Monday, June 27, 2011

A Whirlwind Last Weekend

This past weekend was incredibly busy but also very fun!  On Friday afternoon when I returned to Oxford from my trip to Birmingham, I was greeted by Nathan and Robert, a friend who went to high school with both of us and who studies at Iona College in New York but is spending the summer working in Rome.  It was great to have him make the trip to Oxford to visit us for the weekend before we head home!  As soon as I got back, we went on a punting expedition so as not to deny Robert the quintessential Oxford experience.

My turn to punt!

Enjoying a beautiful afternoon on the river

Later in the afternoon, Blackfriars hosted its annual end-of-year garden party, which featured the traditional Oxford treats of Pimm's and strawberries.  It was a gorgeous afternoon to spend outdoors, and it was wonderful to see all of the other students from the hall as well as the friars and other tutors.

Blackfriars Garden Party

Me, Robert, and Nathan in the Blackfriars Gardens

After the garden party and a short respite for the Dominicans to celebrate Mass and say Vespers, we reconvened inside Blackfriars (it had started to rain - typical English weather) for the first (hopefully) annual Blackfriars Ball.  Blacktie balls are a big Oxford tradition, and most colleges and halls host a ball every year, but this was Blackfriars's first attempt, and it proved to be a great night!  We had dinner in the refectory and then enjoyed dessert and drinks in the aula (the main hall of Blackfriars) where we were treated to a live band!  A number of Blackfriars students worked extremely hard to put together a very enjoyable night.  It was the perfect way to end the term at Blackfriars!

A toast at the Blackfriars Ball
(Photo by Br. Lawrence Lew, O.P.)

PC Students and Alumni at the Ball
(Photo by Br. Lawrence Lew, O.P.)

On Saturday, Nathan, Robert, and I took off early in the morning for a day of exploring in London.  We took the bus from Oxford to London and then set off on our adventures!  We visited most of the normal famous sites, including Buckingham Palace, Westminster Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, the Hall of Parliament and Big Ben, and St. Paul's Cathedral. 

Nathan and me in front of Buckingham Palace

We also made a visit to the British Museum, where we only spent about an hour and a half but could easily have spent several days!  They have such a vast collection of art and archaeology - I even managed to see all the statues from the pediments of the Parthenon that I didn't get to see when I was in Athens earlier this year (during the eighteenth century, many ancient Greek statues and scultptures were removed by the British after Athens was in ruins as a result of the Ottoman wars).

A shot of the Parliament Building

We also visited the Globe Theatre, where many of William Shakespeare's plays were originally performed.  The theatre has since been renovated and is still used for performances.

Me and Nathan in front of the Globe Theatre

Robert, me, and Nathan overlooking
the Thames and St. Paul's Cathedral

After a very full day of exploring and much walking (you get to see so much more of the city when you walk rather than take the subway), we stopped at a local pub for fish & chips and headed back to Oxford for the night.

On Sunday, we went to Mass at the Oratory in the morning and made some delicious omelettes for brunch.  In the afternoon, we took part in the annual Oxford Corpus Christi procession.  Nathan and I were actually pressed into service by one of the organizers of the procession to carry banners, and I ended up leading the whole procession through the streets of Oxford!  It was an absolutely gorgeous day (it was actually quite hot by Oxford standards - I think it broke 80 degrees!) as we walked from the Oxford Oratory down St. Giles - one of the main roads in Oxford - to the chapel Blackfriars for a sermon and then on to the University's Catholic chaplaincy.  There were probably about 300 people taking part in the procession as we walked through the streets singing hymns (there was even a full brass band for accompaniment) and praying.  As the first person in the procession, it was amusing to see the looks of confused people on the streets as they saw a throng of 300 people with banners and candles marching down the street singing hymns!

Leading the Oxford Corpus Christi Procession

The Blessed Sacrament carried under the canopy

A shot of the procession as it passes through Oxford

There was even a bass brand to accompany the hymns! 

At the conclusion of the procession, there was a reception at the chaplaincy, where I was able to say farewell to many of the great friends that I had made at the chaplaincy and at the Oratory.  After that, Nathan, Robert, and I grabbed some ice cream to cool down and explored a bit in the gardens and meadows of Christ Church College and went to choral Evensong at Christ Church Cathedral (another Oxford experience we couldn't let Robert miss!).  Yesterday was also Robert's 21st birthday, so we celebrated with a delicious dinner at a local restaurant called the Mitre, which is located on the High Street, right in the center of the city.

After such a busy weekend, I'm exhausted, but there is still much packing and last minute errands to be done before taking off for home tomorrow!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Visit to Birmingham

My time in England may be almost finished, but I've been far from idle this week!  On Tuesday, the Oxford Oratory celebrated its patronal feast of St. Aloysius Gonazaga with a special Mass followed by a potluck dinner.  Later in the evening, I went to the final meeting of the Oxford Newman Society, where I got to say farewell to some of the friends I made there.  I was finally able to capture a decent picture of the beautiful room where we have our meetings and social gatherings there.

