A Quick Word

"In order to go on living one must try to escape the death involved in perfectionism." -Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)

23 February 2011

Sage advice, hazelnut scones.

Earlier this week, I had the wonderful opportunity to have coffee with the canon theologian of York Minster, the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Draper. I had wanted to talk with him-- about ordination, about the church, about England-- not just because he was someone important, but because he was from New Jersey. Yes, the New Jersey of Princeton, sprawling NY suburbs, and Snooki. Delighted to find a fellow American, especially one who had lived in the UK for many years, I was eager to chat.

He suggested coffee, and, not one to EVER turn down coffee, I accepted.

We discussed all manner of things, not the least of which being my current vocational trajectory. His advice matched his godlike, James-Earl-Jones voice-- it was deliberate, wise, and tempered with empathy. He had a way of addressing my questions and concerns without actually answering anything outright. Instead of adjudicating my dilemmas, he offered anecdotes, lessons. I appreciated this.

We plan on meeting again soon (his idea) to continue this discussion. For my part, I am simply thankful for his time, and to have such a wonderful resource for helping me decipher my oftentimes needlessly complex manners of thinking.

On an unrelated note, I'm contemplating a redesign of this blog space; it feels time to redecorate after two years of the black-and-white Chicago skyline to better reflect my life now rather than my life from freshman year. A lot has changed. (Thankfully.)

18 February 2011

Friday night merlot.

I've been thinking a lot lately. Despite my busy schedule, I've managed to build in a significant amount of reflection and introspection. In fact, my entire trip to Oxford last weekend was for the purpose of mulling things over in a place that held some sense of significance (both spiritual and intellectual) for me. I remember many nights wistfully dreaming of those spires, wondering what they actually looked like, wondering if the city and university really were as great as I thought. As it turns out, they are.

Mostly for my own benefit, I will try to describe the journey of my inner-life as it has been the past couple of weeks. I promise to try to make it as interesting as possible as I lead you on the most aesthetically sublime vacation of my life. And so we begin...

I headed out last Thursday on a train bound for London. After navigating my way on the underground-- a skill I've grown quite good at-- to St. Paul's Cathedral, I ducked under my umbrella to avoid the rain and hurried over to my hostel. I got settled and, with the rain deterring any travel on foot, I decided to buy a ticket and tour St. Paul's, which stood just across the street. The iconic domed structure seemed out of place on Ludgate Hill, as office buildings, swanky restaurants, and hip clothing stores have sprung up around it, almost choking it. It feels as if it should have at least a bit of surrounding green space, or at least a larger paved courtyard. Paternoster square doesn't seem sufficient.

Pleased to be out of the rain, I made my way inside and was almost overwhelmed by the beauty. The aesthetic appeal is much different than that of York Minster. The Minster feels ancient and sacred, almost mysterious. Christopher Wren's design, by contrast, feels nearly new, gleaming in the pomp and splendor of Empire, of royal ceremonies and brazen nationalism. I've never seen anything so gorgeous as the mosaics adorning the ceilings of St. Paul's. And I didn't know how to feel seeing the magnificent towering statues of statesmen and military leaders sitting so prominently within a church. It's one thing for a monarch to be buried in a church beneath an elaborate monument, yet another for Lord Horatio Nelson to be commemorated by a two-story marble statue situated above his enormous sarcophagus. The marble statue commemorating Dr. Johnson was especially hilarious-- they had stuck his rather awkward overweight head and neck onto a toga-wearing body of ideal proportion and beauty. I suppose I'd prefer people remember me as looking like a god, too.

I climbed up to the famous "whispering gallery," where I admired the remarkable paintings that adorn the inside of the dome. Then, in a fit of curiosity, climbed about 450 steps all the way to the very top of the dome to find a most commanding view of London. This breathtaking view was dampened a bit by the steady rain and the fact that the clouds impeded my visibility. Nonetheless, it was as awe-inspiring as the rest of the cathedral., all at once drawing attention to the splendor of London.

