Green deck chairs and small tables covered the outdoor area of The Orchard tea house in Grantchester, England, just outside of Cambridge. Small groups clustered under the shade of the many apple trees on this hot summer day. Our group pulled together fourteen chairs and several tables in a spot of shade. We were gathered for a mid-day break before driving back to Oxford from Cambridge.
The ground was uneven so the deck chairs wobbled. I didn’t know if I dare sit down. In line for cakes, scones, and tea I had the feeling of being in a cafeteria – pick up a tray, select the jams and clotted cream, reach for the scone, order the tea. Next. I made it back to the chairs and carefully sat down after first putting my tray on the table. Many in this group from the United States were wondering why in the world we would have hot tea on a day like this with the temperature in the high eighties.
Yet, once we all settled, a sense of peace also settled on the group. Aiden MacKay read Rupert Brooke’s poem, “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester,” recalling this small town from the distance of a trip to Berlin in 1912. Everyone listened, attuned to the connection Brooke had to this town where he lived after graduating from King’s College and before heading off to WWI. Though the war had not yet started when he penned these lines, they seem to foretell the emptiness that many towns realized when their sons did not return home.Say, is there Beauty yet to find? And Certainty? and Quiet kind? Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?
– The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, Rupert Brooke, 1912
To have tea, converse, gather with friends, maybe even change the world, the aptly named Grantchester Group gathered around Brooke and included Virginia Woolf, Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, and Bertrand Russell. The spirit of The Orchard continues as sign boards show pictures of this group and free booklets tell the story of their lives and the place. Even after Brooke’s death in WWI people continued to come to enjoy tea and be inspired. It is a place in which to rest and remember.
Even though many well-known figures have taken tea at this place, and could have been the topic of a myriad of conversations, our group was talking about a man who is not known to have stopped by – C. S. Lewis. We had just spent the late morning and early afternoon walking around Cambridge getting a feel for this other campus at which Lewis lectured. However, our conversation that afternoon was not about his time in Cambridge, but his interactions with people. His decades-long gathering of writers in the Inklings is rather well known. In a way like the Grantchester Group. However, we were not talking about that either.
Instead, the focus that afternoon was the wide variety of people with whom Lewis interacted outside of the campus. He received and responded to letters from children, clergy, women, family, friends, scholars and wrote more as an equal than an expert. who did not use his position of authority to assert his way. He took in war orphans during WWII. He anonymously gave away the majority of his royalties to those in need. In general he did not see his position as something to use, but as a way to serve – as when he tutored a junior colleague at Cambridge. In his sermon “The Weight of Glory” he emphasizes this attitude as he writes, “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.”
As the conversation continued under the trees of the Orchard, I began to understood my time on the C. S. Lewis Summer Seminar in a new light. It was not about following a man into magnificent places. Instead we were following C. S. Lewis into the mess of his life. Seeing the places where controversy remains about him and his writing. Reading his logical arguments for Christianity, yet also realizing where this logic may have broken down. Walking into places where he gathered with friends, but also learning how these friends weren’t always a cohesive group.
In this place where many have stopped to rest and remember, a new group was gathered around a man, though he was not there. We were humbly realizing that this man we may see as great did not see himself as such. He was an erring human like each of us, though he sought to see others as holy, images of God. In this realization I found “honey for tea” at The Orchard, though maybe not as others have tasted it.