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.

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