Saturday, April 5, 2014

spirit of saint lewis

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“Humanity does not pass through phases
as a train passes through stations;
being alive, it has the privilege of always moving
yet never leaving anything behind.
Whatever we have been, in some sort we are still.”

~ C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love.

lewis’ environment

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The Kilns, with C.S. Lewis' bedroom (below).

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During the winter, I’ve had some time to digest and reflect upon this past late-summer and early-autumn’s residency in Oxford. There will likely be one more essay on the topic. This occasion permits for some reflection as a participant in C. S. Lewis’ world. With the Scholar-in-Residence fellowship, I lived at The Kilns, which is the Lewis home. From the house and its grounds, to neighboring Headington Quarry, to Oxford’s streets, paths, canals, and colleges (with their libraries), to the breadth of greater Oxfordshire, the experience exceeded that of an invitee: I was an inhabitant in a broad and colorful sphere.

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High Street, Oxford. Below: University College, Oxford.

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Walking was the best mode for observation, though public transport was essential for traversing the city to my various appointments. Covering the smaller distances on foot provided opportunities to look closely at memorials, shop displays, and to try various vantage points with my camera. Aboard the buses, I chose upper-deck perches, and the higher-angle views were ideal for viewing architecture as well as the scurrying humanity along the sidewalks. Lewis did not drive, and he either walked or used public transportation to connect The Kilns with Magdalen College. I learned about how he loved to walk, no matter the distance. Long strolls on footpaths become places of meditation as well as that of conversation with friends. Walking chats, and walking to air my thoughts, were integral experiences to my Oxford sojourn. Assimilating the Oxford of C. S. Lewis, I gradually found my “own” Oxford. Inhabiting the places of importance to Lewis, these places also became important to me. Places and paths complemented all I was learning about his life and about the people closest to him.

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Joy Davidman Gresham's home, Headington,
prior to her marriage to C. S. Lewis.

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Bury Knowle Park's garden, which features Narnia-themed carved sculptures. Aslan the Lion (above), and a wardrobe-shaped entrance.

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Through the ages, writers have known the value of place as source and conduit of inspiration. My comprehension and appreciation for Henri David Thoreau was significantly enhanced, after having spent time at Walden Pond. My lifelong admiration for Dylan Thomas ultimately brought me to the parts of Wales that are illustrated by his words. I had the great fortune of being able to live in the Thomas family home, which is also the poet’s birthplace, in Swansea.

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Mindfully ascending the carpeted wooden stairs each night, the same steps walked by Thomas as a child and as an adult, found parallels when I also walked the cliff walk to his rockperched boat house in Laugharne. These thoughts returned to me, as I’d daily climb and descend the steep steps of C. S. Lewis’ at The Kilns, then around the garden, the verdant length of Addison’s Walk, and to his rooms at the cloistered Magdalen College and University College. Lewis may not have considered his notebooks and manuscripts as “places,” but I did. The texts themselves, upon their original paper substrata, are places of learning. My daily studies, comprising close readings and note-taking, amounted to a month of habitation in the spaces created by his written words. The lines and pages of insights were subtexts and themes to my days of exploration.

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Studying Lewis' manuscripts.

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By comparison with the fantastical worlds vividly described in the Space Trilogy books, and the Chronicles of Narnia, the earthly geography of C. S. Lewis did not cover much territory. But his imagination was surely boundless. He was able to invent complex and elaborate lands while amidst the sedate landscape of the English Midlands, the stone streets of Oxford city, as well as drawing from his upbringing in north Ireland. As well, the community life cultivated by Lewis, among friends and associates in Oxford, brought voices and stories into the places of his spirit.

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sacred spaces

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Views of Saint Mary's, Oxford.

