From Surprised by Oxford
You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves – like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. The point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. (Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet)
Regina took me in for Easter weekend. She owned a unique ability to provide people with just what they needed. In academia. Regina herself was a rare specimen. A respected female fellow of the college, she was an esteemed historian, a successful mother, and had been a loving wife. She stayed at home raising her four children, writing and teaching part-time, until her husband, a famous historian at Oxford, suffered a massive heart attack and died. Regina stepped into his place, finishing his lectures and submitting his grading, at first to help the students who had been initially left in the lurch, and eventually, talented and beloved, she assumed the position entirely.
Now, with her children grown and on to their own adventures in various parts of the globe, she was a vibrant grandmother dedicated especially to women’s issues and supporting diversity in Oxford colleges. A long line of admiring students constantly vied for any crumb of her attention outside her office door. A mentor figure, she was a clever, funny, sophisticated, hip wisp of a woman, who somehow managed to be down-to-Earth. And oh, did I mention? She was also a committed Christian.
I remember the very first lunch I had with her. She treated me to soup and salad at the Museum of Modern Art, around the corner from St. Ebbe’s Church. I knew her casually, but I did not know yet that she was a believer. I was a brand-new convert and spouted out my conversion before the soup arrived. She laughed at my joy. “Thanks be to God!” she cried, giving me a huge hug. “Let’s eat, and then let’s go to Evensong and celebrate together!”
I had never thought of going to church as a form of celebration before. So celebrate we did. After chapel, back in her office, she poured me a whiskey. “À votre santé!” She clinked my glass. “For now you know true health.”
I looked at my whiskey tentatively. I had never celebrated with anything like it before either. This dainty lady across from me, however, downed hers easily.
“Drink up!” She smiled warmly. “You’re going to need all the fire you can get if you’re going to be a woman and a believer in academia.” Then, turning her glass in her hand, she added, “If you’re going to be a committed Christian in our world at all.”
I swallowed the golden liquid down with a shudder and then settled back, feeling the warm afterglow. “Regina,” I began, “how did you do it? I mean, why did you do it – forfeit a promising career when you married, stay at home, and then work now so tirelessly to help the underprivileged study and thrive here? Especially in the face of all these, well, men.”
Regina sat quietly for a few moments, looking pensive. Then she stood up, sweeping her arm across her office. She began banging on things, smacking her printer, knocking on her computer monitor. She thumped on her stack of ungraded papers and roughly pushed aside the committee work to be reviewed and signed on her desk.
Maybe she can’t hold her whiskey after all, I thought.
But when she turned to face me, I could see without doubt that she was completely clearheaded.
“Carolyn,” she began earnestly, “all of these ‘things’ mean nothing in and of themselves. They are just objects, just means to an end. What does it matter what committee you serve on? What promotion you get? That book you labor to write and push to publish, someone will end up resting a coffee cup on, without any care as to your sacrifice. Your children are only young once. Your marriage provides you a chance to put someone else first daily. Such things refine your soul.” A fond, faraway look passed over her eyes, and I caught myself remembering that she was a widow.
“Jesus wanted freedom for women too,” Regina continued, “but his notion of liberation is very different from our limited one. His teachings are for the most part genderless; they apply to everyone. What is important is that my identity doesn’t lie primarily in being a professor, or being a wife, or even in being a mother. Those things will always fall short. Entire careers get swept away at a moment’s notice at the presentation of a pink slip, a vote of the elders, an accusation of a student, a cut in the budget. Marriages face infidelities, for instance, and end up like car wrecks from which people can recover but are never again the same. Children grow up and move far away and forget to write or call – as they should.” She smiled wistfully. “The point is, if you have your identity in any of these things, it’s surefire disappointment. Anything man-made – or woman-made, for that matter – will and does fail you. Having my identity in Christ first and foremost gives me the courage – yes, the courage – to live my life boldly, purposefully, in everything I do, no matter what that is.”
I studied this woman in front of me, small as a wren but majestic as an eagle.
“Living your faith is risky, but it’s worth it.” Regina swooped down beside me. “So you’d better rest up, and drink up.” She winked.
When I really thought about what Easter meant, the reality of the cross unnerved me. “I’d rather stay in the manger,” I told Rachel the morning after the Passion Play while sitting by a cozy fire at a teahouse around the corner from Christ Church. We had planned to walk the meadows before catching my train to Regina’s, but the weather turned. We looked over the wall at the daffodils and crocuses, somewhat blighted by frost and now bent under the heavy rain, but persistently poking their vibrancy into the gray of the day.
