Each year, the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts’s Center for Faith and Culture, based in Oxford, England, hosts the three week “Catholic Culture of the British Isles Programme.” This program enables Thomas More College students to conduct graduate level work examining the history, literature, and spirituality of Catholic Britain from its flowering in the late Middle Ages through the period of destruction and persecution, and into its refulgence in the modern age.
Recent Thomas More College graduate Aja Cowhig reflects upon her journey in the words below:
Flying over the Atlantic Ocean on the night of Wednesday, July 29, 2011, I reflect upon the wise advice of Joe Rudolph who participated in Thomas More College’s Oxford Program last summer. He said, “Let the spiritual, academic, and cultural aspects of the journey bleed together. Make this trip a pilgrimage”. Joe’s words call to mind the hope Pope Benedict expressed earlier this year, namely, that summer travels be
profitable [occasions] for cultural contacts, for prolonged moments of prayer and of contemplation in contact with nature or in monasteries and religious structures. . . Those who experience this spiritual repose know how useful it is not to reduce vacations to mere relaxation and amusement.
These rather profound reflections are quickly interrupted by Mary Monaghan, a dear friend, who occupies the seat next to me on the plane. The eight hour flight passes quickly with conversation, laughter, a few sketches of snoozing plane passengers, and even the composition of a poem to describe the amusing spectacle. Friday finds us reading aloud G.K. Chesterton’s work, The Ballad of the White Horse, in a pub the author no doubt visited himself. That same evening, we listen to distinguished scholars discuss the work. Only a couple days later, we journeyed into the countryside to see the White Horse—a three thousand year old figure of a horse, 374 feet long, drawn into the hillside with a white chalky soil.
Chesterton’s ballad was published in 1911 and was meant to be a kind of epic for the English people. King Alfred, the central and Christ-like hero, is loosely based on the historical figure. Chesterton, however, found legend more useful than history for his purpose of reminding the English people of their Christian heritage. In the beginning of the ballad, King Alfred is a defeated king who must gather together men and unite them in a fight against the pagan Danes. Until the last minute it seems a hopeless cause, but in the end his army rises up over their enemies and is victorious. It is a victory of civilization over barbarism, of Christianity over paganism, of good over evil. The victory is celebrated, and in a sense immortalized, by the restoring of the image of the White Horse which some have said symbolizes the soul of England.
Directly after finishing the ballad, we cross St. Giles Street to St. Bennett’s Hall for the conference. You may be surprised at just how exciting crossing a busy street is when the cars are on the opposite side as you expect. A panel of English, Canadian, and American scholars discuss the work as Dale Alquist, the popular American Chestertonian, chuckles away and squirms in his seat next to us. He is clearly itching to contribute to the conversation about his favorite author. As a recent graduate, I was thrilled by the little taste of academia. Some lovers of learning are able to continue studying for the entirety of their lives. They read, write, and discuss with even greater fervor than the undergraduate who has just glimpsed a glimmer of the glory of learning.
On Sunday, we board a bus along with our peers and several students from Seton Hall University in New Jersey. While driving from place to place, Dr. Brian Sudlow gives a history lecture and he begins, “The title of this lecture is From Christians to Secularist: a Thousand Years of English History, but please remember this is walking history.” In other words, as we learn about the White Horse we are looking at it, as we learn about the famous Cathedral of Worcester we are standing within it, as we learn about the sad ruins of the Cathedral of Saint James, we are touching the old and broken stones. The history suddenly takes on flesh and blood.
It is only a few days since we have arrived in Oxford, and already we have been introduced to a new work of literature, we have heard distinguished academics discuss it, and we have seen for ourselves the famous image central to the work, namely, the White Horse. This is only the beginning of what is evidently going to be an academically and culturally enriching experience.
On Wednesday, July 6, 2011, Professor Caldecott guides us to Littlemore, the once home of Blessed John Henry Newman. It is a short journey from Oxford and the route actually follows some of Newman’s daily walk. Littlemore is now a convent, but the nuns kindly allow us to look at Newman’s simple bedroom and the assortment of his belongings they have collected. Knowing that Newman attended Oxford himself and is well on his way to being canonized, it is a truly moving experience for us to tangibly encounter his memory.
