Surprised by Oxford: Christmastide

Weber, Surprised by OxfordAs it happened, I read the third part of Carolyn Weber’s Surprised by Oxford (“Christmastide,” which finds her returning home to Canada during a break in Oxford’s schedule) the same week that my friend Sam taught our Christianity and Western Culture class about Augustine of Hippo, the North African theologian and bishop whose Confessions is the forebear of all other Christian spiritual autobiographies, including Weber’s and another that Sam quoted: Frederick Buechner’s Telling Secrets.

As an opening devotional, Sam shared these lines from Book Ten of the Confessions (written as a prayer, and quoted here from a translation by Sherwood Wirt commissioned by Bethel):

I came to love you late, O Beauty so ancient and so new; I came to love you late. You were within me and I was outside, where I rushed about wildly searching for you like some monster loose in your beautiful world. You were with me but I was not with you. You called me, you shouted to me, you broke past my deafness. You bathed me in your light, you wrapped me in your splendor, you sent my blindness reeling. You gave out such a delightful fragrance, and I drew it in and came breathing hard after you. I tasted, and it made me hunger and thirst; you touched me, and I burned to know your peace. (10.27)

St. Augustine
St. Augustine - The Lightner Museum

I don’t know if Weber will refer to Augustine. (I didn’t notice his name in the brief notes section at the end of SbO.) And her story is not, on its face, much like Augustine’s. She gives little impression of “wildly searching” for God or anything else (sex absent consequences, in the young Augustine’s case); hard-working and dedicated, she arrives at Oxford determined to remain faithful to her fiancé, a “farmer-philosopher” named Ben who happens not to believe in God. (Trouble ahead…) Unlike the lascivious, arrogant, callow Augustine, Weber in her twenties seems nothing like “some monster loose in your beautiful world.” (Her mother’s response when Weber announces that she’s thinking of becoming a Christian: “What do you mean ‘become’? Why, you’ve always been a Christian…. Most decent people are Christians. And you are more than decent…. You are, well, perfect.” — pp. 171-72)

But the heart of what Augustine comes to recognize seems universal to Christian conversion accounts, including Weber’s: “You were with me but I was not with you. You called me, you shouted to me, you broke past my deafness.” And God is everywhere in Weber’s Oxford, shouting at her in the university’s omnipresent Latin motto; in the poetry of John Milton and the lyrics of a Dusty Springfield song; in the quiet, familiar cadences of Evensong; in the pub, and in the back pew of the university church where she devours a borrowed Bible.

And then two seats over on the flight across the Atlantic, in the person of a cosmopolitan woman named Veronica, who reads Flannery O’Connor and reassures Weber that “Salt and light are needed everywhere” when our author deprecates her goal of teaching literature some day (“Most likely, however, to privileged white kids”). Veronica becomes the third person (after a college literature professor and the “son of a preacher’s man” she calls “TDH,” for “tall, dark, and handsome”) to speak a condensed version of the Gospel to Weber, reflecting on the story of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, who ordered the slaughter of 20,000 Haitians, identifiable because they could not trill the ‘r’ in the Spanish word for parsley:

“…God spoke the world into being, and it was good. Then we tried to speak over God’s good because we want things in our imperfect language, and we now have the world as we willed it—lack of communion causes miscommunication…” She tapered off for a moment, admitting quietly after some thought, “I don’t get it all either. But I do know, in my core, it is not God-based but human-generated. I am not surprised, then, that the way in which God brought everything into being is the way in which we most warp it all in our fallen state. And then, in turn, what He made flesh to dwell among us and deliver us. Yes, words have unspeakable power.”

“But isn’t God’s silence as good as His acquiescence?” I interjected.

“What would you like Him to say that He hasn’t said already?” she asked simply. (p. 146)

Yes, God — with us even when we’re not with Him — calls us, shouts to us, breaks past our deafness, bathes us in light and wraps us in splendor and sends our blindness reeling.

And Weber, having finally heard that voice and now burning to know God’s peace, finds that she has to confront the two people whose relationships give her the most peace: her fiancé and her mother.