“Sure,” said Rachel. “Who wouldn’t want Christmas every day? The ultimate Neverland. I get you. A newborn baby. Sweet-smelling hay. Gentle animals and great kings adoring. Sure beats the stench of blood, the hurling of insults, the wretch of tasting vinegared wine.”
I nodded, though I felt annoyed, betrayed. Peace and joy and comfort and love and all that stuff – these were some of my favorite things. I wanted to wrap myself up in them, nice and cozy, as a new believer. Spring should promise these, but Good Friday did not allow for that too comfortably.
“Rachel,” I ventured, “sometimes I’m afraid. . . .”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Well. . .” I stammered.
They called our number for our order. Rachel returned with a tray laden with goodies, a big pot of tea, and two dainty teacups. My mom was an excellent cook; even one of her reheated dinners late at night far surpassed any expensive restaurant food. But still, I had never eaten so consistently well, let alone “out” so often, before my scholarship money, I thought with gratitude. The still-warm scones tasted all the better against the sound of rain outside.
Avoiding her eyes as I ate, I thought of something TDH told me his father once said: “Sometimes the loftiness of one’s gifts outweighs or exceeds the depth of his character.” Maybe my so-called gifts were actually lost on me after all? Maybe I couldn’t rise to the occasion? Parably put, maybe I was poor soil?
I set down my scone and tried again, looking right at my friend. “Rache, maybe I’m wrong? Or maybe I’m not strong enough?” There, I finally said it, or rather, asked it.
“Caro,” Rachel said reassuringly, “we all have these fears at some time or another.”
“Well, if I’m honest, I’m not always so sure about this marriage,” I told her flatly. “Look, at this point I’m way more concerned about my commitment than God’s.”
“If you mean, where is the promised peace, all that constant love and joy? Or where are the answers? Then I understand,” she replied warmly. “It’s the typical morning-after scenario, Caro. We all go through it to some degree. And as if that’s not enough” – she yawned for effect – “Christians often grow world-weary themselves, even God weary. We get ‘used to him’; we become pretty chuffed with ourselves and our better-than-others supposed stance, our righteous worship, all our perfect acts. It’s a hard habit to crack – especially for an overachiever – than over-achieving means nothing in his eyes. And grace is even harder. Accepting it is one thing, but really believing it and living it out – yeah, living in it – is not. The cross reminds us of all this. A much-needed humbling memento mori among all the lilies, if you will.”
“It stinks,” I said.
“Yeah, in-betweens often do. When we’re really called to have patience, when we’re really left to rely on faith. No wonder Jesus visits hell between the crucifixion and the resurrection. In a sense, so do we. But remember, Caro” – Rachel half-grinned as she poured the tea – “it’s Friday (actually today, it’s Saturday), but Sunday’s a-comin’.”
I went to remove my spoon from my cup, to get it out of the way, but Rachel stopped my hand.
“Keep the spoon in the cup,” she insisted. So I did, resting it against the rim as I watched the brown steaming liquid cover the intricate flower pattern of the china.
“Keeping the spoon in the cup keeps the china from cracking under the heat,” she explained. I looked up at her, surprised. “The metal of the spoon becomes a conductor, protecting the delicate china from the extremes in temperature.”
“Interesting!” I marveled at Rachel; she always knew this stuff.
“You need to keep your spoon in the cup, Caro,” she said gently, “especially when things get hot. God lifts us up, but he also grounds us. Fear will get into the cracks; fear, ultimately, is what breaks us apart. Jesus’s constant refrain is to not be afraid. Whenever the angels appear, they tell you not to fear.”
I interrupted. “I used to think it’d be amazing to be visited by an angel, but now I’m not so sure.”
“Caro, think of what you sang, just yesterday. Of this grace, so amazing. Of how you cannot be plucked from his hand.”
“I know, Rache. I’m beginning to realize just how much I love hymns.” I sighed. “But what about when hymns don’t cut it? What to do when it gets really difficult, both with the world and with God?”
“Keep your spoon in your cup, and you won’t crack,” Rachel reminded me as she passed the sugar.
