Monday, 11 June 2012

"A strange, marvellous, and amiable possession"

Yesterday marked the end of a happy and beautiful period in my life: five years of Oxford Sundays. My Sundays for the past few years have had a familiar, much-loved routine (which I described here), but I'm coming to the end of my DPhil, and this is my last week of term as an Oxford student. I've actually been a student at Oxford for eight years, but the first three, though intellectually stimulating, had nothing of joy to compare to what the last five years have been at Brasenose. Indulge me now as I say goodbye to it!

I wrote about some of my college's particular qualities two years ago and called it then 'the ideal of what an academic community should be'. I still believe that and everything else I wrote in that post (except for the naive hopes about David Cameron, which I wouldn't subscribe to now). Brasenose was my 'low door in the wall', the first place in my life, other than my family home, where I loved and was loved, and felt lovable, almost even beautiful, among a group of people themselves extraordinarily beautiful in every respect. Here I met the most truly good people I have ever known, the most talented, the most generous and most original, all in their own various and diverse ways. Here I learned to treasure beauty; I unlearned the cynicism which my previous education and life in the modern world had taught me. I felt for a while that I belonged somewhere, that there were other people in the world who loved the same things as me, and that I could learn to be as good as them. I even thought sometimes that I found God here, though I'm not so sure about that now. It wouldn't be true to say I was happy here for the first time in my life, but for the first time I knew I was happy, in all senses of the word.

After a few months of this life, back in the spring of 2008, I started to keep a diary of happy moments, to consciously treasure them, and that diary is now pages and pages of blessed memories. Under the influence of Thomas Traherne, I called it the 'diary of felicity'. Happiness doesn't come easily to me by nature but felicity, I think, does, though such intensity of love can sometimes bring as much pain as pleasure - "the old stab, the old bittersweet". It's an exulting, tender, adoring kind of love, as full of wonder and awe as of affection - wonder that such beauty can exist, and that I should be allowed to witness it.

I shouldn't talk too much about what has been; I'll only make myself miserable to be leaving it - losing it, I almost said. Traherne, Brasenose-educated himself, says it all better than I can. So here are my favourites from five years of photographs of this precious place, with some of my favourite quotations from Traherne (in random order, but mostly from the third century in Centuries of Meditations).

Having been at the University, and received there the taste and tincture of another education, I saw that there were things in this world of which I never dreamed; glorious secrets, and glorious persons past imagination. There I saw that Logic, Ethics, Physics, Metaphysics, Geometry, Astronomy, Poesy, Medicine, Grammar, Music, Rhetoric all kinds of Arts, Trades, and Mechanisms that adorned the world pertained to felicity; at least there I saw those things, which afterwards I knew to pertain unto it: and was delighted in it. There I saw into the nature of the Sea, the Heavens, the Sun, the Moon and Stars, the Elements, Minerals, and Vegetables. All which appeared like the King's Daughter, all glorious within.

The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things. The Men! O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem! Immortal Cherubims! And young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! Boys and girls tumbling in the street, and playing, were moving jewels. I knew not that they were born or should die; But all things abided eternally as they were in their proper places. Eternity was manifest in the Light of the Day, and something infinite behind everything appeared which talked with my expectation and moved my desire. The city seemed to stand in Eden, or to be built in Heaven. The streets were mine, the temple was mine, the people were mine, their clothes and gold and silver were mine, as much as their sparkling eyes, fair skins and ruddy faces. The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars, and all the World was mine; and I the only spectator and enjoyer of it. I knew no churlish proprieties, nor bounds, nor divisions: but all proprieties and divisions were mine: all treasures and the possessors of them. So that with much ado I was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world. Which now I unlearn, and become, as it were, a little child again that I may enter into the Kingdom of God.

Our Saviour's meaning, when He said, "He must be born again and become a little child that will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven" is deeper far than is generally believed. It is not only in a careless reliance upon Divine Providence, that we are to become little children, or in the feebleness and shortness of our anger and simplicity of our passions, but in the peace and purity of all our soul. Which purity also is a deeper thing than is commonly apprehended. For we must disrobe ourselves of all false colours, and unclothe our souls of evil habits; all our thoughts must be infant-like and clear; the powers of our soul free from the leaven of this world, and disentangled from men's conceits and customs. Grit in the eye or yellow jaundice will not let a man see those objects truly that are before it. And therefore it is requisite that we should be as very strangers to the thoughts, customs, and opinions of men in this world, as if we were but little children. So those things would appear to us only which do to children when they are first born.

