I spent last week visiting my daughter and the dreaming spires and domes of Oxford. I spent much of the week in rooms in Trinity College (they rent rooms during the breaks between terms). Every morning I had porridge and eggs under the painted gaze of Cardinal (soon-to-be Saint) Newman, William Pitt, and other somber male figures in long white wigs or medieval dress. Out on the vast lawn of the Trinity quad, a Bollywood movie was shooting. Someone told me it had to do with an Indian prince attending Oxford who falls in love and romanced the girl of his dreams. One bright morning as I left the college to meet my daughter Alex, I walked right through the shooting of the exultant final dance number. The dancers pranced along to the beat of a boom box playing music that reminded me of the exultant final number in “Slumdog Millionare,” while rows of young students dressed in black pretended to play the violin. I was told that real Oxford students who happened to be in town during the break between terms were playing Oxford students, but I was fairly certain this American visitor would be edited out.
Therein–or maybe herein–lies my tale. I once read that there are three different ways to visit a place: a very few in this world have the experience of being true explorers, going where no other or few other humans have gone. Many more of us have been tourists, visiting places that many people have visited, preferrably as comfortably as possible and with the aim of, well, visiting them. The first catagory is almost impossible these days and while there is nothing wrong with visiting the underground Cabinet war rooms or Windsor Castle and Westminster Abbey (I visited them last week), it is one thing to snap photos and quite another to rally the people during the blitz or kneel in prayer. There is a third way of travelling. One can be a pilgrim, following others, seeking to experience what they have experienced. My daughter Alex is at Oxford as a pilgrim. Not only is she an Oxford student, she seems to be fulfilling her childhood dream of being admitted to Hogwarts. Indeed, many scenes in the Harry Potter films–the great hall, the great stone staircases–were filmed at Oxford, and Alex took me to see them.
All week long, as I walked down cobblestone streets and into one beautiful college and chapel and cathredal after another, I wondered if I was any kind of pilgrim. Going to another country for a mere week is very tiring and it can make a person question whether there is much room inside for anything more than thoughts of survival, of making it from here to there. Yet sitting in the chapel at Trinity, an Oxford grad turned tour guide told me a story that cracked open a door. He spoke of the founding of Oxford, in about the year 1000 or so. The earliest students came as pilgrims to what was once a monastic center speaking French and Latin, not the crude English of the Anglo Saxons. These snooty interlopers were also dirty, poor, and in all ways disagreeable and oblivious to the life around them. Finally, 63 of them were ambushed and killed by outraged locals. What came of that sad and bloody deed? It turns out that the enclosed quad design of the Oxford colleges, which became the prototype of most college campuses everywhere, was actually a fort, aimed at keeping those first obnoxious, messy, know-it-all students safe behind stone walls and iron gates. Safe inside a timeless, dreamy bubble, away from the truth of impermance and the need to keep going no matter what and all the other implacable truths of life, which the local farmers and their wives surely knew.
A long time out of school and feeling like a bit of an outsider among insiders, I identified with the farmers (the nonviolent farmers). Yet I realized that farmers can also be pilgrims. There are paths and ways aimed at helping us practice being in the world but not of it–aimed at helping us master the art and science of not completely disappearing into the thoughts and inner and outer attitudes that arise to protect us from unpredictable life. There are schools in which the gates are open, so that the quiet of that green inner sanctum can enter the life outside. The aspiration to know a timeless truth, a greater life, can infuse our actions and relations with the outside world with an energy of awarenss and kindness. Last week, I realized that this is my wish and dream for Parabola, that it be a meeting place and record for people seeking out and following the ways of earlier others, who have lived in the world but not of it, who have lived with presence.