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Becoming acquainted with the places Lewis valued brought me to several beautiful sacred sites. Although the individual colleges have chapels within their enclosures, the university church is the centrally-situated Saint Mary’s, dating back to the 13th century. Among the addresses Lewis preached at Saint Mary’s was his celebrated Weight of Glory, in 1941. Closer to The Kilns is Lewis’ home parish, Holy Trinity Church, in Headington Quarry. On Sundays, during my time in Oxford, I had the honor of sitting in the Lewis pew, which is marked by a small brass plaque. The favorite church perch for Lewis and his brother was purposely chosen because it’s at the left (northerly) edge of the nave, partly obscured by a thick stone pillar. Jack and Warnie were able to make early and discreet departures after communion, in order to reach the Masons Arms pub in time for an after-church pint!

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Holy Trinity, Headington

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Holy Trinity was indeed dear to them, having been their place of worship for more than thirty years, and the churchyard is their final earthly resting place. The Lewis brothers’ grave is marked by a flat stone marker. I was sure to visit the grave to pay my respects, and brought seashells from Maine with me to place upon the stone (and I tucked some underneath it). Inside Holy Trinity, right next to the Lewis pew, are the Narnia Windows. The windows memorialize C. S. Lewis, with characters from the Narnia stories engraved into plain glass. The images have the effect of relief sculpture, and beautifully catch the ambient light.

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The Narnia Windows, Holy Trinity Church.

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The Lewis grave, with seashells I brought from Maine.

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gathered places

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Assembling my materials at The Kilns and preparing to continue my travels, I was already aware of having gathered experiences of places along the paths of C. S. Lewis. In my momentary context, these places have become mine, too. The two journals and one memo book I filled are joined by my well-worn street map, postcards, my university ID card, bus pass, several significant stones, and various accumulated mementoes from this extraordinary sojourn. The dozens and dozens of pages of notes I made at the Bodleian Libraries were graciously scanned into electronic files for me by the staff at Radcliffe Science. Sifting through the nearly 2500 photos I took helps me relive the journey’s chronology. In my attentiveness to the places of importance in the life of Lewis, I invariably found my favorites- such as the Bodleian Lower Reading Room, Duke Humfrey’s Library, the Golden Cross Café, the Covered Market, and the Friends Meeting House.

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Walking along Saint Mary's Passage, en route to the Bodleian Library, Lewis noticed the juxtaposed faun and lamp-post which influenced some of the symbols which appear in the "Chronicles of Narnia."

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C. S. Lewis was one among a great many souls whose cultivation found fertile ground at Oxford. Paths crossed depends very much upon a researcher’s area of study. My interests brought my steps to the Oxford of not only Lewis, but also of Tyndale, Wycliffe, Shakespeare, Shelley, Newman, Wesley, as well as that of the Inklings. A sense of past and present juxtaposed in these places is strongly evident. Contrary to the sentiments of much of our popular culture, that which is past is not necessarily dead and gone. Places and manuscripts from eras long ago become ever new as they are discovered and rediscovered. Realized knowledge is always current. Even Lewis, who drew from ancient literature as easily as he comprehended his own times, was well aware of the timelessness of wisdom.

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Saint Paul reminded his readers in Rome about how the Spirit of God “quickens the dead, and calls those things which be not as though they were.” The breath, the pneuma, of spirit, infuses our being; it converts the static into the dynamic. When I consider having gathered glimpses of the spirit of Lewis, one encompassing attribute comes to mind, and that is perseverance. Studying his manuscripts while immersed at Oxford, I recognized a thread of individual tenacity and valor connecting the character and many-faceted works of C. S. Lewis. The spirit of Lewis testifies that learning and living must not cease- even at precipices of desolation. Perseverance in education is to be accompanied by continuity in the craft of synthesis: being harmoniously eclectic; being able to see present-day relevance in ancient wisdom, and vice-versa. Alongside skills in synthetic thinking, Lewis exercised his adventurous imagination. I must remember to do the same, to always remain open to the stirring of the Holy Spirit, available to the miraculous, the serendipitous.

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Above: Strolling along Addison's Walk. Magdalen College in background.
Below: Magdalen College Chapel.