Thenceforth I thought the Light of Heaven was in this world: I saw it possible, and very probable, that I was infinitely beloved of Almighty God, the delights of Paradise were round about me, Heaven and Earth were open to me, all riches were little things; this one pleasure being so great that it exceeded all the joys of Eden.

I remember once the first time I came into a magnificent or noble dining room, and was left there alone, I rejoiced to see the gold and state and carved imagery, but when all was dead, and there was no motion, I was weary of it, and departed dissatisfied. But afterwards, when I saw it full of lords and ladies, and music and dancing, the place which once seemed not to differ from a solitary den, had now entertainment, and nothing of tediousness but pleasure in it. By which I perceived (upon a reflection made long after) that men and women are when well understood a principal part of our true felicity.

I desired no more the honours and pleasures of this world, but gave myself to the illimited and clear fruition of that: and to this day see nothing wanting to my Felicity but mine own perfection. All other things are well; I only, and the sons of men about me, are disordered. Nevertheless could I be what I ought, their very disorders would be my enjoyments. For all things should work together for good to them that love God. And if the disorders, then certainly the troubles, and if the troubles, much more the vanities of men would be mine. Not only their enjoyments, but their very errors and distractions increasing my Felicity. So that being heir of the whole world alone, I was to walk in it, as in a strange, marvellous, and amiable possession, and alone to render praises unto God for its enjoyment.

By an act of the understanding therefore be present now with all the creatures among which you live; and hear them in their beings and operations praising God in an heavenly manner. Some of them vocally, others in their ministry, all of them naturally and continually. We infinitely wrong ourselves by laziness and confinement. All creatures in all nations, and tongues, and people praise God infinitely; and the more, for being your sole and perfect treasures. You are never what you ought till you go out of yourself and walk among them.

As in many mirrors we are so many other selves, so are we spiritually multiplied when we meet ourselves more sweetly, and live again in other persons.

The World is not this little Cottage of Heaven and Earth. Though this be fair, it is too small a Gift. When God made the World He made the Heavens, and the Heavens of Heavens, and the Angels, and the Celestial Powers. These also are parts of the World: So are all those infinite and eternal Treasures that are to abide for ever, after the Day of Judgment. Neither are these, some here, and some there, but all everywhere, and at once to be enjoyed. The World is unknown, till the Value and Glory of it is seen: till the Beauty and the Serviceableness of its parts is considered. When you enter into it, it is an illimited field of Variety and Beauty: where you may lose yourself in the multitude of Wonders and Delights. But it is an happy loss to lose oneself in admiration at one's own Felicity: and to find God in exchange for oneself: which we then do when we see Him in His Gifts, and adore His Glory.

It is the Glory of God to give all things to us in the best of all possible manners. To study things therefore under the double notion of interest and treasure, is to study all things in the best of all possible manners. Because in studying so we enquire after God's Glory, and our own happiness. And indeed enter into the way that leadeth to all contentments, joys, and satisfactions, to all praises, triumphs and thanksgivings, to all virtues, beauties, adorations and graces, to all dominion, exaltation, wisdom, and glory, to all Holiness, Union, and Communication with God, to all patience, and courage and blessedness, which it is impossible to meet any other way. So that to study objects for ostentation, vain knowledge or curiosity is fruitless impertinence, tho' God Himself and Angels be the object. But to study that which will oblige us to love Him, and feed us with nobility and goodness toward men, that is blessed. And so is it to study that which will lead us to the Temple of Wisdom, and seat us in the Throne of Glory.

I saw moreover that it did not so much concern us what objects were before us, as with what eyes we beheld them, with what affections we esteemed them, and what apprehensions we had about them. All men see the same objects, but do not equally understand them. Intelligence is the tongue that discerns and tastes them, Knowledge is the Light of Heaven, Love is the Wisdom and Glory of God, Life extended to all objects is the sense that enjoys them. So that Knowledge, Life, and Love are the very means of all enjoyment, which above all things we must seek for and labour after. All objects are in God Eternal: which we by perfecting our faculties are made to enjoy.


Anonymous said...

But you will go on writing this blog, won't you?

Clerk of Oxford said...

I hope so!