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.

Oxford Dawn

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.

Invitation.

***

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.

Oxford

 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.

Tim Willard / Posts / Blog
I coauthored the newly released Home Behind The Sun and the critically acclaimed Veneer. I am a PhD candidate at King’s College London and live in Oxford, England. I also serve as Spiritual Director for the Praxis Nonprofit Accelerator. When I'm not scratching poetry, chasing the scholar’s craft, or carving trails on my mountain bike, I enjoy making up faerie stories about the English countryside for my wife and three pixie daughters.
  • Ashley Hales
    http://www.circlingthestory.com/

    Tim, I spent a semester at Oxford (and then several years studying in Edinburgh), so it has a very special place in my heart. There was a lovely old poet woman that used to hang out and make cards in Christ Church Meadow. Thank you for this post and drawing attention to so many forms and kinds and substances of beauty. It’s been something I’ve been pondering a bit lately and trying to find words for it. Thank you for yours.

    March 20th, 2015 12:15
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    • Timothy Willard

      Ashley, I wonder if I could find the old poet card woman in Christ Church Meadow! I’ve lost count of the times I’ve walked that meadow. But each time I do I find renewal. I haven’t been up to Edinburgh yet, but plan to in Trinity term. I’m glad I could stir some of your thoughts. If you ever feel like sharing, drop me a line or post over on my FB page. Obviously I’m immersed in beauty right now, so any fuel for my research is welcome! 🙂 Cheers to you, Ashley! Tim.

      March 20th, 2015 12:20
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      • Ashley Hales
        http://www.circlingthestory.com/

        It IS a particularly renewing spot, especially the way the trees and light combine over water. By the way, the woman’s name was Zoe. She was very much like the old woman feeding the birds in Mary Poppins to me. Edinburgh is hands down my favorite worldwide city. I hope your visit will be at a good time so you’ll see it in its glory. May was always outstanding. I’ll definitely keep in touch.

        March 22nd, 2015 2:29
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  • Bill Voge

    Tim, I want to visit you at Oxford!

    March 20th, 2015 12:39
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  • Patty Page

    I’ve experienced this beauty before, but not often enough. I think I need to open my eyes more. I would love for my home to evoke that feeling in others.

    March 20th, 2015 17:28
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    • Timothy Willard

      I think we can all could use it/experience it more often, Patty. And, yes, that is the goal for my home as well! Invitation … that “used leather couch” feel to my entire home. 🙂

      March 20th, 2015 18:39
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  • Kris Camealy
    http://kriscamealy.com/

    Tim,
    as I sat in the quiet of last evening, reading this article, I found myself transported to Oxford–a place I have never visited but hope to, and I could see the beauty, the shapes, the faun-like young man under the umbrella…this piece is magical. Thank you for transporting me along to the streets of England, and for reminding me of the invitation that beauty offers us. I pray that I learn to extend this invitation well to my neighbors, in hopes that they would come to know the true Author of beauty.

    Thanks for pulling up a chair here, it’s a delight to sit at the table beside you. Cheers!

    March 20th, 2015 21:50
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  • Meredith Bernard

    Tim,
    You’ve painted a beautiful portrait of beauty through the eyes of the beholder…and the Creator. I was walking with you in a place I’ll probably never see in person, but I feel like I’ve been there nonetheless. And to think that my life should and even could be an open invitation to “the relational quality that is Jesus” is enough to make me smile and want to pursue just that. Loved this!

    March 21st, 2015 15:46
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