which rings with the sweetness of truth: man is made for love. He will be content with books and learning, but they offer limited companionship—in fact their friendship is hollow because communication is one-sided. The love of friendship has extended its hand graciously to Laura and me during our short time here, and it continues to do so generously. We have been invited into the intimacy of our friends’ homes for tea, dinner, and fellowship, but beyond this, we have been welcomed into the depths of their hearts.
            These are the people who stop us in the street not only to greet us, but to treat us to lunch in their hall. These are the people who invite us not just to partake of home-make sandwiches and crumpets, but to join them in the most intimate of activities shared among friends: prayer. In the Aquinas Study Group that meets every Monday evening, we have met other young people who see the same truth as us. When there is such a deep connection as the foundation based on virtue, it seems like we have known these friends for months--maybe even longer.

            There is also necessarily a profound truth that accompanies such friendships. Last Monday, we met an American student who is biking across England in order to make videos about people’s faith stories. He has no plans in mind and sees nothing before him but his goal: to spread the message of hope. He knows few people along the way and most are strangers that will likely never again cross his path. He is able to proceed confidently, though, because he believes like Chesterton said of St. Francis, that: “he counted on the hospitality of humanity because he really did regard every house as the house of a friend.” I’m so profoundly inspired by the example of our Oxford friends to abandon shyness and petty excuses so that I too may extend this limber hand towards the stranger, so that he can be the friend that I have not yet met.
            No matter if we ever return to Oxfordshire or not, what is certain is that a world has been unlocked to us, for Oxford is not just a single university but a world. This world is comprised of numerous unique halls that each has its own story to recount as well as countless libraries, green courtyards, and enchanted passages. This is a world vibrant with history and music and art and faith. We have been ushered into this world because there was someone on the other side to turn the key and show us not the shadows of light but its actual source. The source is of course Christ. C.S. Lewis explains that He tells a group of friends: “You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another,” and this is very good. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

An Oxonian's Ode to Joy

Once a week I take the coach just outside Blackfriars to get to Burford, which is a charming country town only forty minutes away, for my tutorial. I always sit on the same side of the bus and go to the same bakery on the main street of the town—and my tutorial is always scheduled to commence promptly at 1:35 (the bus arrives at half past). My tutor is the renowned Newman scholar Fr. Ian Ker, who has recently written a biography on Chesterton contending that he is a successor of Newman. The short trip that I make to Fr. Ker’s house is always thoroughly enjoyable: I’m traveling so that I can learn from an expert rather than sitting in a classroom or simply walking into a building on a college campus. The experience of going to Burford is such a blessing—one that I still enjoy though I have been three times already.
            Last week, Fr. Ker was finishing attending to some work, so he told me that I could peruse his Chesterton Library in the meantime. How many people have a “Chesterton Library?” The Library is truly the dream of any Chesterton enthusiast. Not only does Fr. Ker have the complete works of Chesterton but also various secondary sources on the great apologist. On this same occasion, it was a typically rainy English afternoon, so he suggested that I stay for a while and read some of his books. The book that I chose to peruse is by a Dominican who teaches at Cambridge, Fr. Aidan Nichols. It’s called A Grammar of Consent and is a very interesting study of the various arguments for the existence of God made by a range of thinkers.
            Chesterton’s is towards the end of the chronological list. Perhaps fans of Chesterton will hazard a guess as to how Nichols characterizes the main theme of Chesterton’s apologetics. I won’t say that I was surprised, but instead I’ll say that I was truly moved into a state of profound awe to learn that Nichols asserts that Chesterton’s apologetics centers around joy. In another one of his books, G.K. Chesterton, Theologian, Nichols claims that Chesterton advocates “the gratuitously joy-provoking character of existence.” What does this mean? It connotes the extreme, inexplicable joy that we feel to be alive: to be in this world. I can only try to describe this joy that I feel each time that I go to Burford—whether in miserable rain that obliges me to stand at the bus stop for an hour for a bus that never comes or whether strolling along the streets of Burford guided by rare rays of sunshine.
            Regardless, I exist in a world that allows me to enjoy the charm of Burford: an unpretentious British town nestled in the Cotswolds of Oxfordshire. Chesterton said that “we are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of
wonders.” Yesterday it was a beautiful day, so I decided to be adventurous and keep walking down the main road of the town until I encountered the next village, called Fulbrook. The road was virtually empty, and so I was left alone with my beauteous surroundings. After a while of meandering, I saw a sign that indicated a Norman Church—I can’t tell you how much that excited me! My pace became quicker, and soon I unlatched the gate and was face to face with a Church built nearly a millennium ago. There wasn’t a soul in the Church of St. James the Great, so I was free to explore.
            A brochure explaining the dynamic history of the church said that “any stained glass there had been in windows other than the Sanctuary all disappeared in the 16th century, during the upheavals of the Reformation.” Today, the edifice belongs to the Church of England. In Burford there is also an old church (now Anglican) called St. John the Baptist that Laura and I visited, which dates from the twelfth century.Fr. Ker is the Catholic priest in the town, and I find it very amusing and telling of the history of Catholic persecution in England that when we go to a town, the Catholic Church is labeled “Catholic Church” whereas there are always various Anglican Churches. When Laura and I were in London, we saw that one of the stops on the Tube was called “Blackfriars,” so we got off the train, thinking that this must be where the Dominicans have their stadium and Church. We were wrong. On our return to Oxford, one of the Dominicans told us that Blackfriars had been home to Dominicans before the Reformation, but everything was destroyed.