But first, Frederick Buechner. In Telling Secrets, the third of four volumes in his autobiography, Buechner begins with doubts about the very project of writing a memoir:

Are the events I describe anything like the way they really happened? As I look back over them, I think I see patterns, causal relationships, suggestions of meaning, that I was mostly unaware of at the time. E. M. Forster says that a story is a narrative of events arranged chronologically as in “the king died, and then the queen died,” whereas a plot, although also a narrative of events, concentrates more on the because of things as in “the king died, and then the queen died of grief.” This account is full of becauses. The question is, Have I actually discovered them, or, after long practice as a novelist, have I simply made them up? Have I concocted a plot out of what is only a story? Who knows? I can say only that to me life in general, including my life in particular, feels like a plot, and I find that a source both of strength and of fascination. (pp. 1-2)

I imagine every memoirist must feel something of this doubt, and yet end up trusting that there is plot in life, and not just answers to — as one of my political scientist colleagues teases us in the History Department — “And then what happened? And then what happened?”

Frederick Buechner
Frederick Buechner - Buechner Institute, King College

I also suspect that every memoirist (maybe even—maybe especially Augustine, being the first) at some point flings aside her manuscript and wonders if anyone else can possibly be interested. (Much like blogging, I’ve found.) As Buechner puts it:

…before anyone else has the chance to ask it, I will ask it myself: Who cares? What in the world could be less important than who I am and who my father and mother were, the mistakes I have made together with the occasional discoveries, the bad times and good times, the moments of grace. (p. 29)

But he finds purpose in a paradox, quoted by Sam right after the words from Augustine:

But I talk about my life anyway because if, on the one hand, hardly anything could be less important, on the other hand, hardly anything could be more important. My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours. (p. 30)

And as Weber tells her story — quite a bit like right — of revealing (confessing?) her growing convictions to her fiancé and mother, I’ve recognized elements of my own plot.

Surely almost anyone can sympathize with both Weber and Ben as they realize (she much more quickly than he) that their paths are veering off from each other. A conversation that started abruptly and awkwardly over the phone (“…I’m trying to figure out if we’re okay…” — p. 104) continues in ch. 13 with a painfully silent airport meeting and then an honest exchange while shivering in an uninsulated lake home. While the situation wasn’t nearly the same, I’ve been Ben, desperately trying to cling to a love that had already dissipated.

But Weber’s story of a break-up also held up a mirror to my own marriage: specifically, reminding me that it succeeds — certainly not because of my goodness or patience, both of which are sorely lacking — because Christ is at its center. Not yet knowing how to say this exactly, Weber tells her wounded, now-former fiancé:

“I don’t want to live in a separate part of the house from you, Ben, let alone in a separate part of my soul from you…” I struggled to explain, but I didn’t have the vocabulary yet. (p. 159)

In ch. 14, Weber faces a different challenge: trying to explain her becoming a Christian to her mother, who is “loosely Euro-Catholic by background” (according to an earlier conversation with TDH) but even less understanding of Weber’s yearning for relationship with God than the determinedly secular Ben. “Haven’t I given you enough? Aren’t we enough?” Weber imagines her silent mother speaking at one point.

“…why is it so hard to talk about this with the people you love the most?” Weber wonders in the middle of going back and forth with her mother. And here Buechner’s idea of recognizing your own story in that of someone else hit me powerfully: I struggle to talk about my faith, my love for Augustine’s “Beauty so ancient and so new” with family members more than anyone else. Not that they’re hostile to it, and they even share it to varying degrees. So why the struggle? Do we fear that one unconditional love — for parent, sibling, spouse, or child — might be jealous of the other — for God (and more, from God)?

All of this has more to do with my anxieties than the character of my loved ones — I’m enough in my head that “what if” too often trumps realization of “what is.” But this part of Surprised by Oxford, and the recognition it inspires, reminds me yet again of the enormous gap between God and someone like me, with Paul, the worst of sinners. As hesitantly, fearfully, and selfishly as I reveal myself to those closest to me, yet more eagerly, graciously, and lovingly does God reveal Himself to those farthest from Him.

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