I sit in the rotunda of the Radcliffe Camera, the iconic library in Oxford city center. I am listening to the haunting soprano solo of the opening of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony, as I write about Vaughan Williams and his tireless collection and compilation of folk tunes, his nationalism and drive to open music up to the common folk. Every day, I feel like I’m playing make-believe – that someone secretly got me a University Card, and that I’m pretending to be a scholar. Walking into the colleges, the libraries, studying, strolling the University Parks – it’s all like theater. I get to convince myself that it’s true, but I’ll have to take off the costume eventually at the end of the show. And eventually, in December, I will. But for now, I could not be happier or more content.
On Saturday, I biked down to the Bodleian early, forgetting that it opens at 10 a.m. on Saturdays. I had awhile to spare, so I sat in the square in front of the Old Library, reading National Music and watching the many tourists come and go. As 10 a.m. rolled around, I walked into the Old Library and climbed the stairs to Duke Humphrey’s, all dark wood and lamplight and tall bookcases. An announcement had been made that Duke Humphrey’s would be closed all this week, but there had been a delay in operations, so it was open. Delighted, I snuck to the very back, climbed the spiral wooden staircase up to the second floor, and settled in a corner by the low banister, overlooking the spacious room. Because no one knew it was open that day, I had the entire library to myself – just me, the staff, the many old portraits decorating the walls, and beautiful dark carved cases of old books and books and books. I wrote for seven hours in this isolated bookish haven. It was the most wonderful day. Later that night, we watched Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and I crowed with glee as scene after scene, I spotted places I’d been that day, that week, last week. It’s HP heaven over here, folks.
Yesterday was the best day of all. Even though two essays were due on Tuesday, I decided to take a full Sabbath, and so over a breakfast of eggs, blueberries, toast with jam, and coffee, I proclaimed to my friends, “CHRIST IS RISEN; THEREFORE LET US KEEP THE FEAST!” They are so patient with my chipper morning disposition and the fact that this proclamation is clearly my own strange combination of the Eucharistic blessing and the Easter liturgy. We sang “Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation” at Mary Magdalene’s, and after church, we all headed over to what the Mary Mag’s folks call “the parish hall” – the pub, Far from the Madding Crowd. After a wonderful lunch of brie, cranberry, and bacon on a baguette and pear cider, I stopped by Blackwell’s to read for an hour before heading to Merton College, the home of T.S. Eliot and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Merton, the oldest of the Oxford colleges, was founded in the 1260s, and houses the oldest academic library in Great Britain. That morning at Mary Mag’s, I had met Joe, a fourth-year medical student at Merton, so he was kind enough to let me tag along on a tour. I cannot begin to describe how it felt to walk into a library that dates back to the Middle Ages. The Fellows’ Library is now only open to fellows of the college, and the occasional tour group. I smiled as I walked past rows of old books of law, medicine, music, arts, and pictured men in robes spending hours upon hours poring over these books in the 1300s. Thoroughly addled and adazzle, I left Merton to stroll through the gardens for an hour before going to Evensong at Christ Church and heading to Wycliffe to watch Downton Abbey with the crew.
It was wonderful to relinquish my work for a day, and to celebrate the resurrection, the restoration of humankind. So often, I work straight through the Sabbath, so entrenched in a to-do list up to my ears that I don’t notice anything else. It was glorious to take a day to just receive the beauty all around me, from the practicing acrobats in the University Parks, to the shadows cast by the towering spires of Christ Church, to the breathtaking psalm at Mary Magdalene’s, to the laughter and gaiety of Far from the Madding Crowd. To realize that all of this is God’s good gift, all of this is a blessing.
I used to avoid using the word “blessing.” It seemed similar to saying something was “a God-thing,” which I felt was often so deeply false and dishonest, something people only said when things happened that were beneficial for them. It seemed to imply that suffering was not “a God-thing,” and I distrusted this. But I’m beginning to think that blessings are everywhere, and that we don’t notice – that the world is one great blessing. A corrupted one, one in which it sometimes seems like there is no consolation, like each one of us is fleeing wolves and walking through storms at every moment. It often seems like this. But in the midst of all of that, there are colors and landscapes that seem to tell me that the world and everything in it is one great act of love. Perhaps I’ve been reading English Romantic poetry too long. But I’ve always thought they were on to something.
This morning, as I am gushing about how wonderful this weekend was, my friend Audra remarks, “Abbie, to you, everything is beautiful.” And I think about this. Is it? Are the painful paths I’ve walked beautiful? Is human loneliness and desperation beautiful? Can sin be beautiful? And I wonder if it isn’t the case that all of this is beautiful. I think of Julian of Norwich, and her image of the entire created order as a small orb in the palm of her hand. I think there is too much here to ignore. I remember the homily by the priest at Christ Church Anglican in Wayne, that through the atonement, Christ transformed the very content of suffering and sin. And I remember Dr. Cary, with a wistful look in his eyes, reminding us that Augustine wrote that the very scars of the resurrected Christ are beautiful, because they are scars of love.
Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Greensleeves” plays. I must dive back into the world of early twentieth century British music for a few more hours. Thanks be to God for all of this, for all that is and all that has been, and for all that will be.