7 July 2016
I have been to Oxford once before, just over four years ago, for a leisure holiday across the beautiful country of England. There is much familiar to me now as I step back into a city of history and stone, yet this time my journey is one of study and musical beauty rather than one simply of leisure.
There is also a large part of the city that does not seem familiar. Has the city changed that much in four years? I really doubt it. Though it be relatively short, not even half a decade is still enough to change a person and how they experience the world. I readily admit that this time as I visit this wonderfully aesthetic and academic establishment I have older eyes and an older heart.
Today marks the third day of the Choral Music Institute Oxford (CIO) for the choir, and already so much has occurred. I was unfortunately delayed from participating on our first day due to an unexpected health hiccup, which quarantined me in my humble cell for the beginning of the week. As one friend put it, I seemed to have found “an ancient monk’s seven-year itch” from the monastery I visited last week in London. Needless to say, I was anxious to begin singing with my comrades and fellow conductors as soon as I could!
As I was preparing for my first session yesterday with the group, Dr. James Jordan (director of the Westminster Williamson Voices and lead in the CIO) found me and welcomed me warmly to St. Stephen’s House. This building, quietly situated in a small section of the city south of the river, is home to the CIO (now in its fourth year) and offers not only beautiful sacred spaces for executing the most transcendent choral literature, but also offers time and place for corporal quietude. There seems to be a hylomorphic quality in the large honeydew-colored buildings of St. Stephen’s: one can find fragile beauty and loftiness in the high spaces and tall arches, and one can feel the earthiness and age of the stone and wood, which both create and support this spiritual heaven.
Dr. Jordan and I walked the halls of the cloister on our way to the main church. He pointed out several “attractions” along the way, playing the part of one who introduces an acquaintance to the curiosities of one’s home. He pointed out to me a small wooden confessional as we entered the nave of the church, saying, “This is where C.S. Lewis regularly went to confession.” I, being a big fan and reader of C.S. Lewis, was drawn in instantly. I saw the aged wooden frame, dirty from generations of sin and seemingly softened from several generations of penitence, and a sort of silent reverence came over me. It lasted but only a few moments. Yet I was able to see in front of me a small wooden box that so intimately connected what was for me an immaterial knowledge and remote world (the sort gathered through reading and visiting distant lands through words) with a tangible reality over which I cast my own shadow. This moment for me was, in a sense, “incarnational”: for the C.S. Lewis in my mind was met with the world of C.S. Lewis where I stood.
The lecture given by Dr. Steve Pilkington (head of my department of studies at WCC, Sacred Music) we attended in the morning in that very church spoke of the same kind of phenomenon occurring in music. He spoke of music having an ability to incarnate the transcendent beauty of music into sound, while maintaining a noble simplicity. His presentation on the music of the Quakers/Shakers and the role of simplicity in their living styles was very well presented.
I cannot help but think that Oxford, both as a place and as an idea, is incarnate, as well. It seems a place where a forward-pushing modernity and an ‘aftward’-facing scholarship meet. It is a place of history, known for its history, traveled to because of its history, yet academically concerned with new discoveries and advancements in all fields of human learning. As I walk the street in the evenings, I see a few homeless people who could almost be mistaken as part of the old churches themselves, seemingly as old as the stones I walk. Conversely, there is also a lively night scene of young adults whose sleep schedules I cannot begin to imagine (perhaps because there is no such thing to imagine for such folk). Oxford is a meeting place for culture, language, age, brilliance, and beauty. I find it slightly humorous that a heart as young as this one has found its way to a city this storied and this old. I am not sure what this beautiful city holds for me in the coming week, but I hope to embrace each new experience and every incarnational moment afforded me. In many ways, this is a new city for a new soul.