The train ride out of Oxford to Regina’s crumbling, rambling farmhouse did not take long, but it felt as though we had entered an entirely different world by the time we arrived. Bumpy fields met our feet as soon as we descended from the platform; the air smelled honey-fresh and hummed with insects, birds, life. There was no traffic, not even a traffic light. The tiny rural village seemed straight out of a George Eliot or Elizabeth Gaskell novel: a pretty place with a rector who might nod by the fire; old maids in bonnets, gossiping; a suitor climbing the hill with a wildflower bouquet.
I stayed in her late husband’s study. It had been his favorite room, a retreat, in this bustling, busy house full of children and farm animals. Literally. The geese and ducks still wandered through the rustic kitchen that reminded me of those I had seen in Provence or Tuscany, with lavender drying beside herbs and hanging baskets of fresh vegetables. Regina used the study now as a guest room, complete with a pull-out cot. She did not keep it as a morbid shrine to her husband’s memory; rather, she had updated it over the years. She used his old mahogany desk for her own work now. Completely lined with books and overlooking the brightest part of the garden, the room was cheery and serious at the same time, much like Regina, I thought. Only the heavy velvet curtains looked dingy and old-fashioned, which surprised me when I considered how meticulous Regina was about aesthetic details.
It was only when I went to close the curtains that I realized why they had not been replaced. At exactly the spot where you reach to pull them across the window, the fabric was worn in palm-sized patches. The curtains had grown almost threadbare in this spot from years of her husband pulling them open every morning, closed every night. Regina told me she liked this “flaw” in the otherwise renovated room. “It reminds me of his ritual,” she said.
I ran my fingers down the curtains, feeling the richness of the velvet and then the want of it in the patches. God’s reinstating of the old, tired, and frayed – treasures only apparent when seen with new eyes.
The Easter Eve Regina brought me a simple but delicious meal – an omelet made with eggs fresh from her own chickens and a glass of mulberry wine made by her neighbor. To this day I have not eaten such a sumptuous dish. I had not enjoyed mulberries since my sister and I stole them as children from the umbrella-like tree next door. I now understood all too well Augustine’s thievery of pears.
Undisturbed by the pressures of college, I took a long, hot bath (pure decadence for any student living in a dorm) in a massive, pre-water-efficient tub and then slipped on the warmed pajamas Regina left out for me, wrapped around a hot water bottle tucked between my sheets.
I decided to read a little before bed and scanned the books along the wall – an overabundance of choice, and painful to choose just one. But my eyes eventually fell on a beautifully bound copy with the gold letters of the author engraved along its spine,
I randomly opened up Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, remarking that it was one of the original editions of the earliest translations into English – that’s just what kind of nerd I can be. I shivered with delight at the find.
Until I saw where I was in the story: “Why have you come to disturb us?”
Jesus, who had come back to Earth, stood on trial. The Grand Inquisitor, a grisly old man who represented the church, flung his accusation: “Why have you come to disturb us?”
I set Dostoevsky down. The only way to set Dostoevsky down, I think, is with a thud.
I needed to get some sleep, and Dostoevsky, contrary to the suggestion by the length of his novels, was not a choice conducive to relaxing me into sleep.
Who else, among these dear friends? Who else might be a pleasant embrace before bed?
Ahhh, and then I saw him, also leafed in gold: Rilke. Just his name moves over your tongue like a silken ribbon through your fingers. I opened him hungrily. He did not disappoint.
“Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.”
I looked up at the worn patches, so apparent now that the curtains were closed against the night. Fear lies at the unexamined core of who we are. Faith grows from the surpassing of fear in spite of its presence. It is not a denial of fear, but rather a “working” from fear, so that faith, by its very process itself, acknowledges the fear and in fact uses it to engulf the fear itself, transforming it into the most powerful, rather than debilitating, force there is: love.
A soft knock at my door.
“It’s late,” I heard Regina call from outside. “I saw your light on. Is there anything I can bring you?”
I opened the door and welcomed her in.
“A little light reading?” she joked, nudging aside my gilded authors with her hip as she sat on the bed, patting for me to sit next to her.
“Regina,” I asked as I sat next to her, “why is conversion so hard? Actually, it wasn’t that hard, in retrospect. It’s the postconversion that is.” I looked at her plaintively. “Why?” I whined, my voice sounding like a child’s.
