“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.