Wondering and Wandering

A mere two full days after I returned from Rome, in the most bewildering week of my life, I went on to Birmingham, England. I flew into Birmingham rather than London for one reason alone – to visit the Birmingham Oratory.

The Oratory was founded by Bl. John Henry Newman in 1848, and today they have a gorgeous shrine there with his relics. In addition to its significance with that  blessed and prolific cardinal, J.R.R.Tolkien and his younger brother were essentially raised there after the death of their mother. Instead of being entrusted to family members, the two boys were entrusted to the care of a priest, Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan, who was to raise them to be diligent Catholics. The Oratory is fantastically beautiful – and I was blessed with the opportunity to go to daily Mass and Adoration there.

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I found my way to the Birmingham train station from my hostel and caught a train to Oxford. The difference between the enormous, bustling, industrial Birmingham and the sprawling, quiet, and nature-nurtured Oxford were immediately apparent from their difference in train stations. Birmingham has perhaps 20 some odd platforms, and Oxford has two.

From the train station, I found my way to my accommodation – I stayed in a dorm room inside Somerville College. I felt like a proper Oxonian staying in the same halls as some of her students. I made a beeline for the Eagle and Child (aka the Birdy and Baby) where Tolkien, C.S.Lewis, and the other members of the Inklings would meet to share their writings and a pint or two. I ended up talking to a sweet woman who was from Dallas, and she and her husband ended up buying my lunch and inviting me to eat with them. It was a great conversation talking about school, faith, and literature.

 

After departing, I wandered through the streets of Oxford, determined to end the day at Magdalen College. I felt much more at ease in Oxford than I had in Rome. Rome was amazing, but stressful as it is so enormous and I didn’t speak the language. In Oxford, I took my ease navigating the streets, not worrying if I got lost. I was there to fill my lungs with the crisp autumn air, to revel in the glory of academia, and walk the walks of my literary heroes.

I eventually found my way to Magdalen – the college where Lewis taught. The college has expansive and beautiful meadows as a part of its grounds. I spent close to two hours wandering the footpaths, my mind and heart caught up in a myriad of thoughts. Primary among those thoughts was the conversion of Lewis, which began one evening walking those very paths – known as Addison’s Walk – with Charles Williams and Tolkien. They discussed Myth and Truth, and this conversation among others eventually resulted in Lewis’ conversion to Christianity.

That night, I went back to the Eagle and Child to read Tolkien’s Essay on Fairy-Stories, drink a pint of {ginger} beer and enjoy the atmosphere of the cozy (cosy?) pub.

Saturday dawned early and misty as I rose to attend daily Mass and Adoration at Tolkien’s home parish – Sts. Gregory and Augustine. I enjoyed a wet walk down to the church. It’s a small, sweet, distinctly British parish. It was me and the old men for Saturday’s celebration of the liturgy. I found great peace there as I ruminated upon Tolkien feeding his own faith there, the faith that shaped his worldview and his writings.

After leaving his parish, I walked further on to his and his wife’s grave. It was a cemetery obviously well looked after. Most of the graves had tokens of love upon them. Tolkien’s, too, had tokens that were obviously from admirers. It was beautiful to visit the home of his faith on earth and then to visit the home of his physical remains on earth. My mind meandered to the Grey Havens at the end of Lord of the Rings, and wandered further still to Christian faith in the Resurrection at the end of time.

I walked back into Oxford proper, and spent some time at Blackwell’s book store – which is a beautiful place for any and all who love the printed word. For the rest of the afternoon, I meandered among the colleges, the buildings, the streets where great thoughts have been conceived, taught, written. I spent a good hour getting drenched in the meadow’s at Christ’s Church College – and loving every autumnal gust and rain drop.

That night, I went back to the Eagle and Child for another night of reading and ginger beer drinking. I ended up talking to guy from Cork (which is not too far to where I’m living currently in Limerick). He bought my drink, and introduced me to his mother and sister. We got into a great conversation about academics, the Church, and traveling. They were an absolutely delight to talk with, and I was bewildered and pleased that two out my three times to the pub produced the fruit of new friends and thoughtful conversations (as well as free refreshments). Just as the Inklings cultivated their friendships in conversation there, I was provided with the right circumstances to interact with friendly travelers and take joy in common interests.

On Sunday, I relished a luxurious morning to wake up, eat, and prepare for Mass at my leisure – the Oxford Oratory is on the campus of the college I stayed in! Bl. John Henry Newman preached in, Gerard Manly Hopkins was curated at, and Tolkien attended the Oxford Oratory. It is a beautiful, historic church, and I thoroughly enjoyed Mass there. It was nice to see other college students attending there – I (most unfortunately) have seen too few during my time here in Ireland.

After Mass, I headed for the train station to get back to Birmingham and fly back to Limerick. My time in Oxford was too brief, but it was an excellent restorative. Rome was a spiritual home, but Oxford felt like a academic/literary home. Though it was new, it felt familiar. To use Tolkien’s now famous quote from the Fellowship of the Ring, “Not all those who wander are lost.” I spent my weekend in Oxford doing much wandering and wondering, treasuring the opportunity of doing both immensely.

May God bless you on your way – and may yours be filled with much wondering and wandering as well!

 

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