Writing from a place that has inspired the best of writers.
I am sitting on a bus with the low thrum of the engine idling as we wait for the last sleepy passengers to amble in to catch their ride to Cambridge. A week ago I stood on the Oxford platform, strangely alert with that pre-jet lag wakefulness, adrenaline in a surge as I savored my return to a town that “stabs my soul awake,” as Robert Louis Stevenson said.
Oxford. Honeyed stone and hidden gardens behind the massive old oak doors and people in a bustle after learning and books and friendship every hour of the day. Evensongs echoing in the many chapels at each sun’s setting. Crammed streets and rambling bookshops, beehive pubs in a hum of revelry and conversation, and Port Meadow stretching it’s green serenity just beyond the borders of town with the river a silvered thread tying meadow and heart together.
What I have always loved about Oxford is the life that aches and yearns in a bright flow through the veins of it’s streets. And how it draws and livens me as well. I’m here for the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s Summer Institute, a conference that happens every three years for a week in Oxford and a week in Cambridge. Centered around a theme from Lewis’ work – this year it’s “Reclaiming the Virtues: Human Flourishing in the 21st Century” – the conference is a gathering of speakers and writers and thinkers and curious souls here to consider what it means to embody the rhythms and habits of faith.
I’m typing this on my iPhone and have decided I was a bit ambitious to attempt a whole post, so I shall save longer contemplations in the talks for later. But the effect if it all in my soul seems encapsulated to me in the words from Lewis’ “Weight of Glory” sermon (which we heard passionately preached again from the very pulpit in which it was first given):
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which,if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – These are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
Convicting stuff, eh? And that is the theme of this time really, how do we choose and create the formative practices that begin that everlasting splendor in our own hearts and in our education, leadership, love, and art?
That’s what I’m pondering in this dear old city with its “dreaming spires.” And in between I’m wandering my old tea shop and bookstore haunts, strolling over Port Meadow at dusk with the rest of my family, and every single day feeling the pulse and music of this place and the thoughts it’s atmosphere provokes as it bring me to a fresh and thorough life. I hope you are finding the same in whatever summer corner you read this. Over and out for now, from Oxford.
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.