To be a “fresher” in Oxford means a free pass into the mazed mysteries of the “fresher’s fair.” When I first heard this term and found a purple paper bracelet in my pigeon hole offering me admission to this gala event, I had no idea what I was in for. A few booths in an echoing university hall? Free candy? A dozen or so student societies vying for my signature on their mailing list?
Dutifully, I followed the directions one autumn afternoon down the windy, leaf-strewn Parks road with the sun winking through the copper leaves. I passed the Radcliffe Camera, regal and golden under the sapphire of an autumn sky, and turned down the cobbles of High Street. I marched to the entrance of the famous Examination Rooms, home of the Fresher’s Fair, and joined what I suddenly realized was a rather massive group of students, all surging toward a back entrance, shepherded by security guards and staff through two widely opened doors. I suddenly couldn’t hear myself think. Sucked into the mass, I was pushed by crowds behind, drawn by crowds in front, and found myself through the doors and up a flight of stairs before I knew what had happened. With a last shove, I had arrived.
I found myself in a wide, bright room so crammed with people I could barely step sideways. A thousand voices rattled in my ears. The air thrummed with sound, thickened with noise so that I felt that I pressed against it as I walked. Countless booths lined the walls and marched at angles down the center of the room, decked out in various enticing signs, manned by persuasive, smiling people who reached toward us, pressing papers, food, pencils, packets into our hands. The whole of it felt like a jungle path down which we freshers began to run. Yes, run; the hurry of it was like a hand shoved hard against my shoulders. I passed from booth to booth and face to face in bewildering speed. Philosopher’s cocked studious eyebrows at me and shoved their mailing list in my hands. The Green party smiled amidst a rainbow array of pumpkins and sunflowers. The dance society twirled amidst their music and handed me a card for free lessons. The bearded Communist representative solemnly handed me a manifesto of some sort with dates for upcoming events. The Oxford Students for Life (check them out, they’re grand!) handed out packets of seeds, and the local Domino’s Pizza exchanged free slices for email addresses.
And that’s only a tiny sample of the first room. What we found as we stumbled along, friends trying to keep each other in sight, was that eight, nine, ten more rooms awaited. Door after door, hall after hall, booth after booth, all vying for our interest, grabbing at our hands and attention, smiling, calling, yelling, cajoling. After half an hour, my ears ringing, my hands overburdened, I began to panic. Our Bodleian Library induction was minutes away, and none of us could find the exit. Breathless, we pushed through two more rooms and found a stairway out. When I emerged into the cold air of the High Street, the wind tingling with a sudden rain, I took breath, and felt that I hadn’t really breathed in an hour. My heart raced as I ran to make it to our appointment in time but I felt strangely relieved to be free, as if I’d survived some strange ordeal.
Rarely in my whole life has an experience so overwhelmed me. Or marked my heart in so deep a way. But it took me a few days to discover exactly what epiphany had begun in me during that bewildering hour.
Meanwhile, orientation week took place. First, I fell in love with Oxford all over again. The throb and ache of this city with its countless hungering people, its ancient beauty, its rainy, leaf-starred streets is a beloved presence. I made myself at home in my little room, culling pictures and random crockery from the great little “charity shops” round every corner. I live in a rambling old hall with a chapel all dappled and quiet at its heart and classrooms up one set of stairs and a library down the other. The first week, known here as 0 Week, or “Nought Week,” was a round of orientation talks explaining just exactly what I’d gotten myself into. I discovered more libraries, and was inducted into the mysteries of more library systems than I probably can use for the rest of my life. I heard talks on mission, apologetics, communal living, time management, and Oxford expectations. (One of the talks, I’ll share here with you soon.) I signed up for classes, gaped at the reading lists, and bought my sub fusc (look it up). I registered for Old Testament, New Testament, Church History, Doctrine, Spirituality, and Christianity and Science (taught by the inimitable Alister McGrath). Oh, and I arranged a side tutorial in C.S. Lewis. You can be jealous now.
