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.”