Lewis’s Oxford

Twenty years ago, I had a whirlwind tour of a very small section of Oxford. This time, with my university students, I was able to spend a little more time—not enough, but more directed, more significant, more focused on the sites with which C. S. Lewis was familiar.

Lewis taught at Magdalen College for approximately thirty years. For the first time in my sixty-six years, I was on the same grounds.

Lewis’s rooms were in the New Building (“new” because it wasn’t built until the eighteenth century), top floor, the two windows to the right of the protruding section in the middle.

I neglected to take a picture of the sign that told students to keep off the grass. It would have been humorous.

Next to the New Building was the entrance to Addison’s Walk, a lovely wooded path by the winding river. It was here that Lewis had a long conversation with Tolkien and another Inkling, Hugo Dyson, that convinced him to believe in God.

We also stopped by the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. It was from this pulpit that Lewis delivered one of the most powerful sermons I’ve ever read: “The Weight of Glory.”

My favorite passage from that sermon is a poignant reminder of how we should view other people:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw 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 other of these destinations. . . .

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—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 splendours.

What visit to Lewis’s Oxford would be complete without a stop here?

We had our evening meal at the “Bird and Baby.” I was particularly interested in seeing the section where Lewis and his Inklings friends had their weekly get-together. At first, it was filled with diners, so I waited until after we had finished our meal (the Shepherd’s Pie was very good, by the way) and then I was able to get this photo without bothering too many people.

You can’t read the plaque above my head in this picture, but here’s what it says:

What could be better than this for someone who has studied Lewis as much as I have?

How about time spent at C. S. Lewis’s home with Walter Hooper, the American who became Lewis’s close friend and who then has spent the rest of his life as the agent for his literary estate?

That’s what we did on the next day. That’s also what I’ll be posting about tomorrow.

Stonehenge, Romans, & Beautiful Bath

It seems to be obligatory that all tourists in England must go see a certain circle of stones. The reason is that they are quite ancient, dating back to the third millennium B.C., and that they remain a source of academic study: how did they get all those huge stones there and what was the purpose of this structure?

Stonehenge probably started as a burial place and then developed into a way to calculate the seasons by the position of the sun in relation to the stones. Naturally, since this occurred in ancient times, modern New Agers who look to occultic Druids like to think that’s the primary reason for these remains. But it really has more to do with the seasons.

Can you imagine the problem they must have had when the seasons changed?

Other ancient ruins are found in the city of Bath, which became an outpost of the Roman Empire. The Romans sought to re-create their civilization in Britain. One means for doing so was to build an immense public bath over the hot springs (in case you wonder how the city got its name).

What you see here is only the surface of an immense complex underground that can be explored now. It took a few hours to do so.

When the Romans left, the city later was transformed into a spa destination for the high-born who considered the springs to have healing properties. Famous British authors such as Jane Austen would use Bath as a setting in novels; Austen’s Northanger Abbey is one example.

The elite would hang out at an establishment known as the Pump Room, where they had their tea and engaged in polite conversation. The Pump Room still maintains a lively existence.

So we simply had to taste for ourselves:

Bath is a beautiful city. I hope in the future I can see more of it.

My account of this trip continues the next two days with a new focus—the highlight for me—C. S. Lewis.

Cathedrals, Grandeur, & Vitality

Another recurring theme in my recent trip to England with university students was the grandeur of major cathedrals and how they point to the glory of God.

Some personal history: I grew up in the Lutheran church, which has a lot of tradition. The stained-glass windows of the church told stories, and I loved the atmosphere of the stained glass.

Then I left that tradition and became part of the new evangelical and charismatic world that came into prominence in the early 1970s. I was a Jesus Movement guy. I concluded at the time that my church was too tradition-bound and had lost its vitality. To a great extent, I was correct.

Yet I now miss the feelings that go along with the tradition. I remember fondly how the atmosphere made me sense the presence of God. Evangelical churches might want to consider more stained glass.

Three of the cathedrals we visited stand out for me. The first is Canterbury.

This is the headquarters for the Church of England. The edifice and the grounds were far more extensive than I expected, and just walking into the cathedral re-created within me the early years of my Lutheran experience.

These medieval cathedrals had a distinct purpose: to point worshipers to the awesomeness of God and to help them meditate on His holiness.

Salisbury Cathedral, which has the tallest spire in England, also was impressive. It had the most unusual baptismal font I’ve ever seen.

The cathedral also incorporated a significant piece of English history, a piece that directly affected America: an original copy of the Magna Carta, on display in its beautiful Cloister House.