She pulled me close to her, and I settled my head on her shoulder. This dear woman, who smelled like her garden: honey and earth and lily of the valley. Who smelled like my grandmother, swathed in butterflies.
“I will tell you what I told my own children when they faced the same questions, despite growing up in the faith, or maybe because of growing up in the faith, as they should,” she said with her a little laugh. “Grace is indeed a gift, but it doesn’t give everything away. On the precipice of a question, there is nothing to lose and nothing to fear. When doubt gets turned inside out, all the fear pours out. It really is as the saying goes: when you work from faith, either you will step forward onto something solid, or you will be given wings.”
“I feel as if I still, in spite of grace, fall so short,” I said, leaning into her.
“Grace takes a lifetime to really grasp,” Regina responded. “And then some. In fact, most of us don’t ever ‘get it’ fully. I think.” She stood up, taking the books and setting them back on the shelf. “But even the crumbs from his table are enough.” She sighed as she lovingly brushed the spine of Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. “Caro, hopefully your time at Oxford will ignite a lifelong cultivation of self-discernment resulting in social service, whether it be to a single child, or a nation full of people. Your education here has included your conversion, or, put better, your conversion has marked the beginning of your real education. Your time here has not only honed your intellect, but hopefully it has contributed to the shaping of your spirit, so that as you now walk off your ‘ledge of familiarity,’ you will also be able to walk with those you meet every day, ranging from their own issues to grave suffering and social injustice. It’s like sharing your last crumb of bread when starving in a concentration camp.” She turned to look at me keenly. “People assume that our dignity only lies in our choices, in what we think we so powerfully will and wield. But it can reside in our reactions, too, in our decisions about how to respond.”
She walked over to me and opened the drawer of the bedside table.
“But here is what I recommend you read now, to relax and get a good night’s sleep.” She passed me a gossip magazine. I marveled that my hostess, such an established scholar and one of the only senior women of an Oxford college, had these lying about her home.
Regina noticed the slight look of surprise on my face. “Hey,” she said, “don’t equate being ‘in the world and not of it’ with sticking your head in the sand. I like knowing what Hollywood is up to. Isn’t that just the American version of our monarchy anyway?” She smirked. “At the very least, it always works in making me drowsy.”
She tucked me in, lowering the light.
“Get a good night’s sleep, Caro. You have been working so hard for so long. Rest now.” She kissed my forehead. Standing up and grinning, she added, “Now being the operative word. My young and, let’s just say, very loud grandchildren will be here bright and early, and once they are, you’ll know it. I thought we could all walk together through the meadow to Easter service.”
“Sounds lovely.” I smiled.
“Good. There’ll be a light tea waiting for you, if you’d like, before we go. But if I don’t see you, I won’t wake you until it’s almost time to leave. We’ll plan on eating the big celebratory breakfast after service, so don’t feel rushed. Just relax. Tomorrow will be your first Easter as a Christian. Caro! This is a time of celebration. I encourage you to soak it all in: the service, the company, the food, the meaning. Everything! Do it consciously and with care. Pause. Rest. Reflect. Don’t underestimate the power and importance of celebration. It should be our perpetual way of life – we shouldn’t be folks too rushed to say hello, or too beaten to bless, but a people recalling joy.” Regina’s voice lowered, growing even more comforting in the dim room. “Caro, for Christians Easter is the ultimate reward of patience, of waiting for the resurrection and the fulfillment of the promise of everlasting life – indeed a sweetness to the soul.”
“Thanks so much, Regina, and you’re right,” I said from my cozy cocoon, wrapped in comforters against the late-night chill of an old farmhouse. I felt my chest loosen; its usual tenseness had grown so familiar that the lack of it made me feel uncomfortable. That adrenaline addiction to overscheduling, overdemands, overperformance, overeverything felt normal.
“This is almost as good as getting to be home,” I sighed.
“Caro, you are home, perfectly home, and you know it this time.”
Regina blew me a kiss, and then closed the door gently behind her.
I slept soundly that night. Feeling rested and restored, I luxuriated in the downy bed, listening to the silvered tinkling sounds of children laughing in the garden and teacups rattling against saucers in the kitchen. The smell of just-baked bread filled the air, and the thought of fresh cream butter melting on a slice enticed me to get up. I put my hands in the worn patches of the heavy curtains and pulled them open. Unspeakably bright sunshine flooded the much-loved room so tenderly prepared for me.
My first Easter morning.