CS Lewis Summer Institute at Oxbridge 2011: Looking Back, Looking Ahead
How does one sum up an extraordinary experience? How does one answer the question, “So, how was Oxbridge? Did you have a good time?” One temptation is to try to tell about everything – in which case it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees, as a list (though impressive) of all the events, speakers, activities, and even conversations and meditative moments over these past nine days would still not capture what it is that made the experience transformative. The other likely response is to find oneself at a loss for words entirely – unable to pin down into precise words what this time meant. I am going to attempt a middle path: to speak of only a few things but, I hope, in such a way as to both capture something of what Oxbridge meant to me at least, and also to speak more broadly to the experience of coming home from a transformative experience. My three touch points are music, prayer, and home going.
One of the most important parts of Oxbridge for me was the emphasis on music and the arts – fully integrated into each day’s program of events. In Oxford, we were treated to a classical concert in the Sheldonian – absolutely stunning. I am not generally one who listens to classical music, but I was spellbound the entire time, and I realized that in part the difference was that this was an incarnational experience – being in the company of friends, feeling the notes reverberate in my whole body, and seeing the musicians as they performed, with intensity, passion, and joy, all combined to make a whole greater than the parts. (I suspect I am not the only one who particularly enjoyed the young violinist who played with a ‘rock star’ level of enthusiasm!)
In Cambridge, we enjoyed a full choral concert by the CS Lewis Summer Institute choir – itself a testament to the way that the shared love of Christ and a commitment to excellence can lead to incredible heights. The choir was made up of people from all over the US (and one Englishman) who only came together at the start of the conference, and then rehearsed intensively to produce simply stunning beauty of song, leading to a well deserved standing ovation.
But we also had music woven into the fabric of the day: opening the day with the singing of hymns; “Whimsy” short performances in between plenary speakers, from the Choir and the extraordinarily gifted Steve Bell; impromptu song and music at the Bag End Cafe; and raising our voices together in the Doxology in the dining hall in honor of all those who served us there with such dedication and love. Music is not mere entertainment: it is a way of rejoicing in God and all that He has given us.
I’ve said a lot here about music – why not about literature or ideas, seeing as those are the areas that I’m more involved in? Actually that’s on purpose. The range and depth of events at Oxbridge meant that everyone had a chance to be pulled out of their depth, drawn into the rich experience of something new, shown a new way of seeing beauty or new ideas to think about, through the eyes of others. For me, music was the area in which I was drawn “further up and further in.” For others, it might have been literature, for instance for those who were in Michael Ward’s sessions on Narnia. Or education, for those in John Mark Reynolds’ sessions on teaching with the Great Books. Or history, for those who learned about DL Moody and William Wilberforce from Kevin Belmonte. Or… The list goes on.
Let me say a word now about prayer. Throughout the nine days of our fellowship, I found myself in prayer practically every time I turned around. In conversation with one of my brothers or sisters in Christ, after we’d been talking about our lives and work and ministries, often someone would say “let’s pray!” and quite naturally then we would do so. Or a friend would come up and ask for prayer – or vice versa. I marvel at the naturalness of it all – all this prayer came in an unforced way from our mutual love and concern, and the constant, deep awareness that we were all drawn together to this place, this work, this fellowship by our individual orientation to Christ and our desire to serve him. At home, all too often I feel that I can’t “bother” people with requests for prayer unless they are “really important” (like a serious illness). But here at Oxbridge that hesitation fell away, and I found that it was the most natural thing in the world to ask a brother to pray for me that I could sleep (after a terrible night the night before), or that I would pray with others for all our writing projects – the list could go on.
Some of the prayer requests were for protection – I’m not the only one who felt, at least at times, that the Enemy was hard at work trying to disrupt us and distract us. Take heart! That is a clear signal that we were doing good work for the Kingdom. The CS Lewis Foundation, the CS Lewis College, the work of all the plenary speakers and workshop leaders, and each and every one of us who was there and was moved to do this work of transforming culture and transcending chaos – we are on the front lines of a spiritual battle, and we should expect resistance. In the days to come, as we settle back into our routine, let us keep up this glorious discipline of prayer, and let us continue to pray for each other – because friendship and prayer know nothing of distance.
Finally, home going. We couldn’t stay here in Cambridge forever; we all have homes to go back to, work to do, often spouses and children waiting. Certainly I was too “filled up” to possibly take in any more! And so we said our farewells (Christians never say goodbye!), promised to keep in touch, and hauled our bags (often significantly heavier with books) off to the waiting cabs. We headed home, but so much richer in spirit than when we came; we headed home different from when we arrived.
Friends, it’s not easy to go back to the regular world after an experience like this. I known that when I get back to San Diego, the world is going to seem rather flat and dull. I won’t have these great conversations. I won’t have the constant presence of beauty in each day. I’ll see freeways and shopping malls instead of the inspiring architecture of Great St Mary and Kings College and Radcliffe Camera and Keble College. I know I’ll feel lonely and miss my CS Lewis friends, and that I’ll almost certainly be depressed for a while.
And that’s ok. The world will seem a little gray for a while, but that’s because we were in a brighter light for a while. The light is real; the very existence of the shadow testifies to it. Remember that: be Christ’s hands in the world, and in whatever way you can, live out some part of what inspired you here at Oxbridge. In that way, you will be letting God shine His light through you where it’s needed most: into the gray and shadowy places. You are His bearers of hope, vision, and light now – not an easy task but an honorable one indeed!
Malcolm Guite framed the Oxbridge experience for us, speaking on the first day of the conference and then preaching in the closing celebration of the Eucharist on the final day. As the Bag End folks heard, he is also in the midst of writing a sonnet cycle for the church year, one sonnet for each major day. As it happened, immediately following Oxbridge (on August 6) was the feast of the Transfiguration, in which Peter, James, and John go with Jesus to a mountaintop and see him transfigured, shining in glory, next to Moses and Elijah. It’s a glimpse of the glory of the Resurrection that is yet to come, a reminder (though the disciples of course don’t understand) that Good Friday is not the end, but the beginning, of new life.
Malcolm’s “Transfiguration” sonnet captures best what I want to say in summing up. (Go read it here on Malcolm’s page, and come back.) This has been a mountain-top experience for me; “The daily veil that covers the sublime” was pulled aside just a bit, so that I could see and feel beauty more deeply. “The Love that dances at the heart of things / Shone out upon us from a human face”: isn’t that what is happening when we find friends and kindred spirits, who express in word and deed and smiles and laughter the joy of being brothers and sisters in Christ?
But above all, hope. We have had that “sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope” here at Oxbridge these past days; hope for transforming our culture, not merely surviving it. Hope that inspires the Foundation to launch CS Lewis College, thanks be to God. Hope that we should hold on to. Pray, and work for the future, and keep up those bonds of fellowship, dear friends; make a space in your lives for beauty and creativity; because what we shared here was, as Malcolm says so well, a “glimpse of how things really are.”