Life's pace in centuries past

Saturday, July 20, 2002

Editor's note: The Rev. Bob Towner, rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Cape Girardeau, is at Oxford University in England, studying at the C.S. Lewis Summer Institute. This is the second of four articles Towner will be writing about his experiences.

There are 30 colleges at Oxford University. Nearly every one has a great hall, a beautiful chapel, a lovely garden quadrangle surrounded by dorms, all wrapped in a medieval stone wall and topped with a tall tower. Some towers have bells, and each has a clock. A cross, slim and tall, stands over all. I am reminded of the British hymn about the cross of Christ "towering over the wrecks of time."

As I write I am sitting in the entry of Christ Church Oxford Cathedral. This is authentic gothic, completed in the early 13th century. Listening to choristers in ruffles and red robes singing a "Kyrie," or "Lord, have mercy," from Palestrine's "Missa sine nomine," translated as "The Nameless Mass." A timeless sound.

Last evening before tea, I attended the Eucharist in a 12th century parish church, St. Mary Magdalene, pronounced "maudlin" by the Brits. After dinner I went to a 14th or 15th century chapel at Exeter College and listened to courtly music from the time of the first Queen Elizabeth, played in honor of the second QueenE on her golden jubilee.

For lunch I ducked out of our conference on "Time and Eternity" for noonday prayers at the old Saxon tower, built at the gate of the 11th century medieval walled city. Those walls, nor that tower could hold back the invading Celts from Normandy.

One of the leaders of the English Reformation, whose prayers have shaped and nurtured the growth of my soul for 50 years, was named Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer awaited execution in that tower.

Earlier in the week I joined in singing at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. Here Cranmer was tried and found guilty of the capital crime of heresy by the court of Queen Mary.

Out in the street between the those last two churches, across from Starbucks, is a marker on the spot where the author who penned the first Book of Common Prayer was burnt to ashes at the stake.

No tour guide showed me these things. One stumbles upon them, as over a stone.

I am here in Oxford as a pilgrim going back to the roots of my people's faith. And as a student of both theological and scientific issues surrounding Time and Eternity, the title of the seminar I'm attending.

Oxford and its sister university in Cambridge are still regarded as the bedrock of intellectual life in the English speaking world.

Candidates for the two most published books since Guttenberg are certainly the English Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Both grew out of Oxford and Cambridge scholarship and, I believe, a large breath of divine inspiration. The English language as we have received it, has risen upon that twin trunk.

Author C. S. Lewis and his friend at Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkein would have begun their mornings at their respective college chapels. Then they would have met, along with others of their informal but formidable fellowship of Christian professors at The Eagle and Child, a quaint pub with small side rooms for good conversation.

After this refreshment, they would have gone to their respective offices to meet with students --one, two, or three at a time.

Challenging, encouraging, stimulating wonder and inquiry. Mid-afternoon they would go home to family and a long supper. After tea, they wrote or walked along the meadows or the Thames and thought about what to write.

What a contrast to our "post-modern" way of life.

We are managing time, buying time, killing time, doing time and saving time. Multitasking, 24/7.

Ages, reigns, era, generations, and seasons have given way to quarterly statements, monthly assessments, weekly reports, daily planners, hourly tasks, minutes, seconds and nano-seconds.

Such a precision and so much urgency has enabled us to see that a space shuttle connects with a satellite station thousands of miles away in deep space.

But in our progress from here to there, have we been able to keep track of who we are and why we are here? Here under the ancient towers of Oxford, one is more liable to wonder about the eternal verities that give lease to time that it might in turn be life-giving rather than breath-taking.

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