Wednesday, June 29, 2016


A year ago today Alison and I were jumping on a plane bound for Europe. It was long hoped for but unexpected - it was only thanks to the wedding of a friend and the generosity of our family that we were able to go. We had three delightful weeks taking in culture and seeing friends in London, Oxford, Paris, Rome, and Florence. We even had our own hashtag: #MoffittGrandTour. For me especially, on my first European trip, and as a long time Anglophile, there was something special about being in England - gazing at St Paul's Cathedral (this hope for the resurrection which rises out of the midst of the city); drinking cider in the evening in Kensington Gardens as the fading summer light ran through the long grass; wandering through Christ Church Meadow, glistening green after a downpour. The smell of the roses, the taste of the raspberries, the 35° summer heat had never felt so good. Nor had the rabbits, the foxes, or the deer felt more in their place. - there was an allure about being in the home of my ancestors. 

It felt almost decadent to be experiencing so much beauty.

That is the allure of travel. Travel provides us with stories to tell, and experiences to gather. And yet, isn't it more than that? Are our overseas trips really just about curating the perfect Instagram collection? 

The Romantic in me makes me want to say that travel is part of our search for something more. We travel around finding the extraordinary in the most ordinary of things, and beauty in the sublime. It is this quest, this syndrome of Romanticism, which underwrites our devouring of travel. The contemporary British author Ali Smith, reflecting on a period of many overseas journeys, speaks about this search like this:
Also, the gallery had a very lovely café/restaurant; there was leek soup the day I went, very nice, and even its toilets are works of art, with little plaques outside them like paintings have next to them for their title/artist information.
But pretty much the whole time I was there, I was still trying to get elsewhere.
Amidst all the beauty and wonder that Smith saw in places like Naples and Rotterdam, she was still searching for this place - this place she calls 'elsewhere'. Even when standing there in one place, she was looking for another place of perfect beauty and transcendence. She goes on to describe 'elsewhere':
Elsewhere there are no mobile phones.  Elsewhere sleep is deep and the mornings are wonderful.  Elsewhere art is endless, exhibitions are free and galleries are open twenty-four hours.  Elsewhere alcohol is a joke that everybody finds funny.  Elsewhere everybody is as welcoming as they’d be if you’d come home after a very long time away and they’d really missed you.  Elsewhere nobody stops you in the street and says, Are you a Catholic or a Protestant, and when you say neither, I’m a Muslim, then says yeah but are you a Catholic Muslim or a Protestant Muslim?  Elsewhere there are no religions.  Elsewhere there are no borders.  Elsewhere nobody is a refugee or an asylum seeker whose worth can be decided about by a government.  Elsewhere nobody is something to be decided about by anybody.  Elsewhere there are no preconceptions.  Elsewhere all wrongs are righted.  Elsewhere the supermarkets don’t own us.  Elsewhere we use our hands for cups and the rivers are clean and drinkable.  Elsewhere the words of the politicians are nourishing to the heart.  Elsewhere charlatans are known for their wisdom.  Elsewhere history has been kind.  Elsewhere nobody would ever say the words bring back the death penalty.  Elsewhere the graves of the dead are empty and their spirits fly above the cities in instinctual, shapeshifting formations that astound the eye.  Elsewhere poems cancel imprisonment.  Elsewhere we do time differently.Every time I travel, I head for it.  Every time I come home, I look for it.- Ali Smith, The Art of Elsewhere
It's ideal. It's transcendent. It's never discovered. It's never arrived at.

Smith is searching for a place where we can be at home - we are yearning for it. If Smith is correct, then our journeys overseas, our fascination with art, our love of things which point beyond mere immanence, are fueled by our innate desire for something more. 

The syndrome Smith diagnoses experientially has been recognized theologically for some time. One of the books which we appreciated the most on our travels last year was The Weight of Glory by C.S. Lewis. We engaged with so much beauty as we traveled, and Lewis helped us respond to this cultural wealth as worshipers, rather than consumers. He writes that:
"...our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.
And this brings me to the other sense of glory—glory as brightness, splendour, luminosity. We are to shine as the sun, we are to be given the Morning Star. I think I begin to see what it means. In one way, of course, God has given us the Morning Star already: you can go and enjoy the gift on many fine mornings if you get up early enough. What more, you may ask, do we want? Ah, but we want so much more— something the books on aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and the mythologies know all about it. We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves—that, though we cannot, yet these projections can, enjoy in themselves that beauty grace, and power of which Nature is the image. That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t. They tell us that “beauty born of murmuring sound” will pass into a human face; but it won’t. Or not yet. For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in."
Lewis captured for us the tragedy of fleetingly taking in the beauty of this building or that artwork or this landscape: we were viewing it for a moment, before moving on to leave it all behind. To witness such things and to be parted from them immediately was melancholic. But Lewis gave us the language to process this.  Our desires weren't wrong, but were designed to direct our hearts towards the God for whom they were made, and the future he has prepared for us in Christ when we shall be united to him, and the Holy Spirit has perfected the creation. 
I read Lewis as an answer to Smith. Her 'elsewhere' is real. We live in a world which is simultaneously a world made for us and a world which we feel estranged from. We are not at home in this world. But one day we shall be, when elsewhere is brought home, and the creation overflows with the abundance of God's perfect peace. We look, as the Creed puts it, for the life of the world to come, a life that is secured by righteousness himself making his home with us. This end of the world and the beginning of another enables us to live well now, as it gives us back our present. For we know that 'elsewhere' will not be found by ourselves, but only in Jesus Christ. 

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