I couldn't wait to go to Oxford. I wasn't just impatient; I was jumping-up-and-down, mapping-out-everything-I-wanted-to-see impatient. Many of my favorite writers and thinkers have come from this great university. I wanted to visit their haunts, see where they lived and taught, and literally walk in their footsteps, even if it was just for a day.
Despite my excitement, the things I had planned aren't what will stick with me. Yes, I ate a delicious stew at the Eagle and Child pub, where Tolkien and Lewis once met with the other Inklings. Yes, I wandered Addison's Walk, searching for deer under the fading trees. The most poignant event, however, was Evensong at Christ Church cathedral.
I've been to chapels and cathedrals before, even during services, but this was the first time I'd actually sat in on one. The BYU Study Abroad group had front-row seats saved, and we huddled in the pews together. Unfamiliar books sat on stands in front of us: a book of psalms, a collection of anthems, a navy-bound hymnal. A member of the choir passed around single sheets of the opening song. I didn't recognize the title, but then, I didn't get a copy either--there weren't enough to go around.
When the time came to sing, I had to look off a sheet that three other girls already shared. The text clumped together on one side of the page, the font too small and indistinct for me to make out. Instead, I read the accompaniment as well as I could, and I sang the alto line for five of the six verses. I don't think I sang it particularly well, of course. That's not what matters. I brought my own religious experience into the mix and embraced the strange hymn in a way that aligned with my faith.
At the time, I wondered why my church doesn't have anything like Evensong. Gathering together just to sing a hymn of praise and have a spiritual thought shouldn't be all that hard. (I feel like FHE and Ward Prayer try to approach this, but they tend to overreach and become boring.)
As Evensong went on, however, I understood. It didn't only involve the hymn, a prayer, and a thought. It involved four or five more long songs, mostly Psalms put to music: The congregation only rarely was invited to take part, and even when we were, I didn't know the songs and couldn't figure out which book to use. We also sat through two long lessons, one of which was about the patron saint of the day. I nestled in my pew, standing when everyone else stood, and felt like an outsider caught up in an archaic tradition. On one hand, I understand the value of Evensong in that archaic tradition. For a population of illiterates, the music and the sermons would be spiritual staples for teaching the gospel. But on Oxford campus near a chapel of learning, it felt wrong, like an overzealous and drawn-out FHE lesson.
Today, that leaves me pondering. Almost four hundred years ago, some of my ancestors left England on the Mayflower. I don't know if they had ever been to Oxford, let alone Christ Church (though with my family's historic propensity toward higher education, it wouldn't surprise me). Still, I suppose they had been to Evensong services before. Maybe they even held their own once they landed in America. I don't know. But I do know that they came seeking religious freedom. Without them, I wouldn't be a member of the Church because it might not exist. My ancestors came and created a place where religions could grow and develop. I can hold my own nightly Evensong with the hymns I know by heart and my beautiful, marked-up copy of the Book of Mormon--all because they left, they explored, and they survived.
Today, I'm thankful for my family: blood relation or not, past, present, or future.