Blessed John Henry Newman was born in 1801 into a Protestant family. He went to Oriel College at only seventeen, became an Anglican priest in 1825, and was always very active in the religious and academic worlds. Consequently, his conversion to Roman Catholicism did not go unnoticed. It was October 8, 1845 and a very stormy English night when Father Dominic Barbery arrived at Littlemore. He was an Italian Passionist priest who is also now blessed. Father Barbery had visited Oxford before to preach in the streets, however, he had only been jeered at and mocked because of his poor English.
Father Barbery entered the room at Littlemore and, drenched from the rain, moved to the fire to warm himself. When Newman entered the room, he joined Father Barbery at the fire, fell to his knees, and begged the priest to hear his confession and bring him into the Roman Catholic Church. The following day, Father Barbery did hear Newman’s confession and afterward he celebrated Mass. He used as an altar the very table on which Newman had written On the Development of Christian Doctrine, the writing that pulled him out of the Anglican Church.
As Professor Caldecott tells this striking story to the pilgrims, they are standing beside the table itself. Clearly, the influence of great men like Blessed John Henry Newman, and so many others educated at Oxford, does not cease at the time of death.
After perusing around the room filled with many things connected to the life of Newman, we walk around the small English garden, and depart. There is the distinct sense that Newman has become a great deal more real to us and a much closer acquaintance. Again, history has taken on flesh.
Early Thursday morning, July 11, 2011, we begin our journey to London. First on the schedule is a tour of the Victoria and Albert Museum, more commonly known as the V & A, followed by a special tour of the Tower of Londonwith a focus on Saint Thomas More, and finally a visit to Westminster Abbey for evensong. As is the usual case when visiting a major city, the day begins with traffic, but it is not too long before we arrive and enter into the hustle and bustle of London.
The V & A is a wonderful museum and needs to be visited many times before one can possibly appreciate all the treasures held there. Clare Hornsby, an art historian and friend of Mr. Caldecott, gives us a tour of a collection having to do with Christian England. Many of the items were preserved by Catholics in the sixteenth century when King Henry VIII was looting the monasteries. Before the king’s men got to a monastery to steal and destroy the precious chalices, candlesticks, holy books, and so on, pious local people would take whatever they could and hide it to keep it safe.
The collection is fascinating because it shows the Christianity of England and at the same time is reflective of England’s pagan roots as well. For example, on beautiful gold candlesticks made for the altar there are numerous mythical creatures, such as dragon heads, all wrapped around from top to bottom as decoration. Having just barely scratched the surface of the museum, it is already time to leave. One day in London is not going to be enough time.
It is early afternoon when we arrive at the infamous Tower of London, which looks rather less intimidating than one might expect. We enter the room in which Saint Thomas More was once imprisoned and try to imagine him there facing death at the hands of King Henry VIII, who was not only his king, but his friend. The tour guide tells us the familiar story of the saint and then leads us to the saint’s crypt. Ironically, after having just told the story of a man who died rather than deny the teachings of the Catholic Church, the guide cheerfully tells us about his son who was married in the royal chapel just above the crypt, in the same chapel all his grandchildren were baptized, and his daughter will soon be married there as well.
The chapel is, of course, Anglican and happens to be the home of Anne Boleyn’s grave. Naturally, we are thrilled by the delight the tour guide takes in his family. Yet, we cannot but wonder how a man can be so familiar and even sympathetic with the life of St. Thomas More and, at the same time, be an Anglican and raise his family in the Anglican Church. Three weeks of studying and two weeks in the country has taught us that England, its history and people, is like a great puzzle.
The day is wound down with evensong at Westminster Abbey. It is a proper end, especially since the Abbey was once a Benedictine Abbey and it is the feast of Saint Benedict. The structure is magnificent; the music is lovely. Everything about the experience is clearly designed to lift the soul upwards, and it does. On the one hand, the service is undoubtedly giving praise and glory to God; on the other hand, the beautiful building feels like an empty shell, rather than a church, because it does not house the Blessed Sacrament for which it was made.
A day in a London is too little, and perhaps two weeks in England is too little. It is enough, however, to plant a desire in the pilgrims to learn more about the remote little island with such a persevering people and such a dramatic and puzzling history. By following that desire, that is, by delving more deeply into the story of England, we will certainly learn a great deal about the many facets of human nature.