Wet and cold, I climbed back down and walked around the back of the quire, where I found the memorial to the great poet John Donne. I paid my respects and quoted a few lines of his "Batter my heart, three-person'd God..."  before finally wrenching my gaze from his thoughtful expression and slowly walking to the high altar. It was sometime during this experience-- climbing to the top of the dome and back again, standing where John Donne lays buried-- I began to think. I began to think hard.

I approached the high altar with quiet reverence. Though bursting with gold leaf, sumptuous dark wood, and overwhelmingly ornate carvings, the space managed to remain tasteful rather than gaudy. I could hear a choir singing somewhere in the distance, and the hair bristled on my neck. This was a sacred place, a holy place. I impulsively crossed myself. It was here that I asked in my mind: What does this mean to me?
Under the high altar, St. Paul's.
 Did I think, as Keats said, that there was truth contained in this beauty, or was I simply responding to aesthetic experience? Did I think God really lived and breathed in this space? For someone who is seriously working to discern a possible call to the priesthood-- and soberly realizing that a decision on graduate programs looms only months down the road--questions like these are paramount. And yet, I found I could not answer them. I remember returning to John Donne's memorial before descending into the undercroft for the second part of my tour and staring at it, silently pleading, for some sort of answer. I longed to speak with him, to ask him if he had ever felt this way, thinking that an answer from John Donne would somehow put my mind to rest.

But the more that I wrestled with the questions that spun inside my head, the more I felt they were insignificant; I felt as though I were making too big a deal of it all. I wanted to read something terribly profound into my own life, my own story, and perhaps the reason I couldn't grasp any answers was because there weren't any there. I wanted to take something transcendent from this space, to feel like I am a participant in something truly weighty, but couldn't get past the fact that, behind me, there were groups of tourists being chastised for taking photographs when they weren't supposed to. And here this most crucial of questions came to the front of my mind: Does it even matter? Does anyone really care about this? What am I deciding? It became clear that this was more than a simple career choice. This was a deep, deep commitment.

I left St. Paul's feeling thoughtful, and returned there the next morning for prayer.

Oxford proved important in its own right. I had written in my journal the night before while at dinner at a pub on Fleet Street, trying to put myself in the right mindset for my trip to Lewis' grave. I expected this to be some sort of revelatory moment-- a glorious epiphany that would solve all my dilemmas regarding my vocation. (Don't ask me how it would do this, because I really don't know.) Yet I arrived at Kilns Lane nearly an hour later than I had hoped, and thus felt quite rushed. It was 3:00. I had to meet someone at The Kilns at 4:00. My plans for a relaxing stroll to Shotover hill seemed, well, shot, so I walked over to Trinity Parish Church, figuring it was more important that I pay respects to Warnie and Jack's grave than hike up a muddy hill.

The tiny church was idyllic. It sat in the cleft of a gentle valley, at the end of a narrow, winding road lined with pretty houses. The area around the church itself was surprisingly wooded, and so serene. After accidentally wandering amongst random grave markers, I heeded the signs on the parish gate and found the Lewis' marker-- a large marble slab-- situated beneath an ancient tree. Bright flower buds carpeted the grass around the grave, as if knowing that a brilliant mind lay beneath, the radiance of Lewis' legacy causing them to grow. I thought that if there were a time for tears, they should flow now. But they didn't. In fact, aside from solemnity and reverence, I felt no swell of emotion.

All was profoundly still. I waited for almost fifteen minutes before I made my way back down the footpath to Shotover. While walking the paths, I passed a pond with a stone bench tucked into an embankment. Lewis and Tolkien used to sit on this bench overlooking the pond, smoking and talking about life. I imagined those conversations, and once again found myself longing for them to be there so that I could talk to them, have them answer my questions. It was like my moment in front of Donne's memorial. Why didn't I think I could answer anything for myself? I turned and walked through the gate to The Kilns.

