So, I’m here in Scotland. It’s October. I weathered two weeks of quarantine, cold winds off the sea, drizzling rain and blazing gold sun, walks down cobbled streets and runs up green hills. I’ve sipped mochas and eaten scones with clotted cream in little coffee shops with classmates, read long texts about aesthetics and Dante and postsecularism and a menagerie of other things, and listened to lectures on Tolkien and metaphysics and Song of Songs that made the world seem like a spinning toy carousel on a roof in Paris.
I spent almost four years of my post-college life reading and studying, listening to and envying the beauty of others’ lives, of traveling writers and homeschooling mothers and brilliant academics. As I mentioned before, I want to be careful how I write about this year: it’s a grand adventure and glorious gift with a lot of hard work, stress, and small, dull, difficult tasks woven through it.
So here it is: a month’s worth of impressions of St. Andrews.
Cobbled streets and winding roads; stone houses with slanted roofs or beige or white stucco houses with red tiled roofs; gardens of yellow rose-of-sharon or white roses; little shops of books, tartan, snow globes, scarves, golf gear, coffee, and pastries. The castle and cathedral ruins look mystical in the morning and eerie at night.
It’s charming and quaint, but also pays the price of its age: scaffolding and any kind of equipment looks out of place here, anachronistic in its bright colors and shining plastic or steel. Water pressure is piddling; mold and mildew are known hazards; they’re terrified of fire (we have three fire doors in our flat and warning signs everywhere).
Steep hills of rolling green fields or plowed brown soil; pastures of black cows and white sheep; winding roads twined with blackberry plants, rose trees, and dead gray thistles; the blue sea calm and still or frothy with foam. One friend said she’s seen porpoises off the shore and rainbows on the horizon.
Fife itself is full of stone ruins and small fishing villages. I’ve only explored some of the Fife Pilgrim Trail so far, Crail, and Elie; small neighborhoods of stone houses, bright blue or red doors, ornamental wrought ironwork, gardens of orange roses and yellow begonias, and green hedges.
Many houses and farms have cute or regal names: Kenly Green, White Cottage, North Quarter Farmhouse.
In my few days visiting Oxford last May, I felt the brilliance of the students and faculty almost palpably in the streets, lectures, and museum exhibits: we are the elite. St. Andrews has equally brilliant minds, but it feels more hidden and remote, like a secret society of astronomers meeting at the top of the world. I’m more of an insider here as a student (I was just a tourist in Oxford), but my program is also less well-known and feels delightfully intimate.
In those soft spring days last year, Oxford was gold; St. Andrews is silver. Oxford felt like a smaller Gondor, dreaming spires at dusk; St. Andrews feels more like the Gray Havens, stone ruins at twilight. It has a special northernness, ruggedness, and loneliness from its brooding skies and wild sea.
I knew so little about theology and the arts, and our discoveries are breathtaking. We’ve studied Giotto’s Arena Chapel, Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio, the curio shop of religious kitsch and the wasteland/wonderland of postmodernism and postsecularism. We’ve really barely started, but here are a few curiosities I’m pondering as we read and discuss:
- How can we value beauty without idolizing it? Protestant suspicion of beauty and visual art is well-known, and I think it has valid reasons: it’s so easy to worship beauty as an idol, as Dorian Gray did. However, driving through the industrial meadowlands of New Jersey and remembering churches with moldy gray carpets and barren walls reminds me that beauty has spiritual significance: it revives the soul and glorifies our Creator-God.
- How do orthodoxy and artistic vision relate? In class, we’ve talked about the relationship between theology and art: are the arts 1) a mere illustration of theological truth, 2) a completely separate area of thought, or 3) an equally authoritative source of truth? I am passionately orthodox, and the idea that an artist’s work could translate spiritual truths just as well as divinely-inspired Scripture makes me nervous. However, viewing the study of theology/art as wandering around with a doctrinal checklist and making sure every charcoal sketch or one-act play matches every cant and creed seems unnecessarily harsh and legalistic.
- How can I glorify God with my art? I yearn to delve into the mystery of the incarnation, the wonders of creation, and the richness of divine love with storytelling and essay-writing – but a work written with a teaching purpose behind it can become a poorly-dressed scarecrow sermon or a cheesy, flimsy thing that’s embarrassing to call yours. We’ve talked about how just following a thread of inspiration and focusing on the craftsmanship of the work in itself can create something lovely and meaningful, but I need to figure out how to do that practically.
After years of longing for intellectual and artistic community, I’m joyfully overwhelmed by the opportunities here. Other scholar-artists/artist-scholars here have fascinating interests and talents – just listening to them makes me want to go write a great American novel in the murmuring woods or compose poetry under the stars. You may see some of their work here soon – I started a collaboration project for autumn themed “Thresholds” and featuring some artifact-sharing that I hope will create a feast of beauty.
God is good. Through the maze of visa applications, pandemic restrictions, phone plan issues, and banking mayhem, He has upended the storehouse of Heaven and showered blessing after blessing on my head. I hope this garden-haven plants rich, lovely things in my soul to harvest for the rest of my life.