Charles Williams from "Looking for the King" (I)

"Tom crossed the quad, following others through a large wooden door and into a narrow passageway that led to the Divinity School. Emerging from the dark corridor in to the lecture hall, Tom instantly changed his mind about the Bodleian. Entering the Divinity School room was like moving from darkness to light, from confinement to liberation, from all that weighs down the spirit to all that makes it soar. The whole room was suffused with an amber glow, the afternoon sun warming the cream-colored walls, which seemed to radiate a light all their own.

The whole interior commanded Tom to look up. The floor was unadorned flagstone covered with rows of wooden chairs. But the lofty arched windows with delicate tracery carried his eyes upward toward the ceiling, where he saw rows of ornately carved pendants, hanging like lanterns, each one radiating fan-shaped curves, like shafts of light chiseled in stone. The plain stone floor and the portable chairs, crouching humbly under that magnificent vaulted ceiling, seemed to suggest that all the richness and gladness of life comes not from the plane on which we live and walk but from higher planes of intellect, imagination, learning, and faith.

The chairs in the lecture hall began filling quickly, even as Tom was admiring the room. He had wondered what sort of audience a publisher's editor would attract, and he soon had his answer. He found a seat near the center, about five rows back, before every seat was taken as the clock neared three. There were a few men who looked like dons scattered around the room, but most of the listeners were about Tom's age, with more women in the crowd than he had seen in any one place since arriving at Oxford.

Precisely at three o'clock, Mr. Charles Williams stepped briskly to the lectern. He was a tall man in his fifties with wavy hair, wearing a black gown and gold-rimmed spectacles. Tom was not accustomed to lecturers wearing academic gowns, so his first sight of Williams made him think of a priest or wizard. Williams briefly surveyed his listeners and smiled. The furrows on his cheeks ran all the way down to his jaw, giving the impression that someone had placed his mouth in parentheses. Tom heard someone in the row behind him whisper the word ugly, but that was not quite accurate. There was a look of energetic intelligence in Williams' face, the owlish eyes and simian jaw giving a sense of endearing homeliness, not mere coarseness.

Williams set down his notes and hardly glanced at them again for the next hour. "Did any of you buy a newspaper this morning?" he began. There was a hint of Cockney in his voice, an accent that certainly wouldn't impress the person who had whispered the word ugly. Abandoning the lectern, Williams paced back and forth in front of the room, looking into individual faces for the answer to his question. Several nodded that they had, and Williams smiled to see his hypothesis confirmed. "You offered a coin and received a newspaper in return. A mutually satisfactory transaction. That is the life of the city. Exchange." Williams paced briskly back toward the lectern and continued: "And thus you took one step closer to the Holy Grail." Pausing to let this comment have its effect, Williams came out toward his listeners again and asked, "Did any of you hold a door open for someone today? Did you help someone who'd dropped an armful of books?" Seeing a few nods in the audience, Williams smiled again and continued: "Giving your effort, your labor, for someone else, perhaps a stranger—courtesy, yes. But also substitution. Another step in your quest for the Grail."

David C. Downing
Looking for the King (Chapter 3)
Ignatius Press 2010

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