But the golden core of it was my daily immersion in new community. Life sparkled and throbbed around me in a house full of people who made their way from countless corners of the earth to study Christ, to learn Scripture, to think deeply, to write with excellence, to question with keen intent. My favorite part of the first few days was the stories. What course have you started? Where are you from? How in the world did you end up here? And why? Each meal was a round of queries, all of us crammed next to each other on narrow dining hall benches, or gathered in the noise of old pubs, or walking to some new orientation event. And the answers came as varied as gems in a king’s wild treasure. From missions, from academic glories, from jobs in London, or backgrounds in finance, or years in medicine or the military. From Russia, South Africa, Australia, Sweden, or the good old U.S. To be a priest, to start a mission, to learn to defend my faith, to start a theological degree, to learn how to teach Scripture, because I just want to learn about God. Each answer the first chapter of a story it will take the rest of the year to read.
And each a story whose core is the central story of Christ: the Gospel.
You know, somewhere in the last few weary years, I think the word “gospel” lost some of its meaning for me. Sometimes, when you have grown up in ministry, known Christians all your life, struggled with doctrine rather than salvation, the earth shattering fact of the gospel can get a bit dimmed by the words that surge around it. I didn’t realize that grace had ceased to strike me dumb until I sat, on one of the first mornings, on a couch in the common room and heard the testimony of several students. To them, for them, the Gospel was a living power of love that put its gentle, inexorable fingers on their heart and called them into lives they couldn’t have imagined before. For them, the Gospel is something that changed everything; family, life, vocation, identity. And in their awe, I began to regain my own, to be aware of Christ, his kingdom, his daily grace, as a love demanding far more of me than I have lately given, offering far more than I have lately asked. Unexpectedly, I found that orientation here was as much a matter of soul as mind. I’m ready to study… and worship.
But several nights ago, with the verve and forward motion of classes still hovering on the horizon, I had a few hours of fear. I’d spent my weekend getting last details in place, finding books, ordering my room. And at times, it must be admitted, sitting in the quiet of a new place in which all the connections and friendships had begun… but weren’t yet fully grown. It’s easy to be anonymous in Oxford, to wander alone. It’s easy to feel, and be, unknown. And jetlag is a creeping foe, one that slowly weakens your every defense against weariness, fear, or pain. In the darkening afternoon, I knew a few hours in which the hurry and fun of the past week faded into an awful, murky quiet. A hush in which the old fears of loneliness or incompetence drifted into my mind with their gaunt haunted faces, the specters always attending any new adventure. I turned from them, a little panicked, and stumbled outdoors. I strode down the blustery St. Giles street, past the Bird & Baby pub, to an evening service at a church near the heart of town.
The hubbub of the gathered faithful in the nave was a beehive roar in my ears when I entered. I nodded shyly to greeters and made my way through crowds of strangers to find a seat. I’m sometimes tempted to think that I’ve outgrown my shyness, but moments alone in a roomful of strangers always prove me wrong. I felt my heart rate upping. I felt my soul snatching toward calm, unable to catch it. I felt all the fear of being alone far from home, a fear that for once, had stayed strangely at bay since my arrival. No more; it knocked hard on my heart. The noise around me felt almost unbearable, so many voices, too many strange faces. I considered bolting. Better a stiff slap of cold air in the face than trying to bite back tears.
But the music began. And the crowd around me began to hush. I was aware of the quieting almost like breath given fresh to my body. I eased. I knew the song and I let my tongue slip into the sweet old words of a hymn. Jesus. The name of Christ was often on our lips in that opening music. The noise of that big room and its many people gathered itself together into an uplifted harmony. I marveled at the way that a cacophony of disparate voices could merge, united inthe joined affirmation of worship.
And then… hush. All at once. As the leader spoke the opening prayer, the music ceased, and in that grand old hall with its echoing corners, not a voice disturbed the silence that followed his invocation. “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” The words wove a fierce presence about us. I thought of the Gospel, a fresh, and living word in my heart. I savored the name of this God made flesh, renewing all things, and I listened as that name above all names drew our many voices into one concentrated instant of stillness.
