There is a sophistication to the people here, a simple, straight-forward intentionality to everything they do. It seems naive to categorize an entire city of people this way, but I have yet to meet anyone here who was unwilling to engage with me in heartfelt, genuine conversation.
Two nights ago I sat in a little cafe in the Summertown area of Oxford, peering at my cell phone, because I was there alone, exhausted, and simply needing a respite from a hard day of travel.
From a corner table a couple of students (Eva and Henry I later learned) called out to me, asking if I was bored. “A bit,” I replied. “And very tired.” From there, the students engaged me in a beautiful conversation of travel, literature, the history of the color blue (we were in Oxford after all) and sadly, a very quick conversation about politics in the U.S.
And yes, I know how extremely pretentious the above paragraph sounds. I cringe even as I type this. A middle-class white guy, sitting in an Oxford cafe, discussing literature and the ebbs and flows of politics, how wonderful for me.
Through the course of our conversation I learned that both of them were transplants from Eastern Europe, “children of the revolution” they proudly called themselves. In talking, I deduced that both were atheists, but Eva told me that she held a very special place in her heart for one of the Saints of Oxford. She went on to tell me the story of St. Frideswide. Being the small-town Southern Baptist kid that I am, I was unfamiliar with her story.
Frideswide was a young girl of Oxford who was being forced into a marriage, by her father, to marry a young nobleman. Fride had intentions of serving God as a nun, and had no desire to marry. Her father insisted and was to force the union. Fride fled to the wilderness to live in isolation, a life she was ready to accept, alone with her creator, until such time that she felt she could return. Her father, stricken by grief and compelled to find his daughter, sent the man she was to marry out to find her. Their, deep in the English countryside, the two came face-to-face.
Upon learning her suitor’s identity (they had not previously even seen each other face-to-face), Fride prayed for God’s protection and mercy against a forced marriage. And there, in the quiet of the woods, among the trees, God struck the nobleman blind, rendering him unfit to marry (as the story goes).
Frideswide had not intended, nor anticipated, such a harsh course of action from God and was overcome with compassion for her fiancé as he stumbled off, deep into the forest. Frideswide ran to him and cried out for mercy on his behalf. The writings say that a light, like a bolt from heaven, struck the nobleman and his sight was restored.
In telling me this story, Eva was overcome, even moved to tears at the compassion of Frideswide. She paused while telling me the story, obviously emotional. It was a quiet, powerful moment there in the little cafe. “I don’t know why she did it,” Eva broke in. “It doesn’t really make sense, you know? It’s such a beautiful thing, compassion.” tears welling up behind her cool, vintage glasses. She quickly moved the conversation on to something else, but I will never forget her beautiful retelling of the story. It was a beautiful and quiet moment there in that cafe as I saw the imprint that true, Christ-centered compassion left on the heart of Eva.
As a reformed Protestant, I’ve never understood the need, or even the purpose, behind holding the saints in such high regard. But that evening, it was the work of a saint that spoke to the heart of this girl. God’s compassion shined into the darkest recesses of Eva’s unbelieving heart through the acts of Frideswide.
I stood the next morning in Christ Church Cathedral in the light of Frideswide’s stained glass window, where many scholars believe she is buried. It was surreal standing in its glow, with the morning sun pouring through to the stone floor.
I thank God for Eva, for her retelling of Frideswide’s story, and for her sensitive spirit. May God, in his mercy, continue to pursue her.