In 2013 my wife and I sold our Atlanta home, our two cars, and moved our three young daughters to Oxford, England. We didn’t willy-nilly up and move. I was accepted into a PhD program to study theology. But that sounds boring. My topic, however, is anything but. I am looking at beauty in the works of C.S. Lewis.
Oxford is a revelation. I cannot quite explain the solemnity that settles in this place. I once found myself walking across Tom Quad, of Christ Church, beneath a canopy of stars. The salt-speckled violet backdrop cast the iconic Tower into a surreal frame of glowing angles punctuated by a soaring dome. Is this the view that burrowed into the mind of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and produced such beautiful nonsense?
I was caught, like Lucy sneaking into a wardrobe unprepared for the world beyond.
Beyond the alluring mystery and curious hush of Oxford lies further revelation of beauty itself. For I have found pleasing form here in the shire, that much is certain, but even more than form I have discovered a quality. Not just one quality, but myriad. One quality in particular is invitation.
Invitation met me one spring afternoon last year when I entered the wood leading up to Boars Hill. The soft moor squished around my boots and led me into a forest floor covered with bluebells. The violet carpet stretched in and throughout the dark tree trunks. I marveled: the contrast, the aura, the magic. The form snuck behind my rational mind and whispered to my imagination, invitation.
Invitation greeted me one wintry evening at The Bear and The Ragged Staff; a four hundred year old pub nestled in our local village. We walked there with new friends in the Oxford dark, sat in bear-like couches and chairs in front of a five foot fire place—the hearth looked like a splintered relic from an old Viking ship—and talked about our dreams. We laughed and sipped soup, gathered in by the ancient surrounding stone and beams, set off tastefully by the ageless fire that interjected pops and sparks into our conversation.
As we walked and laughed back to our house beneath the midnight sky half-dollar-sized snowflakes fell and blanketed our coats and scarfs. We bellowed out Narnia references, and unbelieving quips about our good fortune. Then, as we approached our house we eyed a tall messy-haired college student standing at the bus stop, holding a black umbrella. The jarring sight compelled me to say, “You look like Mr. Tumnus.” To which the young man replied, “Well, I’m not a faun, if that’s what you mean.”
On that wintry evening beauty surrounded me the entire night. It came through the pub form, the stones, the hearth, the fire. It drew me in.
People love asking me about my course of study. When I tell them it’s beauty, they normally respond with a grand smile and an “Ahhh!” Even our responses to the thought of studying beauty reveal our deep emotional ties to the concept. We sense something within the form.
And when we encounter that pub-kind-of-beauty we almost can’t explain it. It’s not just one thing that was beautiful; it’s the occasion. From Aquinas, to Augustine, to Lewis, all point to the quality of the form. Form alone does not make an object beautiful, but beauty itself. Lewis says that beauty compels us to possess it. We desire not just to see beauty, but to climb into it, to bathe in it. This remarkable quality of beauty, according to these luminaries, is the glory of God.
God, the beautiful. God, the relational. This is what we all felt that pub evening. Beauty itself called out to us, through the fire, wood, and stone. Holiness shot forth and into our soup, into our conversation, into our snowy walk home.
When I think of Jesus here on earth I imagine the bluebells reaching for him, the stars and Tom Quad gathering about him, the pub alive with sacred laughter. I think of the snowflakes dancing with him. Glory himself, walking among his forms. I imagine myself responding to him like the humble mare meeting Aslan for the first time in Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy. “Please,” she said, “you’re so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.”
I want my life and my home to shimmer with the pub-beauty. I want them to whisper to my friends, “Invitation.” Because beauty is not only about pleasing forms, it’s about that special hidden miraculous relational quality called Jesus.