Photos of the aging document itself were not permitted, but it was worthwhile just to be face to face with it.

Sunday in London saw us attending the worship service in Westminster Abbey.

I wasn’t quite sure if a service there would be as Christ-centered as I would have liked. The pleasant surprise was how orthodox and Biblical it was. And to have that solid orthodoxy take place in such a magnificent structure was awe-inspiring. I recall telling the student next to me how much I appreciated the architecture because it drew one’s attention upwards and focused both the mind and heart on God’s presence.

As I went forward for communion, it was pointed out to me by another in our group that at the end of our row of chairs was this particular memorial:

Throughout the entire service, I was sitting practically next to the C. S. Lewis memorial without knowing it. For me, that was a special treat. I’ll have more to say about Lewis when I write about our foray into Oxford and to Lewis’s home, the Kilns.

I realize that architecture and grand buildings are not the essence of the Christian faith. Yet I honestly believe we in the evangelical world, in our quest for informality and spontaneity, might be missing a crucial element in the faith. We focus so much on the personal relationship (“Jesus is my co-pilot”) that we sometimes forget the regal nature of our Lord.

As I sat in the Westminster service, I was refreshed by the solemnity of the service itself and the atmosphere of the place. I came away encouraged in the Lord.

What we need are more fellowships that can combine the grandeur of traditional worship with the freshness and vitality of the personal relationship with Christ. It’s a combination rarely achieved.

The Churchill Theme

Winston Churchill’s life and legacy was one centerpiece of the trip I took with students in the past couple of weeks. Yesterday, I highlighted Dover Castle and its prominent role in Britain’s defense during WWII, along with a photo of Churchill emerging from the underground tunnels.

We also made two other Churchillian stops: Blenheim Palace and the Churchill War Rooms.

Churchill was born and raised in this modest home outside Oxford.

I know—my definition of “modest” needs some reworking.

Blenheim Palace befits its name. Can you imagine having your meals in this dining room?

Grand homes such as Blenheim usually included a private chapel, complete with a pulpit from where the little congregation of family and friends could hear sermons and get their spiritual nourishment.

The back yard wasn’t too shabby either:

Although Churchill grew up in luxury externally, sadly, he never got much affection from his parents. Yet he never ceased to try to please them and live up to the family name. His many exploits testify to an inner drive to accomplish great things.

His accomplishments came to a high point, of course, during WWII. In London, his role as prime minister and leader of the nation during the war are chronicled in the Churchill War Rooms.

I visited the War Rooms twenty years ago, but they are more extensive now with the addition of a vast museum, also housed in the underground bunker. I don’t recall having to wait in line back then, but this site now is a main attraction.

The War Rooms have been maintained exactly as they were during the war. The Cabinet Room, as an example, seems poised to conduct a meeting of Churchill’s top government officials:

Even Churchill’s office, which included a bed for overnight stays, stands ready for action:

The Transatlantic Telephone Room allowed Churchill to speak quickly and directly with Franklin Roosevelt.

If you look carefully, you might be able to see Churchill on a call.

The museum was a surprise for me since it didn’t exist the last time I visited. It covers all of Churchill’s life and influence. One could spend a few hours just perusing the surface of all it contains.

As you stand in certain places, Churchill’s voice rings out above you, offering excerpts from his most famous speeches and providing the historical context for each one.

Churchill crafted each speech with the utmost care. Each word and phrase was finely tuned for the greatest effect. That wordsmithing carried over to some of his most well-known quips as well. As I wandered through the museum, I found a number of quotes that I loved. As a historian myself, I particularly enjoyed this one:

Sometimes, students come to my office and look at the books in my bookcases and ask me if I have read them all. I respond that I have read most of them, but that a good number are for reference. I wonder what those students would think if they could then see the five additional bookcases in my small study at home.

Churchill understood this love for books, and he apparently also understood how limited our time is to be able to absorb them all. That’s why this quote also stood out to me:

I’ll offer this one final Churchill quip:

I sincerely hope he was indeed ready to meet his Maker. Otherwise, all the accomplishments in the world will never make up for an eternity separated from the One for whom we should be doing everything.

Another theme on this trip was how cathedrals sought to reveal the glory of God. That will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.

Dover Castle & a Historic Moment

I’ve just returned from two weeks in the UK—only England, specifically (except for one short dash into Scotland for supper)—helping lead a study abroad trip with SEU students. This was only my second time in England, the previous excursion being twenty years ago. So I was looking forward to this, of course, and my expectations were met.

I drove a Jaguar (yes, you read that correctly) all over the land, from Dover by the White Cliffs on the southern coast to Hadrian’s Wall in the far north. By the mercy of God, we all survived those one-lane country roads where you never knew if a car was coming from the other direction just around the next bend.