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Lastly, Lewis articulated and lived an admirable form of facing fears- indeed, as any of us, having to improvise along the way. In the throes of grief, his faith was shaken, as it might happen to any of the best of us. We wonder at the tangible value of blind belief and whether our faithfulness is requited. Lewis created a subtly sinister character called Screwtape, who knew something of human pliability in times of vulnerability. In The Screwtape Letters, the character warns an evil henchman that “The worst possible thing that can happen to us, and that which glorifies our enemy the most (namely God) is when a man looks around and sees no reason to go on believing in God’s love and still believes anyway.” This phrase, spoken by Lewis through a fictional character, exemplifies the spirit of perseverance. There we find the spirit of saint Lewis.

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I saved a last Maine seashell for the pond at the C. S. Lewis Nature Reserve.
After throwing in the shell, it was impossible not to notice the shadows' shape in the pond.

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Writing in the same room, near the same hearth, about 55 years apart.

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Saturday, February 15, 2014

preservation and imprint

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“Those who have greatly cared for any book whatever
may possibly come to care, some day, for good books.
The organs of appreciation exist in them.”

~ C. S. Lewis, The World's Last Night.

Beginning to look back at my studies at Oxford, and how they continue on, my sense of direction is reinforced. While thoughts linger and digest the rich experiences of the late-summer and early autumn past, I proceed to absorb new learning with renewed perspective. Though I’ve been backlogged in my writing projects, I’ve continued my usual reading and note-taking. It seems natural to nurture a thirsting spirit with persevering studies into inspiring literature. It is also evidently unavoidable. Just the other day, at the Boston Athenaeum, the slant of late-day light streaming in through west-facing windows lit the small ancient book in my hands. The side-lighting cast shadows from paper fibers and into typographic embossed crevasses. Such tomes that reflect the light of this very day attest to worlds and times beyond the generations of our ancestors.

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As with the memories and lyrics we carry with us, so our received words of inspiration help to carry us along this earthly sojourn. That which I have beheld and handled, and have even listened to, in the tones of written words, occurs to me now as having been made available to me. Whether across millennia, centuries, or modern decades, enduring words are gratefully received as they are handed down and across to my fledgling hands. At the Bodleian Library, the books and documents of my studies came from many different places- and I myself had done so, too. Words and images have reached me, as I have reached for them, and their origins share a collective mystery with their conveyance to this present era.


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At Oxford, I was elated to find the Bodleian preserves and maintains a manuscript of Johannes Scottus Eriugena (9th c.), who has been dear to me for many years. Supporting research into the works of his thought, the library also includes a collection of printed offerings about Eriugena and early Medieval philosophy. I even found a contemporary publication about Eriugena, at the Oxford University Press bookstore, and added it to my own collection. The constraints of long-distance travel limited how many books I could fly back with (and how many I could mail), due to their weight.

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Another volume well worth procuring was a book I learned about as my steps traversed paths left by Tyndale (16th c.), and that is Sir Thomas Wilson’s Arte of Rhetorique, originally published in 1553. The edition I purchased is an imprint published at the University’s Clarendon Press in 1909. It had been artfully made to replicate the quality of a 16th century book, using thick paper stock, replicating the original typography, marginalia, and frontispiece illustration.

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Written by the headmaster of Magdalen College, the work itself had been a textbook used at Oxford in Tyndale’s years, and had instructed and influenced countless scholars. Its themes treat the subjects of eloquence, oration, and the clear organization of knowledge. Often the text blends in the author’s reasons for clarity of thought, which are to reflect the sacred. Sir Thomas dares his readers to excavate the ways of holiness: “Who would digge and delve from Morne till Evening? Who would travaile and toyle with ye sweat of his browes?” The wise advice presented by the book is strongly reminiscent of Eriugena’s spirit of division and recollection (divisoria et resolutiva). Ancient guides continue to teach.


