Yesterday and today were exhausting. I feel like I have lost several pounds, and my feet are revolting against the rest of my body. Part of that is while I am staying in a very good spot, 6 Thames St., and thus about 10 minutes to the Carafax tower, it is another 15+ minutes to Canterbury Rd where the Orthodox church is (Annunciation and Holy Trinity). I walked there last night in 25 minutes (along with a pit stop under a large maple while it rained) for Vespers and Vigil. I had forgotten what a wonderful service this is. Like many services that are “high Russian” (lots of Slavonic, but also a good bit of Greek and some French), the faithful wandered in an out. About 25 people in all were there are some point during the two hours. That walk, coupled with what I did yesterday, and the return trip this morning, left me drained; that and standing for four hours. Nonetheless, I did observe one thing that was an encouragement. As some of you know, there was a split in the Russian diocese of Sourozh several years back. The parish was actually a joint parish under both Moscow and Constantinople. But with the split, the Russians, or at least a lot of them, set up shop in another parish, St. Nicholas. I will go visit them, as they aren’t that far away. The remnant of the diocese appealed to Constantinople to take them as a Russian diocese under the Ecumenical Patriarch. Thus one of the peculiarities of the parish, that it was both an old and a new calendar parish is lost, as the Russian congregation observes the new. However, during the Vesper part of the service last night, a priest whom I know serves at the St. Nicholas parish was present. So I am glad to see at least in Oxford, it is still amicable.
Further, at least in this Liturgy (and I would imagine in the Greek and English Liturgies as well), during the Great Entrance, they had special petitions inserted about the Orthodox suffering in Syria, and the matter was spoken about after Vespers as well. Liturgy today was also two hours, and again, while walking back it rained. This time, I made it to The Lamb and Flag (one of Lewis’s and Tolkien’s pubs) and had a pint of bitter (only 3 pounds – - money, not weight).
Yesterday I did get my reader’s card at the Bodleian (Oxford’s main library), and should the Bodleian ever fail me (doubtful), I have a standing offer to read in the old library at Magdalen College, where I have been before. The librarian there, Christine Ferdinand, is a wonderful Reformation scholar who has done all sorts of work on the book trade, and did some work on John Garbrand, the literary executor of bishop Jewel, my first book’s principle. I did do some reading in the Camera, and ordered a number of items that should be in the Duke Humphrey reading room (it appeared in several of the Harry Potter movies). Right behind the Camera is the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. It was where Cranmer was to make his public denunciation of himself (but decided instead to proclaim his Protestant faith), and where John Henry Newman ministered for some years. I would be remiss if I didn’t note that John Wesley also preached several sermons there.
Today I decided to not throw myself into my work, given my attention span would be hindered by my fatigue, so instead I read something one of the students had left here at some point, Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew. It had been years since I read it, and had completely forgotten what a wonderful story it is, but more importantly, the theology and cosmogony (and cosmology) that Lewis created. Like Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth, Narnia comes into existence through song, and that by Aslan himself. It should also be noted that the first sin was “not of this world,” meaning the witch from Charn, Jadis, who eventually becomes the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, was brought there via the bungling of the magician and his nephew of the title. The creation of the animals was from the dust of the ground, and then by an act of Aslan he gave reason to the animals, though he also had “reasons” created in the trees and rivers (nymphs and dryads). Humans were provided from our world. All of this was wrapped with Lewis’s wonderful insights, but the one I loved was his description of both the uncle, Uncle Andrew, and Jadis, as practical people, whereas the children, Digory and Polly (Digory grows up to be the professor in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), and the cabby who gets drug into the adventure (who also loved to sing ‘ymns), were mesmerized by what was happening as Aslan sang the world into existence. Aslan is a profligate God, who revels in beauty and wonder. Practical people only misuse the world, and see its wonder (magic) as a means to self-promotion, and not as something that has virtue in itself, and can only be employed rightly by the virtuous. The magic of Narnia, of course, is grace, a grace that suffuses and undergirds the entire cosmos (the cosmology) from its creation (cosmogony).
Lewis, in this regard, is taking a cue from St. Athanasius (from whom he took lots of cues). It is also something we should see when we look at the world, that God is everywhere present, and fills all things (more on this in another post, as I have to be thinking about something as I walk along these days – - for if the essence of God is beyond definition, how can we say “He is everywhere?”). We see this in St. John’s Gospel, chapter 11. When Christ ordered that the stone covering Lazarus’s tomb be removed, Martha responds with “Lord, he has been dead four days. He stinks.” Our Lord responded “Martha, did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” The Glory of God of course had gone nowhere, but Martha could not see it, for her faith was diminished within her grief. We should not think that the glory our Lord was talking about had merely to do with the glory of his raising Lazarus, for she would see that whether she believed or not (just like the unbelieving Jews who were now ready to kill Lazarus for pointing people to Christ). Rather, the glory of God is all around us, God’s life and energy suffuses our world, but without faith, we cannot see it, nor can we understand the order of things.
This was the case with Uncle Andrew. He didn’t like Aslan’s song, and when he actually saw that the song was coming from a lion, he liked it even less (he was too practical). For him, his disdain and lack of faith, a willful decision on his part, kept him not only from hearing the song, but from seeing Aslan’s goodness, and from hearing the animals speak. He heard only growls, and he even turned Aslan’s song into a growl: his empirical faculties were debased by his sinful choices. Oh, he believed in magic all right, but not the magic Aslan used. Magic for him was practical, and I imagine he would be among those who would want our kids only to learn practical things in school: forget reading Tolkien, Dante, the Bronte sisters, Shakespeare. You don’t get paid for reading them. No, you just have an empty, vacuous, and sad life without them. You won’t hear the rest of creation talking; all you will want is for it to give up it’s secrets, to manipulate it, for it to justify you (i.e., Jadis had destroyed her whole world, all its life, as she thought she was getting ready to lose a civil war against her sister). I am not saying there is no need for science or math, indeed they are very necessary, just as grammar is for reading. They are part of the world’s grammar and vocabulary, but they are not ends in themselves, just as a job is not an end in itself.