Sorry, but I forgot to take a photo with my Jaguar.

Our first stop was Dover, a medieval castle with underground tunnels that were used extensively during WWII to ensure that a Nazi invasion wouldn’t take place.

Winston Churchill, as prime minister at that time, visited Dover as he shored up Britain’s defenses. One iconic photo has him emerging from the underground tunnels, showing his usual firm, confident visage:

We were able to explore those tunnels and learn how significant they were to the war effort.

The entrance is the exact spot pictured above, so I did my best to be Churchillian as we awaited our tour.

No photographs were allowed inside the tunnels, so I can’t show you exactly what we viewed, but the key moment for this strategic spot occurred from May to June 1940, as the trapped British forces in Dunkirk, France, had to be evacuated while under heavy fire from the Nazis.

At the time, pessimism reigned, with British authorities figuring that if they could save even a small portion of the army, they would have to be satisfied with that.

That’s when the miracle at Dunkirk, as many termed it, happened. Small boats from all over England undertook numerous and hazardous cross-channel trips to rescue the trapped soldiers. Far exceeding all expectations, more than 330,000 troops were evacuated and able to continue resistance against Nazi Germany.

We also were able to tour the castle and put ourselves back into the medieval world it represented. Observe this banquet room, for instance:

Or how about this throne with a rather imposing figure reigning temporarily?

We concluded our Dover experience with a visit to the White Cliffs, where I stayed conveniently back from the edge.

The Dover visit was accomplished on almost no sleep on the flight over, followed by driving there from Gatwick Airport in London. Yet it was a great start to a fulfilling tour of the island that provides America with a lot of its lineage, both politically and culturally.

I’ll continue to offer highlights from this trip in the coming days: cathedrals, historic sites, and a visit to C. S. Lewis’s home, the Kilns, in Oxford.

Hiatus

Pondering Principles will be on hiatus for a couple of weeks. When I return in late May, I’ll certainly let you all know what I was doing during those weeks.

Lewis: Dealing with Death

Reading C. S. Lewis’s letters to Americans while researching my book was a daily joy. I’ve always loved research, but this was especially delightful. One of Lewis’s many American correspondents was Mary Willis Shelburne.

Shelburne wrote more letters to Lewis than any other American correspondent; consequently, he wrote more to her than any other, since he felt duty-bound to respond to each letter he received. It is quite clear by the tone of the correspondence that she was an increasingly needy person, both financially and spiritually. Her anxieties seemed to be legion, and Lewis did his best to address them with tact and empathy.

Did he ever tire of her constant flow of letters seeking help? There are indications that she could sometimes wear him down with her incessant demands for answers. Despite the temptation to be frustrated with her, he nevertheless maintained the ministry to which God had called him.

Shelburne feared death, a topic he dealt with more often as both grew older and Lewis began to feel his own mortality. He did his best to help Shelburne face her own demise with the proper Christian spirit and perspective.

He joked about imminent death in a 1957 letter thusly: “What on earth is the trouble about there being a rumour of my death? There’s nothing discreditable in dying: I’ve known the most respectable people do it!”

Commenting in another letter on horrible visits to the dentist, he told her to keep in mind they both had to recognize that “as we grow older, we become like old cars—more and more repairs and replacements are necessary. We must just look forward to the fine new machines (latest Resurrection model) which are waiting for us, we hope, in the Divine garage!”

And why not have the same attitude as the apostle Paul? “If we really believe what we say we believe—if we really think that home is elsewhere and that this life is a ‘wandering to find home,’ why should we not look forward to the arrival.”

He kept his sense of humor even as he suffered greater physical distress, telling her, with respect to their bodies, “Like old automobiles, aren’t they? Where all sorts of apparently different things keep going wrong, but what they add up to is the plain fact that the machine is wearing out. Well, it was not meant to last forever. Still, I have a kindly feeling for the old rattle-trap.”

In his final year, Lewis’s comments on death appeared more frequently, as he sensed his time was near. A letter in June remarked on her obvious fear of dying; Lewis’s response was the most direct one yet:

Can you not see death as the friend and deliverer? It means stripping off that body which is tormenting you: like taking off a hair-shirt or getting out of a dungeon. What is there to be afraid of? . . . Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind. . . . Of course, this may not be the end. Then make it a good rehearsal. Yours (and like you a tired traveler near the journey’s end).

Shelburne outlived Lewis, but one hopes his constant reminders about how Christians should view death helped her as she later stood on the brink of eternity.