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Being an archivist and conservator by trade and livelihood, I was graciously introduced by the Bodleian staff to the university’s conservation department, known as Collections Care. Responding to their generous invitation, I was privileged to spend a day at the bindery and laboratory. The department is located in Osney, along the River Thames, in a western district of the city. Reaching the “Osney One” complex from the university provided an opportunity to walk along a very narrow stretch of the river. Lined with canal boats and trees, the walk to Osney is a meditative diversion from the city center’s density and crowds.

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Repositories of rare and archival research materials balance the tandem mission of preservation and access. We preserve in order to assure availability. There may seem an inherent conflict, as handling could be seen to be endangering preservation, and watchful conservation could be seen as an endangerment to potential handling. Inevitably, research libraries establish workable compromises that protect the integrity of original artifacts, while also extending opportunities to readers. Continuity in physical conservation parallels the continuum of scholarly access.

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Conservation of a medieval book : rebinding the signatures
(gathers of pages).

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The paper conservators at Osney demonstrated how they had been processing the personal papers of radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi, as the collection had been accessioned by Oxford. The documents were being mounted in fascicules, which are interleaved archival albums. The same treatments had been done with the C. S. Lewis papers, and subsequently as I proceeded with my studies in the research rooms, I remembered what I had seen at Osney. Careful inventorying, cataloguing, and physical treatments all happen before a manuscript or rare book reaches the library shelves and reading tables.

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New binding, cords, and custom-fitted
wooden boards, to be covered with new leather.

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Along with some great discussions about our respective projects, we examined the conservation phases of a medieval book of hours. The book had been purchased for the university, because in its contents there is mention of Oxford. Requiring a full-scale restoration, the book needed to be rebound and recased using the most authentic materials possible. A specific type of leather was chosen, to stretch over the new signature cords, and custom shaped wooden boards that had been purchased from a lumber company in Wales that supplies the Bodleian Library. There are numerous such tomes in the Library’s collections, each requiring their own treatments- whether extensive or simple maintenance. Archival material has its own axiology, and we speak of the value of the original artifact as being evidence of an action, or a person’s creative thought, or the documentation of decisions. The intrinsic value of a manuscript often refers to the integrity of an original artifact which cannot be replicated because it is the item that had been written upon, owned by a specific person, or had made a historic voyage.

oxford university press

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Written words are preserved and rejuvenated by conservation. For centuries, the printed word has been produced with presses, bound, and further extended. (Electronic formats extend the contents of the printed word still more.) During my residency in Oxford, I had the pleasure of visiting the famous Oxford University Press, and meeting with their archives’ staff. The Press is a department of the University, and its printing operations began in 1478, shortly after Johannes Gutenberg’s innovations with moveable type and printing presses. Oxford University Press has been at its present location, on Walton Street, since 1830, having been previously based in the Sheldonian Theatre (in the 17th century), and in the Clarendon Building (in the 18th century). It came to mind how great many of my graduate school texts were produced by Oxford, which also includes their academic Clarendon Press. The large buildings at Walton Street include an informative gallery of artifacts displaying milestones in the continuing history of Oxford University Press. A visit is well worthwhile.

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Printing press at Oxford University Press

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Oxford English Dictionary display.
Documents below are Dictionary editorial notes made by
J.R.R. Tolkien, who contributed to production.

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Returning to my work at the Bodleian Library, I unavoidably noticed spine labels bearing the Oxford Press imprint on countless books in the reading rooms and aisles of shelving. I subsequently noticed this, back in New England libraries, and amusingly back in my apartment. As with my research, the visits with Collections Care, as well as Oxford University Press, have added an enhanced sensitivity to the artistry related to the sustenance of written artifacts.

reading on

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Travelling on, and reading on, written and printed words speak in bolder tones to my mind’s ear. Readings which inspire most embody a totality of sound, substance, and typographic aesthetic beauty. Illuminated thoughts reach me by reflectant pages. Words combine to transfer a message which is received and transposed by my reading. Or by your reading. Written words adorn the roads of our reading voyages, and I have seen my own path has definitively navigated ports and passages of places which inspire future articulation.

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