Tragically, the 2008 Oxbridge conference is concluded, and on Sunday I'll be back home in the pseudo-reality that is Los Angeles. It's been a wonderful two weeks though, and as usual the greatness and brevity of it leaves me longing for much much more. It is during conferences like this (and I'm sure most of you can relate) that I can most feel the divine discontent that C.S. Lewis and Chesterton and Augustine and many others articulate--the feeling that we are made for another world, that earth "is but a shadow of Heaven" as Milton writes in Paradise Lost.
The feeling comes, I think, mostly because of the people I meet and interact with, whether a bartender I befriended at the Lamb and Flag in Oxford or an 85 year old man taking his first vacation after the death of his wife. Who are these people in the crowd from all over the globe who I worship with? What are their stories? Their faces are so beautifully indeterminate. It is the great tragedy (and yet, perhaps it isn't a tragedy at all) of an event like this that I can only get to know some people, and then only briefly before it is time to say goodbye. These are fleeting yet profound connections, and yet--to be sure--they are only connections, not community. Community is more long-term, more involved, more real, or so it would seem. And yet at times this week I think I've glimpsed pure, holy community in ways that are far, far too rare in our daily lives.
Last night was the closing service of the Oxbridge conference, a gorgeous Eucharist service in St. Mary the Virgin church in downtown Cambridge. The 300 conferees gathered here and took the Lord's Supper, and what a symbol of community it was. Communion is about communing, after all, both with each other as the body of Christ and with Christ himself, and with the saints of bygone eras.
Speaking of that... You cannot help but feel the presence of long-dead saints, and poets, here in Cambridge. Two nights ago a bunch of us went punting at midnight down the Cam River, drifting past the ancient colleges (Trinity, St. John's, King's, Queen's, Clare, etc) shrouded in darkness where so many minds have been formed and souls saved over the centuries. It made me think: at a conference on the theme of "The Self and the Search for Meaning," I wonder if it is not crucial to our understanding of ourselves to have an understanding of history--of precedent, of examples set forth by those who've trod these paths before.
But it's also about my Self in relation to others here and now--the unlikely meanings that crystallize in the vaporous space between two souls in communication, the fleeting encounters on boats at midnight or bars at 1am. I don't know if I'll see them again, or if I'll even remember them (or them me), but I do know that to commune with another person in the transcendent sense that Buber and Lewis mean (as more than mere mortals or objectified "it"s...) is to experience something of the future life, the full communion of saints which will occur after the dead in Christ rise, the world is restored, and all is put to rights.
Here at the Oxbridge conference we like to sing Doxology anthems, particular the one that goes Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow... But the lesser known (in Protestant circles, at least) "Gloria Patri" is particularly apt for what I'm writing about here: a simple and yet declarative articulation of our communion in Christ, throughout time and space: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now, and always shall be, world without end. Amen.
Such words are an immense comfort at times like this.