Sometime in the late sixteenth century a new legend was adopted for the arms of the University of Oxford: Dominus illuminatio mea
. These days one finds the motto not only on weathered stones and centuries-old wax seals, but on souvenir bookmarks, coffee mugs, and sweatshirts. In Broad Street’s gift shops, tourists from the world around buy such trinkets to commemorate their visit to a magnificent university. I admit occasionally handing over pound sterling notes, in sums I’d rather not tally, to purchase these academic talismans.
The motto, translated “the Lord is my light,” expresses commitments conducive to learning, for bound up with it are intellectual and moral qualities such as attention, humility, and gratitude. For us to be aware of the objects of our study is one thing, but to be aware of the light by which we see the objects of our study requires attention of a deeper sort. Acknowledging our need for illumination beyond ourselves—indeed our need for nothing less than the Lord’s light—calls for humility. The motto also, in a commendably hopeful spirit, intimates that divine illumination offers fair prospect of finding what we seek; prayerful gratitude is a natural next step. In all these regards, Oxford’s motto resonates well with St. Augustine’s insight: “The mind needs to be enlightened by light from outside itself, so that it can participate in truth.”
Casual travelers on souvenir-buying binges doubtless fail to reflect on the attention, humility, and gratitude implied by the motto. Even cultured visitors, perhaps even biblically schooled visitors, may not recognize it as the Latin incipit of Psalm 27. This is regrettable, for context makes a difference.
The pleasant opening words of Psalm 27 give way to a spirit of faithful vulnerability:
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? . . . When evil-doers assail me to eat up my flesh, my adversaries and foes, it is they who stumble and fall. . . . For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me in. . . . Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”
For the psalmist, “the Lord is my light” is a declaration made in the face of darkness, a confrontation of the despair doled out by the violent and unjust. It is a reminder of the Lord’s faithfulness in contrast to others’ caprice, even those with whom we share the bonds of kinship. Believing Dominus illuminatio mea
strengthens the psalmist so he can wait courageously for deliverance, notwithstanding the evil that abounds. From this perspective, “the Lord is my light” is about the furthest possible thing from a t-shirt slogan.
We have something to learn from Oxford’s bowdlerized motto. It’s commercially licensed for a profitable tourist trade, proudly emblazoned on merchandise as a smart-sounding incantation, yet shorn of a context within which it might mean something particular and possibly lifechanging for the holidaymakers who encounter it. This is unfortunate, for in fretting over dire problems, the psalmist takes honest and realistic stock of the world. In beginning and ending with unflagging trust in the Lord, the psalmist is equally honest and realistic, and in a way that constructively shapes his bearing, understanding, and action in a fallen, violent world. In contrast to cheap trade in Latin-laden baseball caps, keyrings, and snow globes, reading a centuries-old Oxonian motto in light of the millennia-old psalm from which it is drawn reclaims hard-won wisdom of incomparable value. Dominus illuminatio mea
Here are other items for the good of our community:
• I want to extend an open invitation for you to contact Autumn Henneke
and schedule a one-on-one meeting with me to visit informally about any topic of your choice. My favored place for friendly discussion is Common Grounds, where pleasant weather and outdoor seating make conversation over a cup of coffee possible, but I’m happy to meet you in other places as you wish. I’m interested in hearing anything you want to share about your reading, scholarship, teaching, or hopes for the HC.
• With the fall census date behind us and firm enrollment figures in view, thanksgiving and rejoicing are called for. The University has set an all-time record number of first-year students, at 3,731. Overall undergraduate retention is similarly strong, at 92.5%, with first-year retention at 90.7%. I haven’t yet reviewed HC-specific figures, but I’m confident they’re very positive and I’m eager to explore them. In coming weeks, I look forward to extending back-slapping praise to the many colleagues whose diligence and grit helped work an improbable feat amidst a global pandemic.
• U.S. News & World Report
’s 2021 rankings have been released. This year, Baylor has risen three spots to No. 76 among national universities. Additional information, including related recognitions, is available in the University’s media release here
. Please give special attention to the high stature of our undergraduate research/creative work (No. 28) and undergraduate teaching excellence (No. 31), areas of special emphasis and consistently high performance within the Honors College.
• Tenured faculty who wish to apply for promotion this year
(decisions effective for 2021-22) should notify their chair in writing by September 30
as outlined in BU-PP 702
, where further deadlines are provided. In view of new policy and procedure documents forthcoming from the University, tenured faculty who wish to apply for promotion next year
(decisions effective for 2022-23) should notify their chair in writing by February 15
and submit their credentials portfolio by April 1. (Next year’s promotion reviews will largely take place in Fall 2021, but application and submission deadlines are set in the spring to allow a longer timeframe for securing external review letters.)
• Congratulations to Julia Hejduk
, associate dean and professor of classics, on her new book, The God of Rome: Jupiter in Augustan Poetry
(Oxford University Press, 2020). Examining poetic depictions of Jupiter during a seminal period in the Roman world, and treating Virgil, Horace, Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid, the book sets Jupiter in his fully Roman literary, social, and religious context. For a book that “bristles with insightful interpretations” and “offers an accessible but richly nuanced treatment of Jupiter,” as others have lauded it, know how proud we are of you, Julie.
All the best,
Douglas V. Henry | Dean
Honors College | Baylor University
baylor.edu/honorscollege | 254.710.7689