Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth.
-George Herbert, “Prayer (I)”
In a week and a day I leave this place. By the time my coursework is finished this term, in total I will have written 131 pages on Shakespeare’s plays, sonnets, Hopkins’ life and work, Julian of Norwich’s affective spirituality, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ musical impact, and the collective national memory of Queen Elizabeth I. By the time I leave this city I will have cycled the path through the marsh 179 times, I will have taken twelve big trips to the grocery store, I will have enjoyed two Thanksgiving dinners, two Christmas feasts, and a Christmas formal. I will have read innumerable pages and gone to tea at the Randolph three times. I will have sung fourteen services with the Oriel choir, and I will have seen three Shakespeare plays, two at the Globe and one in Stratford.
I am walking along Broad Street on the way to Pusey House. It is already dusk; in Oxford at this time of year the sun sets at four o’clock or earlier. It is almost four, and I am on my way to my last rehearsal of the term for the final service I will sing, a Carol service with Advent songs, hymns, readings, and chants. The streetlights are decorated with blue, light-up snowflakes, and huge Christmas trees seem to be everywhere. As I walk from the Radcliffe Camera to Pusey House, I pass the Ashmolean Museum, the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, the Eagle and Child, the Randolph Hotel, Morton’s on Broad, Blackwell’s – each place with its own memories, the echoes of conversations had and secrets found and writing inspiration. This meant something, I think to myself. This beautiful city, this dream-come-true term, all the memories that I will carry with me hereafter.
As I walk the Oxford streets, as I reflect on the something that it has meant, my heart is full. Full of deep, deep gratitude for the beautiful people I’ve encountered here, for the opportunity to experience something that I never thought was possible, for the music and the lights, the poetry and the song, the joy and love and friends and perhaps most of all for the work.
It can scarcely be called work. It is more accurate to call it leisure, or a labor of love, or perhaps simply play. I have never loved writing papers as much as I’ve loved the essays that I’ve written here. I think back to the twelve tutorial essays that I wrote, each one revealing so much to me about history, literature, God, humanity, myself. I think of the hours that I spent in flow, hungry for the language and the mastery of it all. I think of where I started this term, and where I am now. My writing is infinitely better, and so is my understanding of text and context. It has been a pleasure to learn so much this term, to read in these beautiful libraries and to wonder. If I have learned anything this term, it is how to wonder. I am mystified by history, by all that I don’t know, and all that I learn about medieval history and literature, the Elizabethan stage, devotional writing, religion and power in England. I have never felt so excited to learn and to understand, to synthesize and weave an argument, to continue to learn and to pass on that knowledge.
“Can you spare a pound, miss?” I hear behind me. I turn to see a woman in a tattered shawl dragging a broken stroller. I look at her skeptically, but I have already stopped, and to refuse her now would be cruel. She tells me that she hasn’t eaten anything all day, and as we’re standing feet away from Morton’s, I begrudgingly agree to buy her a sandwich with the few pounds I have on me, and then I immediately feel guilty for my lack of generosity, especially so near to Christmas. I should be in a charitable mood, but in spite of my gratitude for the gifts of the term, I’m simply not. After she selects a sandwich, we step out of Morton’s, and I bid her goodbye and continue on my way to Pusey House.
But my encounter with the woman has jolted me out of my blissful reverie. And as I walk, I notice several people shivering along the way, begging. One man asks me for money, and I reply honestly that I have none with me. “Sorry,” he mumbles, looking down, and I am aghast. “You don’t have to apologize,” I say, and I feel a combination of pity and sadness, and I hate how I feel, and I don’t know if it’s the right response. The whole situation feels wrong.
I look up and there is another huge tree in the middle of the road, beautiful and wrapped in gold lights. There is a bite in the cold, winter air, and I am thankful to reach the warmth, incense, and candlelight of the Pusey House service. I am thankful for the music, and the singers, and my friends who came to hear the service, and for Advent. For the ring around the moon that suggests that snow is coming, for the night before the sunrise from on high, for the darkness. I love the waiting, the anticipatory ache of deprivation. For that is where we are: Christ is about to visit us, but for now we are here, in Advent, caught between the beauty and the wretchedness of this world. Between the privilege and the duty, between knowing and unknowing, between darkness and light. Between the bright gratitude for a hearth that is wide and warm, and the sorrow that for some, the advent of winter means nights lonely and cold. Between pain and pleasure, I suppose. Whatever we’re waiting for, it doesn’t seem to be here yet. Wherever we’re going, we don’t seem to be there. A soul in paraphrase, that’s prayer. A heart in pilgrimage.
The church bells that are ever ringing in Oxford sound again from a far-off tower. This means something, I think again. Oxford, Advent, this wild adventure of a semester, this wild adventure of a story lived out as a life – in real, incarnated flesh and blood, with real tears and grief and many a melody. And I think of the final lines of George Herbert’s poem, “Prayer (I),”
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.