Touring the house was surreal, and I won't spend time describing it. (Though I will say that your perception of someone you admire changes when you see the spaces in which they lived, worked, and, in Lewis' case, died. They become more human. More real.) After a good pint and a filling dinner, I went back to my B&B and watched TV (something I haven't gotten to do in Britain) before going to bed.

Touring the colleges provided its share of memorable experiences, namely of the aesthetic variety. It got to a point where I felt like I needed to look at something plain just to cleanse my palate before viewing another room with intricate fan vaulting. Nonetheless, it was a wonderful time, and the day full of sunlit trails and quiet quads gave me more time to dwell on those questions that had been occupying my mind. I took a much-needed time to journal while enjoying a meal in the Eagle and Child before heading back to my room to catch Top Gear and go to sleep.

Sir John Polkinghorne, the Templeton-winning physicist, gave the sermon. That's why I went to Magdalen on Sunday morning. The small chapel, lit only by the flicker of candles, felt more like something out of Lord of the Rings than a church in which I should be attending service-- and I mean that in the best way. It was, like so many places I'd gotten to experience on this trip, absolutely gorgeous. And though it was cool to see Dr. Polkinghorne speak, I was hit with the same odd expectation of receiving an answer to all my questions that I had expected from Donne, Lewis, and others.

Addison's Walk
After a delicious lunch at Magdalen, I was shown the way to Addison's Walk by a man I had met at my table. It was on this drizzly walk that I felt I made the most progress in considering my vocation. And though I'm reluctant to attribute significance and meaning to symbols to which they are not due, I must say that it seems coincidental that I should get so much from strolling down Addison's Walk, when this is the same path that Lewis walked with Tolkien and Dyson the night he became convinced of the veracity of his Christian faith. In a very real way, that one walk down this dirt path altered Christianity in the 20th century and literally changed the world.

To be fair, I didn't expect anything like this to happen as I walked down Addison's Walk, but I was hoping that a little of that energy still hung in the air somewhere for me to absorb.

I reflected on what it was that finally clenched it for Lewis-- the thing that made God make sense. For him, it was all about myth, and how myth became fact in the life of Jesus Christ. I knew that this would not be the thing that did it for me. In fact, I'd say that myth is the thing I need to stay perhaps farthest from. Instead of answers, my walk only yielded more questions. Yet it didn't discourage me this time. I realized that though one thing clicked into place in Lewis' mind, this one thing was actually the product and culmination of years and years of growth. In many modern stories of Lewis, I think evangelicals try to spin this moment on Addison's walk as a conversion experience, but I believe Lewis himself remarked that he felt he never had one. I walk a similar path (mind the pun) in that I don't think I'm going to have everything simply answered in one stroke while staring broodingly out over the English countryside or something. Instead I think it will come gradually until one day it fits; I know what I am to do and I feel a sense of conviction behind it.

Until then, this question remains: What am I deciding? Is it my faith? Is it a choice between one degree or another? Whether or not I can or am willing to endure the ups and downs that come with a vocation in the church? Teaching? What? Because it's definitely not as simple as just choosing a job. Or perhaps, choosing a job in itself, if you think about it, is just this hard.

05 February 2011

Keeping busy.

Sorry for the lapse in updating (I feel like I'm always saying that) but I've been rather busy. I pulled an all-nighter last Sunday, and that threw me off for the remainder of the week. I didn't go out this week except to try my hand at trivia night at the Lighthorseman on Thursday night. Our team, comprised of Rahma, James, Tom, Sarah, and I, fared much better than the previous week's debacle but still did not manage to win-- not even a raffle. I guess luck wasn't with us. (Though James did have a sterling performance answering a good many of the questions correctly.)

It doesn't look like my schedule will clear up any time soon. I've got articles to write for FLP, two scholarship applications going, revising two pieces of criticism to submit to an undergraduate journal, attending an interfaith event in London hosted by the Three Faiths Forum on Thursday, heading to Oxford on Friday, seeing all I can until Monday, and making it back to York in time for my lecture at 4:15PM.

I can't wait for Oxford. More to come.