            The Dominican Father Godfrey Anstruther wrote a book about fifty years ago called A Hundred Homeless Years which tells the story of the English Dominicans from1558-1658, when they were persecuted and their priories closed, forcing them into exile on the continent. He says that “on the eve of the Reformation, the English Province consisted of fifty-three houses of men….and the total [number of friars] for England and Wales could not have been far short of two thousand.”
            It shocked me to learn that though the Dominicans were first established at Oxford in 1221 by St. Dominic himself, they were only allowed to return seven hundred years later in 1921. Yet they did survive the centuries of persecution and some even endured martyrdom for the defense of their Catholic Faith. In The Everlasting Man, Chesterton remarks that “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” That’s why I can be joyful sitting in the Blackfriars Library that was built last century and not in the Middle Ages. That’s why it’s always such a pleasure to spend the day in Burford.


Saturday, June 2, 2012


         On one of the last days of May, I was sitting on a bench reading C.S. Lewis on the forest path on which he and J.R.R. discussed Christianity, and Lewis thought that he may really adopt such a lunatic religion after all. This bench was on the grounds of Magdalen College, where Lewis taught for almost thirty years, and had been placed in a secret enclave shaded by trees and guarded for the wandering reader. The birds were serenading me with their song and the day was crisp. Below me, were people laughing merrily as they attempted to punt on the river—it was all so unreal.