And then I thought of the fresher’s fair.
I thought of the thousand competing voices screaming for the attention of every student that entered that hall. I thought of the noise. The way that, instead of uniting and hushing the heart, the thousand voices shattered it. I thought of the unceasing bewilderment. The way that an untethered heart could be buffeted from booth to booth, and with it, faith to faith. For that fair wasn’t merely a gathering of casual clubs, it was a marketplace for ideas. The fresher’s fair imaged Oxford itself, a place of privileged gathering for students from around the world, a city in which the competing philosophies of the whole world are on offer. This is the place where the next leaders of world culture come to form the answers to their fundamental questions, choose the philosophies they will use to craft governments, economies, art, novels, and discovery. But the whole world vies for their hearts, the rulers of the age and ideas of the moment contend in a wild frenzy for the souls of these young, hungry students. And in that wild milieu, the voice of Christ still calls, calls, calls, ready to answer every question they bear. But in the cacophony, will they hear it? Who will help them listen for that still, small voice?
In the silence of the church, I knew the whisper of Love in my own heart. Tell them. I thought of all my new friends, the ones whose stories had so quickened my weary faith. I thought of the thousands of students walking round Oxford, bearing a far worse loneliness or isolation than I could ever know, and I thought of the love that might shine in their darkness, the words of life that could tell them into, not just a philosophy, but a story. But more; the whisper was strong in my waiting mind. Love them. For love is the stillness that enters a life with a calm beyond the reach of fear or guilt or worry. The love of God is the great answer to the myriad hungers that jostle in our hearts from birth. Love is the word that names us and calls us home.
“Only the loved can love. Only the found can find.” I heard a speaker make that statement years ago (so long ago, I can’t remember his name), but it came to me as I stood in that quiet wrought by love. For I understood, in a way I rarely have before, the gift that my faith actually is. In a life like mine, with a long history of loving God and the many attending days of profound loneliness, of doubt, of new living situations faced, and abiding uncertainty, it’s easy to dwell upon all that I lack. To feel that I have more questions for God than answers, that I am adrift, unanswered, forgotten. But with the fresher’s fair vivid in my mind, with the restless, desiring energy of Oxford present in every pulse of thought, I understood that in knowing Christ, my essential questions have been answered. I have been loved. And found by a grace that forms and frees me. And my questions, the ones about identity and destiny and the hope of happy endings, have been profoundly, unequivocally answered.
And I must live from those answers. I must embody and sing them. I must, in my own life, and in the life of the Christ who illumines me, be an answer to those thousand questioning hearts at the fresher’s fair. The stakes here are higher than I have known them before. In a secular atmosphere, in a learned city in which faith is just one option, the imperative rests with those who embrace it to speak out the answers they have found. In the silence of the church, I was keenly aware of the rustle of the streets, the bustle of the questing world beyond. A river flood of questing, driven minds passed the windows even as I prayed. And I knew that the work of my life, whatever else I do, must be to let the love of God so richly dwell in me that I become a refuge where the hungry come to rest. Where the questing discover their answer. And if that is the only truth I learn at Oxford, it will be enough.
Sirens wailed out the window. Raucous laughter split the air. A chorus of friendly song rattled round the doors. A year of learning brooded on the brink of the morrow. And I knew that the story was just beginning…
Sarah Clarkson is an author, blogger, and student of theology at the University of Oxford. She loves books, beauty, and imagination and wants everyone else to understand why they should too. She is the author of Read for the Heart (a guide to children’s literature) and Caught Up in a Story, an exploration of the way that narrative and imagination form a child’s sense of self. She wrote The Lifegiving Home with her mother, Sally Clarkson, and blogs about home, books, Oxford, and beauty at thoroughlyalive.com. When not chasing doctrinal mysteries down in the Bodleian, walking the meadows, or drinking another good cup of coffee, Sarah can be found at home with a good novel in the red-doored English house she shares with her husband, Thomas.