A couple of weeks’ ago, I headed to Oxford for a little exploration. I have visited the city on a number of previous occasions – to concerts, events or simply passing through – but I have not spent time walking its streets to soak in its history, architecture and character. I was also keen to walk in the footsteps of CS Lewis, one of my heroes in the faith, who spent a large part of his life living in Oxford.
The sun was shining, the streets were filled with workers, tourists and shoppers, and my own journey of discovery was an enlightening one. In this post, I have used photos to provide a brief map of the day, together with the odd snippet of history and a few personal thoughts.
The building enclosed within these neatly-painted black rails is the Radcliffe Camera (in latin, ‘camera’ means ‘room’), which now provides two reading rooms for the Bodleian Library. What impressed on me at the time – and even more so on further observation – was the number of bikes resting on the rails. The bikes of a thousand journeys and a thousand thoughts. Bikes that faithfully carry people from a to b and provide a vehicle to see and think and soak in. Different bikes for different people on different journeys with different thoughts. Simple pictures can reveal at heart a world of endless diversity, something which is always worth celebrating.
These two pictures were taken from the tower of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, which sits in front of the Radcliffe Camera. It was the church where CS Lewis preached his sermon, The Weight of Glory (well worth a read). Walking the awkwardly tight observation path of the tower, I brought up on my phone a few snippets from the sermon. ‘To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son – it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is’. Struggling to put into words the magnificent view my eyes surveyed and the feelings it conjured within me, Lewis’ words provided some clarity. I marvel at the way creation – be it natural or man-made – serves as a glimmer into the wonder of God, of all that God has done, and all that will be in the age to come. Weighty, indeed.
This house, just outside Oxford’s main high street, was where a young and expectant Lewis spent his first night in Oxford. He was in the city to complete a university scholarship exam. Rather comically, Lewis took a wrong turn from the train station and began heading out of town, a route which took in a more shabby side of Oxford, much to Lewis’ bewilderment. Recognising his error, Lewis turned and suddenly saw the ‘fabled cluster of spires and towers’. He headed back to the train station and started again – in the right direction. Years later, he concluded: ‘I did not see to what extent this little adventure was an allegory of my whole life’. For the first half of his life, Lewis’ headed in pursuit of materialism and success. Seeing the futility of this, it was only when he turned his head that he saw the magnificent city of God – always there, waiting for him, but ignored until that point of turning.
Lewis arrived in the city with dreams of getting a scholarship to study, and beyond that becoming a member of the Oxford faculty. Being an atheist, faith was far from Lewis’ mind. Little did he know on that first day that Oxford would be the place where unbelief would turn to belief, which would transform his life and go onto inform and inspire books and stories which millions the world over would lock into and affectionately resonate with. It’s a wonderful story of a man searching for meaning and purpose in all the wrong places, only to find that Jesus was waiting to give him all he was looking for – and more. God then took Lewis’ life and moulded it so beautifully and imaginatively into a life that reflected so well the wonder of all that he encountered in Jesus. God has a penchant for doing that to people.
The New Buildings, Magdalen College, where Lewis resided and taught for 30 years (the two windows on the first floor, immediately to the right of the protruding center section, were Lewis’). On the bottom-right corner of the photo is Addison’s Walk, which was the scene of a pivotal moment in Lewis’ journey to faith. On the evening of September 19th, 1931, Lewis, Hugo Dyson and JRR Tolkien strolled this walkway. ‘We began on metaphor and myth’, during which they were interrupted by an unexpected rush of wind, so out of character against the backdrop of the still warm evening. Clearly something was happening. The conversation continued to Lewis’ room: ‘We continued on Christianity: a good long satisfying talk in which I learned a lot’.
Nine days later, Lewis gave his life to Jesus. So key to Lewis’ conversion was the faithful and articulate witness of his close friends, who impressed on him the spiritual truths he had for so long ignored. No discussion stirs me more than those where Jesus is the subject. Engaging with conversations sharing of God’s love and goodness causes my heart to rise, much like a cake that rises in the oven (and a good cake, at that!). That is why I love this episode in Lewis’ life. I can almost see the cake rising – not just in Lewis, but also in his two friends. There is something incredibly special, mystical even, about coming together to talk about faith – be it triumph or trouble. There is something in my story which can inform yours, and there is something in your story which can inform mine. It sheds a whole new light on Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:20: ‘For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them’.
Here are a selection of the pubs where The Inklings, a literary circle of friends including CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, informally met, most famously on a Tuesday morning at The Eagle and Child. Elsewhere they met, notably at Magdalen College, where they discussed and critiqued their works-in-progress, such as The Lord of the Rings, The Great Divorce, and The Screwtape Letters. In fact, there was a point where Tolkien got discouraged and stopped writing his fantasy book, but Lewis encouraged his friend to keep going.
Lewis once wrote: ‘In a perfect Friendship … each member of the circle feels, in his secret heart, humbled before all the rest… each bringing out all that is best, wisest, or funniest in all the others’. Oh, the beauty of friendship! As I look back on my own life thus far, the encouragement and support of friends, believing in me when I could not, has got me to where I am today. You’d likely say the same for yourself. We each have so much potential, but often it can lie hidden, away from the watching eyes and receiving hands of the world. Past mistakes, fear of failure, low self-esteem, wrong company, comparison – these, and more, can cause us to step-back rather than step-forward. Friendship played a key role in the world seeing The Lord of the Rings. May we all continually seek to help others let the world in on all that dwells richly within them.
Not my shop. Another Tim’s. Even so, I found this discovery to be a heartwarming one. It reminds me again that God knows our name. It’s an obvious point, something easily taken for granted, but further reflection brings home afresh the awesome reality that our creator God know us each by name, and in calling us by name knows everything about us. It brings to mind the occasions in life when our names are spoken from an unlikely source. We get used to hearing it from family and friends, but when spoken by a barista, a senior manager or immediately by someone we have just met, I always find that it highlights the power that lays in a name being spoken. It is a personal touch, a display of appreciation and value which clearly says, ‘I am known’.
Henri Nouwen, reflecting on when Jesus appeared to Mary after rising from the dead, says this: ‘When Jesus calls Mary by her name, he is doing much more than speaking the word by which everybody knows her, for her name signifies her whole being. Jesus knows Mary Magdala. He knows her story: her sin and her virtue, her fear and her love, her anguish and her hope. He knows every part of her heart. Nothing in her is hidden from him. He knows her even more deeply and more fully than she knows herself. Therefore, when he utters her name he brings about a profound event. Mary suddenly realises that the one who truly knows her truly loves her’.
And to us all, God calls us by name. That’s amazing! Be still and let Jesus call you by your name, and as you hear your name uttered know that Jesus knows you, loves you and accepts you. Simply be.
If you have visited Oxford, many of these places and pictures will be familiar. You may even live there. If you have not visited, I heartily recommend, as I do the excellent walking guide provided on the CS Lewis Foundation website for anyone keen on walking in the footsteps of the man who invited us into the world of Narnia. I will certainly visit again. It is so near to home and there is much more to see and do – including having a pint at The Eagle and Child. Feel free to join me.