            Chesterton said in his critical study of Dickens that in the Victorian novelist’s books, “things seem more actual than things really are. Indeed, that degree of realism does not exist in reality: it is the unbearable realism of a dream. And this kind of realism can only be gained by walking dreamily in a place; it cannot be gained by walking observantly.” Mere existence is such a great and overwhelming reality for both Chesterton and Dickens that it defies observation and must instead rely on the sweetness of reverie. I found myself dreaming on that memorable occasion in the woods that will forever whisper the story of those two great friends.
            What was so unreal that day was not just my surroundings and the circumstances of my leisure. What was so unreal wasn’t that I was reading a book that had been one of the manifold fruits of Lewis’ and Tolkien’s discussions. What was so unreal wasn’t that I was sitting on that bench after an incredible morning studying in the Blackfriars Library. What was so unreal was that one of my best friends in the world was walking up from the other side of the forest to meet me. Her name is Laura Wells, and the most incredible aspect of being chosen for the Fr. Smith Fellowship to study at Blackfriars is that I was able to go with her. Chesterton and Belloc were such kindred spirits that contemporaries referred to the charismatic duo as the amalgamated “ChesterBelloc.” There are few places where Wells and Forster wander without the other at her side—probably anticipating her companion’s thoughts or laughing in expectation of what she will exclaim.
            Although this all sounds great, the purpose of our six weeks abroad is not to endlessly meander through the charming streets of Oxford while enjoying the company of our PC roommate. The object of our time is to engage our intellects in study, but this pursuit alone is insufficient because man is not pure mind. Rather, man is made for love. A couple nights ago, we attended a lecture at the Catholic Chaplaincy entitled “Cardinal Newman and Friendship,” in which the priest delivering the talk used the following insightful quotation originally from St. Francis de Sales: “cor ad cor loquitur” (heart speaks to heart). Perhaps this sounds like bosh, but I assure you that I’m no enthusiast of crude sentimentalism.  
            In his famous treatise on the four types of love, Lewis explained: “I have no duty to be anyone’s Friend and no man in the world has a duty to be mine. No claims, no shadow of necessity. Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” I could be the isolated intellectual studying at the bastion of academia that is Oxford, but instead God graced me with a friend who would share my joys and mourn my sorrows. It’s like when Aslan, after a long absence from Narnia, says to a dwarf: “Son of Earth, shall we be friends?” This is the same question that Christ poses to man—and it’s so incredible because it’s ludicrous. God does not need to extend the hand of friendship to us, but we can so heartily rejoice to be given the gift of existence because He has lovingly clasped our hands in His. And so I say as did Frodo: “I’m glad you’re with me, Sam.” 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Why So Great?

            Only in the British Isles will you walk into the office of a college professor and come upon a hunk of cheese and two wine glasses just recently drained of their contents lying conspicuously on the table. The smell was insufferable and I was glad later on Tuesday (the day of arrival in Oxford) to notice that the cheese and glasses were gone. Instead, the table boasted a full cup of black tea. Even jetlag couldn’t prevent me from noticing that I was no longer within the boundaries of Providence, Rhode Island. At no American college will you behold the unbelievable sight of a couple of blokes playing a pleasant game of croquet on the immaculate green of Christ Church—nor will you find the schoolboys of Oxford playing a miniature cricket match. Indeed, Oxford is where college students casually assemble to bask at the Thames while cheering on their friends racing in a regatta. It’s where students blast past you while riding their bicycle to an exam—which they take donning their mandatory robes.
            As picturesque as all of this sounds, Oxford is not picturesque. That is, Oxford is beautiful, but its appeal does not consist in the stone composition of its halls nor the verdant pastures that border the Thames. A picture is a worthy memento, but its value diminishes as water smears ink and dust veils details. The picture of Oxford is no doubt less promising in the cold, rainy weather Oxfordians endured for the past five weeks until the sun shone again this week. So what makes Oxford the great center of wisdom and erudition that ranks it as one of the finest academic institutions that ever existed?
            Before defining what comprises a great school, let’s ask what makes a great man. Chesterton said that “the real great man is the man who makes every man feel great.” I believe that one can contend the same of a university: Oxford should make everyone feel great. Such a claim is outrageous, some may argue, since admission to such a prestigious school is extremely selective and most of the people who go to Oxford are tourists and not students. Surely non-students don’t feel fortunate, and certainly not great. But they should, and here’s why: the reason why institutions such as Oxford are of such repute is because they appeal to our greatest desires as human beings. We desire truth.
            Certainly, truth should be the standard for any academic establishment, but Oxford is so special because it has been pursuing the Truth for almost a thousand years. Through the stone walls of Oxford pulse the stories, discoveries, and hopes of our predecessors. Stepping into the gates of Blackfriars Hall, go through the door on the left-hand side, and up the stairs into the library, wherein you will find a rich deposit of theology and philosophy. Leave the same way that you came in and you’ll come upon another door on the right side of the way, which will take you into the Chapel of the Holy Spirit. Either way, you’ll be transported into the Middle Ages—and will thus appropriate all that those men and women held most precious.
            Such an archaic epoch and people can have nothing in common with us. Centuries ago, man still hoped and searched for fulfillment, which his heart told him rested with the Truth. Today, truth is an ideal or perhaps more accurately, it is a vapid term that is only momentarily convenient. Today, we prefer to recline in the park and hide behind our parasols from the luminous rays of the Truth. But the scholars of Oxford fought for what they knew to be true, and the streets of Oxfordshire remember the blood of Catholic and Protestant martyrs smeared on their pavement. Catholics were persecuted in Britain when Henry VIII declared independence from Rome and only in the early twentieth century were the Dominicans allowed to re-establish themselves in Oxford. Their motto was always veritas—truth. That’s why Oxford is great.  

