Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark charmèd, rook racked, river-rounded;
The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country and town did
Once encounter in, here coped & poisèd powers…” —Duns Scotus’ Oxford
Only a master of words like Gerard Manley Hopkins could capture the gracefulness of Oxford. The town that is a university; the university that is composed of colleges going back to the Middle Ages—here long-lived historical tradition and academic prestige go hand in hand with the best that English culture has to offer.
For Catholic culture, too, the town has marked significance. For one thing, some of the greatest literary minds the Faith has known have studied and lived in the quads, libraries, and lecture halls of Oxford. J.R.R. Tolkien, Ronald Knox, Evelyn Waugh…the list goes on. The uniquely English contribution to Christian humanism found there makes it an ideal place to understand the role of the Catholic intellectual in the world today.
For the past few years, Thomas More College has been pleased to offer an Oxford Studies Program for students aspiring to graduate work. In cooperation with the Faith and Culture Institute, the College has provided a competitive-basis scholarship that allows students to participate in a two-week summer course of lectures and travel, engaging the inheritance of English Catholic literature, culture, and history in a concrete way.
Current senior Joshua Keatley shares his impressions of Oxford in the following words:
“The first thing that struck me about Oxford was the gargoyles. Of course, most of the impressions I came to England with were from literature. But the great thing about actually being there was that most of my impressions were true. The atmosphere of tradition and learning and that most British thing—class—were all there.
But to go back to the gargoyles. One of my professors, who had studied in Oxford, had told me and the five other Thomas More students in the program about some of the great things to look forward to. On the way from Heathrow Airport to Oxford, though, my excitement was nearly taken over by sleepiness. Then I saw them. Tucked away in the towers and Gothic spires of Magdalene College, the first College you see on your way into the town, were faces that contorted, squirmed, grinned impishly, and grimaced at you. Looking—and laughing—at these gargoyles, I couldn’t help thinking to myself: here’s the secret to understanding the British. Merry Old England—England before the turmoil of the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution and the Beatles—was still here.
This was the England I had read about, and this was the England that I had come to study. Now I’ll admit that my impressions were probably shaped by reading the Chronicles of Narnia and Brideshead Revisited too many times, but as the program went on, I realized that they weren’t unfounded. We did visit the White Horse at Uffington, the one G.K. Chesterton wrote about in his Ballad. We did go punting, read sonnets, and have tea on the Thames. We did go to Christ Church Cathedral for a Choral Evensong, and many other wonderfully British things. And the silent merriment of the gargoyles continued to appear.
What were the masons who built the medieval colleges thinking when they shaped such silly features into the walls? I’m not sure, but I know I saw them in other places than Oxford. For instance, when we took a day trip to London, we had the opportunity to attend a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest at the Globe Theater. Everything was traditionally done as it would have been in Shakespeare’s day. We stood in the courtyard like Elizabethan rustics, leaning our elbows on the curtain of the stage. The performance was great; the spectacle was splendid. Seeing Shakespeare in such a way made me realize that his plays embody the same worldview as his Catholic predecessors, even if thrown into the storm of changing times. The merriment of those medieval gargoyles was present in both the Bard’s often bawdy humor and his elevation of Christian virtues.
Another place that the gargoyles’ guffawing was found was when those in the program visited the Eagle and Child pub. This was one of the places where the Inklings, authors and storytellers such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield met to read and discuss a gamut of subjects—but especially to read their own poetry, talk ribaldry, and joke in Latin and Old Gothic over pints. The Inklings, of course, were continuing a tradition of Christian and Catholic letters which included such giants as Thomas More, G.K. Chesterton and John Henry Newman. Sitting in the Eagle Child over a pint of Black Beauty, I wondered about the spiritual foundation that inspired such great authors and my own place in it.
Visiting Oxford, and aided by the terrific lectures we were given, I found myself experiencing concretely the whole narrative of English cultural history, especially the role that Catholicism had—and continues to have—within it and that thing we call Western Civilization as a whole. At the end, I found myself not so much an observer of a distant past but a participant in the same story. The story of English Catholicism, both bad times and bright spots, are part of my own story.
What about the gargoyles, you may ask? They are, as I have come to believe, the silent witnesses of what G.K. Chesterton calls the “huge laughter of Christian men,” the fruit of Christian joy given expression in the concrete. Although the time came for me to leave Oxford behind—not a little wistfully—I couldn’t help but thinking that the Gospel passage had come true. “If they keep silent, the very stones shall cry out.”