A Fellowship in Oxford

Reflections on the Experience of an Oxford Foundation Fellowship
– July 2014

One of the definitions of psychosis is being disoriented with respect to time and space. Imagine, if you will, being strapped into a long tube for about eight hours with a couple of hundred people, none of whom you know. When the doors of the chamber open, you disembark on a different continent, on a different day. The sun says it is morning, but your body says it is night. Immediately you are hustled through a beautiful, increasingly emerald countryside, and deposited on a green in the midst of a place where the buildings convince you that you have not leapt forward a day, but emerged to consciousness in the thirteenth century.

The stones and spires along The High Street and St. Aldate’s drip with poetry of Shelley, Donne, Auden and Elliot, in ways no less real than the blood and fire that licked the cobblestones of Broad Street as Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer were martyred. It is a majestic and terrifying thing to stand in a place where learning has taken place since, at least, the tenth century, and where each college presents itself as a fortification against both attacker and ignorance.

It is hard to stand in a place where theological wars were fought, and to lose the battle was to lose your life. In part it is hard because the news of today reminds us, that as much as we might wish it so, such deaths over faith and freedom have not been left behind in a sixteenth century past.

Only now twilight is falling, and it is just the first day. Oxford floods the senses and inundates the mind. Martin Bell wrote in his short story, The Midway of the Jackals, “Too much is not enough. Enough is enough.” Oxford is simultaneously too much, and enough. Ah, the remains of the day.

The Oxford Foundation Fellowship has allowed for the opportunity to explore several questions related to Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) famed for his Spiritual Exercises and considered to be the founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits); and Lancelot Andrews (1555-1626), Bishop in the Church of England, translator of the Authorized Bible (1611), preacher of choice of James I, defender of the Church of England, and author of Preces Privatae. Each put considerable emphasis on prayers at the end of the day.

Did Andrewes know of Ignatius and his exercises? He certainly knew of the Jesuits. His discourse through letters with Robert Cardinal Bellermine, SJ, would confirm that. (The volume containing some of those letters was so fragile as to be provided to me tied about with a linen ribbon.) But did Ignatius’ long spiritual shadow cast itself to Andrewes, who, despite the tensions of papacy and monarchy, would have no doubt respected the discipline and faith? The Oxford Foundation Fellowship opportunity to rummage the vastness of the Bodleian Library leads me to conclude: Likely not, though it is a conclusion that rests on the shoulders of silence.

And…. What does it say about the deep rhythms of the Spirit that these two luminaries pillared and buttressed their deeply disciplined devotional life on time spent in examination and contrition, reflection and intercession, at the remains of the day? Their rhythm of prayer and devotions reflects, in an interesting way, the flow of life as understood by the Hebrew forbearers of their Christian tradition. It also resonates with the leadership authors, management gurus and life coaches so popular over that last two decades; almost all of whom declare in varying forms that a successful tomorrow is the result of time spent preparing for it at the end, at the remains, of the day prior.

What remains is my continuing to pour prayerfully over the pages brought back. It is a task I anticipate with the same joy as traversing the great spiral stairs of the Radcliffe Camera. I believe that out of these pages there are reflections still to be penned that may be useful in the always important task of connecting Sunday to Monday. I am convinced that each of these spiritual mentors knew something of the profound value of taking time to heal and be healed at the end of the day. I am sure that their ability to find peace in the midst of chaos, and to lead by the examples of humility and piety, were grounded in not going to sleep on the wounds of the day past.

When so many would cast aside the remaining scraps of the day as done, both Ignatius and Andrewes claimed the vesper light as time with God, a pearl of great price, nestled neatly in the remains of the day.

Sabbatical Diary – August 3

What are you doing here …

Turn us again, O Lord God of hosts, show us your countenance and we shall be saved (Ps 80:3, 7, 19). This repeated verse, sometimes translated “Restore us….”, clearly indicates that we know that we have gone astray, and that we are looking for God’s to save us from, I presume, ourselves.

If we use “turn,” verses “restore,” the phrase takes on an air, for me, of repentence. Simply stated, to repent is to go the other way. To restore, if we take that course of translation, speaks to me of being put back in our original condition. I consider our original condition, as God made us, to be one of, shall we say, original blessing; certainly not original sin.

There is a self-awareness and a compelling understanding in the psalmist’s words that I find profound and stark at the same time. The psalmist knows we are currupt, errant, headed the wrong way, and cannot set things right ourself.

I invite you, under the lamplight of these things, to consider the state of the world at the moment. Places where Christians have worshiped for some 2000 years have been destroyed in Mosel, accompanied by the killing of Iraqi Christians. (Remember that the Detroit area is home to the largest concentration of Chaldeans – Iraqi Christians – outside of Iraq, and possibly anywhere in the world now.) Religious and ethnic persecution and genocide are happening in Sudan, Nigeria, and Ukraine. The US and Russia are posturing with one another in ways that recall to me the instability of Cold War times. Hamas and Israel are both committing wretched acts upon one another. I cannot recall, in my lifetime, the world in a more destabilized situation.

Perhaps I am aware of these things because England is beginning to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. It is a solemn observence. War was formally declared by England on Germany on August 4, 1914 at 11:00 pm after Germany had invaded France and Belgium. Being here has been eye-openning, and it is my observance that we, in the States, don’t get it. We don’t get the massive sacrifice, the death, and the horrors of World War I. Let me give you some numbers to help you understand. In the four years of 1914-1918 the British Empire put 8,900,000 troops into the war effort. This does not count merchant sailers and civilian others. 36% of them were casualties of war: killed, captured or wounded. In the small and relatively rural region of Sussex in the south of England, over 7000 men died on the battlefield or from battlefield wounds. They are remembered in the St. George Chapel at Chichester Cathedral. There are similar remembrances in every cathedral and parish church I entered.

Look around the relationships of your life, at the men you know from age 16 to 45 or so. Now imagine one out of every three of them dead, wounded or captured. It is chilling. Imagine a war of this magnitude taking place about twenty miles from your border. That’s the width of the English Channel from Dover to France. It was the first time airplanes became a serious tool of war. It was the first major use of chemical weapons – principally chlorine gas. I have concluded that for us to understand World War I and the impact on Great Britain, we have to look at our nation’s experiences in World War II.

I’m not really a pacifist. There are times when one must stand up for self or others, particularly in the presence of bullies – many of them in the form of countries. But, war always, always, to me, means we have failed as humans. We have failed to be a blessing as we have been blessed. We have failed to respect the dignity of every human being. We have offended against God’s holy laws. And, thus, we need to turn, to repent, and we need to be restored, and it is beyond us to accomplish this alone.

Repentance. Restoration. O Lord, show us your countenance and we shall be saved. Only speak your word and we shall be healed.

What are you doing here …

********  The Sabbatical Diary is published with gratitude and appreciation to the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Detroit, Michigan for granting me sabbatical time and funding, and to the Graduate Theological Foundation, Oxford Foundation Fellowship, which made access to Oxford University for reading and research possible.