Sunday, May 20, 2012

"Abandon Hopelessness All Ye Who Enter Here"

“For you, perhaps,” G.K. Chesterton writes in Charles Dickens: the Last of the Great Men, “a drearier philosophy has covered and eclipsed the earth. The fierce poet of the Middle Ages wrote, ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,’ over the gates of the lower world.” Upon hearing that I’ll be spending six weeks studying in Oxford this summer, no one has told me to “abandon hope.” Quite the opposite! Instead, there have been entreaties from all quarters for me to enjoy my time at the alma mater of Lewis and Eliot because these weeks will be short-lived—in the grand scheme of things they really will. While hopelessness hasn’t exactly characterized anyone hearing about my adventures to the Dominican enclave of Blackfriars in Oxford, there has been a tone of cynicism. The reality, they say, is that reality can never be so sweet—at least not for more than a few glorious weeks spent in leisure in the English countryside. My response to these individuals is best represented by another healthy dose of Chesterton:
            “Forego for a little the pleasures of pessimism. Dream for one mad moment that the grass is green. Unlearn that sinister learning that you think so clear; deny that deadly knowledge that you think you know. Surrender the very flower of your culture; give up the very jewel of your pride; abandon hopelessness all ye who enter here.” Indeed, the first Oxford scholars veritably abandoned hopelessness because in seeking knowledge, they were pursuing the Truth and thus yearning to draw closer to God. Like so many who are in error, the pessimists lay hold to a half-baked truth, which is that my study at Oxford this summer will be ephemeral. They are correct on this point. Their fatal error, however, lies in the assumption that the fruits of this time will also eventually rot away—they will not. The fruit of my study will ferment and endure for years to come.
            You see, the fruits cannot expire after the allotted six weeks because true knowledge consists in contemplating the Truth. Christians say of the Virgin Mary: “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus” because this fruit is immortal. The motto of Oxford is Dominus Illuminatio Mea (“The Lord is my light”). The light of Christ will not go out once I have bidden good-bye to Oxford. Wisdom, then, lies in opening our hearts and souls to the light of truth that only Christ, who is the Word offers us if we knock at His door. True knowledge lies not in attending a prestigious university or studying a particular subject but in granting deference to the glorious erudition of the past.
            Chesterton says: “Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” Although I hope to meet many interesting people as numerous and varied as the characters of Dickens during my time in England, my experience will be colored primarily by the votes of “the most obscure of all classes,” who are the great men who cast their ballots first. It is so very exciting to be studying at Oxford because of the centuries of academics who have learnt and taught within its walls—whose ballots I endeavor to read. My story at Oxford is but a detail on a large, ornate frame that captures the dynamic quest of man simply to know. I know that my adventure will soon be eclipsed by others but the perpetual human thirst for truth and wisdom will never end—even outside the hallowed confines of Oxfordshire. Tomorrow, Monday, May 21st, I begin a journey whose character is not so very extraordinary: it begins and will thrive on the desire of all men to know.