Through the college’s Center for Faith and Culture, four Thomas More College students journeyed to Oxford, England this summer to study in the private library of Catholic apologist, poet, and novelist G.K. Chesterton.
Thomas More College students Anna Maria Mendell, Michael Lichens, Rebeka Lamb, and Joe Mazarella travelled to England to take a private two-week course entitled “Chesterton and His Age.” The course examined the lives and thoughts of Chesterton and other major English Catholic thinkers, such as John Henry Cardinal Newman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and J.R.R. Tolkien. The trip was made possible through the generosity of Rev. Ian J. Boyd, CSB, founder of The Chesterton Institute.
Leading the program were tutors Stratford and Leonie Caldecott, who jointly direct the College’s Center for Faith and Culture in Oxford. Stratford has published widely on all the topics of the course, and is the G.K. Chesterton Fellow at St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford. He is also editor of Thomas More College’s journal, Second Spring: An International Journal of Faith and Culture. Léonie has written on Cardinal Newman, and organized pilgrimages, tours, and summer schools in Europe for over a decade. She is the author of What Do Catholics Believe? (Granta, 2008).
The students were blessed (mostly) with good weather, which made the guided tours and excursions even more enjoyable. As much as possible, they studied these Catholic writers “on site,” exploring the places where they lived and worked in order to bring them alive in the imagination.
Thomas More College’s Artist-in-Residence David Clayton joined the tour to discuss Oxford’s remarkable architecture and museums. Léonie Caldecott offered seminars on Newman and Hopkins, and Rev. Richard Duffield of the Oxford Oratory led students on a Hopkins-themed tour of Oxford.
Students explored all the key sites associated with John Henry Cardinal Newman—visiting his two Oxford colleges, the University church where he preached as an Anglican, and the retreat center in Littlemore where he was received into the Catholic Church in 1845. To better appreciate the situation of Catholics in England during times of persecution, Léonie also took the group to the recusant house of Stonor, where St. Edmund Campion had hidden and set up a secret printing press, before his arrest and execution.
The group visited Tolkien’s grave in Wolvercote, saw one of his houses, and the pub where he and the other Inklings frequently met, and went on a delightful guided tour of The Kilns, C.S. Lewis’s house outside Oxford where the two friends would often meet. The students had an exciting and lively dinner with Walter Hooper, who knew both Tolkien and Lewis personally.
Chesterton, of course, loomed large in the course. Lectures were held mainly in the G.K. Chesterton Library where the College is the caretaker of a significant collection of books and memorabilia. The College is making Chesterton’s private library and belongings available for the first time to scholars and students who wish to conduct in-depth research into Chesterton’s life and writings. The library is maintained by the College’s Center for Faith and Culture in Oxford, England.
The students also visited Cotswold hills and read Chesterton’s great poem The Ballad of the White Horse on the side of the White Horse itself—a great chalk figure carved into the side of the Vale as early as 1000 BC, or (some say) by King Alfred the Great to celebrate his victory over the Danes in AD 871. They sat on nearby Dragon Hill (where St. George is reputed to have killed the dragon) looking out over the valley for a seminar on Catholic historiography with visiting historian Joseph Stuart.
The students’ reactions to this program were effusive. Said senior Michael Lichens: “The chance to study the greatest minds of the last 150 years was a dream come true in every sense of that overused phrase. As a convert I owe a great debt to Chesterton for literally saving my life, and all college Catholics look to Cardinal Newman as a source of learning and inspiration. So this journey felt much like a pilgrimage.”
Newly minted alumna Anna Maria was equally enthusiastic. She said, “Studying the thinkers of the Catholic Revival brought to the forefront the vibrant unity of Catholicism and the intellectual life in a way that was inspiring. As a recent college graduate, I know that what I learned and the memorable experiences I formed will help shape my pursuits in the future.”
Rebeka Lamb, another recent graduate of Thomas More College, is preparing to enter graduate school in the coming weeks. She said that her trip to Oxford “was an excellent academic and spiritual preparation for the Masters in English Literature that I am pursuing in the fall. The thinkers of the English Catholic revival strove to show how the Catholic imagination embraces all that is real and true about the world. I especially find Chesterton’s ability to look at the world with wonder, wisdom, and humor a source of inspiration and guidance. Oxford was an intellectual and spiritual opportunity to refine all of the body’s senses and the soul’s sensibilities.”
Based on the success of this pilot program, Thomas More College is now planning a full-scale course in 2009, which would be open to wider participation.