On a bright Sunday morning in early October, I walked the short distance from my quarters in Merton Street, Oxford, England, to nearby Magdalen College, whose famous square landmark tower had beckoned each time I looked out of my window.
Magdalen (pronounced “Maudlin”) College had so far been present to me only in my imagination. Years ago, I published some articles on the German Expressionist poet Ernst Stadler, who, prior to the First World War, had been a German Rhodes Scholar and student in the college.
Stadler, a native of Colmar in Alsace, was a bridge-builder who sought to bring European nations and cultures closer together.
Poet of the poor
Like other expressionists of his day, Stadler criticized the repressed and staid forms and spirit of Wilhelmine society. In breaking existing forms and conventions in his poetry, he opened himself up to a spirituality celebrating life in its fullness and appreciating human beings wherever they could be found, even among the neediest of society. As he expressed it in one of his poems:
Form and bolts had first to burst
World to pour from opened pipes …
Form is obvious hardness without mercy
Yet I am drawn to the blunted, to the poor
Stadler became a lecturer on literature in Université libre, the Free University of Brussels, but accepted an associate professorship at the University of Toronto for the fall term in 1914, which he never took up.
When the warring nations drafted their young men to fight each other, Stadler, a lieutenant in the reserves, felt obliged to return to Germany. He was quickly sent against contemporaries whom he had so far embraced and appreciated as friends and humans to be understood and valued.
Horrors of war
In his valuable war diary, Stadler records the human tragedy and brutality of war matter-of-factly and without enthusiasm. He shares no sympathy and no bravado for the Kaiser and the military aims of the German Empire.
As he entered France, Stadler recalled his excitement seven years before when he visited Paris. Greeting his beloved France once again, he was quickly brought back to reality by masses of human flesh, French and German, lying dead and covered with flies in nearby ditches.
After he observed these scenes of horror in early August 1914, his regiment was thrown into the bloody battle at Ypres, Belgium, at the end of October.
There, Stadler lost his own life when his body was torn to shreds by a grenade — a sad, ironic ending for a person who before the war had worked and lived for peace and mutual understanding.
Although a student and bachelor of letters at Magdalen, Stadler’s name was not entered into the stone tablet near the chapel’s entrance that lists those students who lost their lives in the two world wars. It was a Magdalen fellow and tutor in German, Richard Sheppard, who succeeded in placing a plate mentioning Stadler’s name next to those of his fellow students who fell in the war on the other side of the trenches.
This plaque now greets visitors as they enter Magdalen College Chapel, as I did recently.
The chapel has seen many changes over the years, but has preserved some of its traditions. On the morning that I visited, the priest celebrating the Eucharist and preaching was the dean of divinity, Rev. Dr. Michael Piret, who warmly welcomed new and returning students.
His sermon beckoned everyone, that mixed collection of people who, according to St. Augustine, represents the church this side of judgment. It was a broad invitation, to the committed believer and to the skeptic and agnostic. The latter, so the good doctor felt, even though incapable of prayer, should at least find some room for reflection in the chapel.
For me, the highlight of the service was the singing of the congregation and the 28 choristers, who spectacularly performed the Latin parts of the liturgy. As I sat in the choir section and listened to the sermon, I remembered that C.S. Lewis, the great modern Christian thinker, scholar and popular author, had been elected a fellow in English language and literature at Magdalen in 1925, and experienced there his conversion, first to a belief in God and then to a lived Christianity.
“You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night,” Lewis wrote in his autobiography, “Surprised by Joy,” “feeling whenever my mind lifted even for a second from work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.”
In the Trinity Term of 1929, Lewis “gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected convert in all of England.”
He then went to church, first only as an obligation.
“As soon as I became a theist,” Lewis wrote in his autobiography, “I started attending my parish church on Sundays and my college chapel on weekdays.”
In that very college chapel in which I was attending the Sung Eucharist, to my surprise, the dean mentioned Lewis’s conversion in his sermon. I could not but experience a shudder when he pointed to the third row on the left side, where I was sitting, just three seats away from where C.S. Lewis had once sat and pondered God’s invitation to become a “mere Christian.”
Hans J. Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.