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.