Newman Society Party

On Wednesday, I took the train from Oxford to Birmingham, about an hour's ride, to visit the Birmingham Oratory, which Cardinal Newman founded in 1852 and where he lived from that time until his death in 1890.  It's a marvelous baroque church with a very large but simple house where the Oratorian community lives.  My tutor, Fr. Guy Nicholls, who is one of the Oratorian priests in Birmingham, invited me to stay with their community for a few days so that I could spend some time learning about the Oratorian life which Cardinal Newman lived for almost 40 years.

My room at the Birmingham Oratory

A hand-written prayer by Cdl. Newman framed
and mounted on the wall in my room

The highlight of my visit to Birmingham - and one of the highlights of my entire fellowship - was being able to see Newman's private library, chapel, and quarters at the Birmingham Oratory.  These rooms are not open to the public at all, so it was a very great honor and privelege for me to be invited to visit them.

The house library, pictured below, is extraordinarily vast, with original volumes and documents dating back to the Reformation.  Almost half the books in the library belong to Cardinal Newman, and it was fascinating to page through these huge tomes and see marginal notes written in Newman's handwriting throughout them.  His collection featured mostly writings of the Church fathers, whom he loved a great deal, as well as other books dealing with philosophy, theology, and history.  It was fascinating to just explore so many old books with such an incredible history.

Newman's Library

Pictured below is the desk in Cardinal Newman's quarters where he wrote his famous Apologia Pro Vita Sua (for which this blog is named).  Newman wrote this 300-page work in just six weeks, working 18-22 hours a day.  It was written at this podium standing upright and illuminated only by candlelight!

Bl. John Henry Newman's desk

Newman's room has been preserved exactly as it was kept when Newman died in 1890 with absolutely no changes made.  There is still no electricity in the room, and the newspaper clippings that Newman had taped to his wall in 1890 are still there (albeit quite deteriorated).  It was quite amazing to see Cardinal Newman's room in the way it was when he lived there.  It gave me a real sense of connection to him not just as the object of my research and studying but also as a real person who lived a life not long ago and has left a great example of scholarship and holiness.

Another view of the Cardinal's room

After my tour of Cardinal Newman's room, I was invited to sign the guestbook on his desk, which showed me how special and unique this opportunity really was.  There were probably fewer than 200 signatures in the guestbook, and many of the other signers were quite well-known scholars and figures in the Church, the most famous of whom is pictured below me, during his visit to Newman's rooms in September.

Me in Newman's room

Pope Benedict XVI in Newman's room
(Photo by L'Osservatore Romano)

I also got to view Newman's private chapel, which is located in the same room as his desk and study area.  This part of his room was originally where Newman's bed was located, but when he was created a cardinal, he was required to have a private chapel in his quarters, so this portion of his room was built, and his bed was moved to the room next door.  Pictured above the altar is St. Francis de Sales, to whom Newman had a great devotion, as I came to learn recently.  It seems fitting then, that while I was in Fribourg a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to see some of the sites from St. Francis's life, since his life was such an inspiration to Newman.

Newman's private chapel

After viewing Newman's rooms, I joined the Oratorians for their daily evening prayers, which take place in a small, newly-consecrated shrine in the Oratory which is dedicated to Bl. John Henry Newman and features a number of his relics.  After prayers, we ate dinner, which was quite an interesting experience.  The Oratorians take their meal in silence while one of the brothers reads to them, first from the biography of St. Philip Neri, their founder, and later from some other book (right now, it's a history book about the Great Depression).

After dinner, I had my final tutorial, which was unqiue from my others because it took place as Fr. Nicholls and I went for a walk through a suburb of Birmingham and concluded at a local pub.  We had a great conversation about Newman and his understanding of moral formation of students, but it was nice to have it in a relaxed and informal manner.  At first, I was skeptical of the tutorial system of teaching, and I still have some reservations about it, but I have definitely come to see its value and how a student can gain a great deal from having such close interaction with an expert in the subject he is studying; that has certainly been the case for me.

The newly dedicated shrine to
Bl. John Henry Newman

On Thursday, I did a bit of exploring in Birmingham, which is not a particularly beautiful city and does not have many tourist attractions, but I did visit the University of Birmingham, which has a very nice campus right outside the heart of the city.  I found it quite interesting that the main quad of the university features an enormous clock tower, built in the Venetian style; it was a unique element that I had never seen in a university landscape before.  While I was at the university, I spent some time at the Barber Institute, which houses a very impressive collection of European art including some big names like Reubens, van Gogh, and Manet.

I also had the chance to meet with Prof. James Arthur, who is the dean of the education school at the University of Birmingham and has written several books on Catholic education, moral education, and Cardinal Newman.  He and I spoke for about an hour and a half about my research and Newman's thought on education.  Before arriving in Birmingham, I didn't even realize that Prof. Arthur was teaching there, so it was a great surprise when Fr. Nicholls told me that I would be meeting with him!

The clocktower at the
University of Birmingham

On Thursday evening, I attended Solemn High Mass at the Birmingham Oratory for the Feast of Corpus Christi (which is celebrated on a Thursday accoring to the older rite).  Fr. Nicholls celebrated the Mass and preached, so it was nice to see him in a context that wasn't simply academic.  The choir was fantastic, the liturgy was beautiful, and Mass was followed by a Eucharistic procession around the church.

Solemn High Mass for Corpus Christi at the Birmingham Oratory
(photo by Matthew Doyle)

A view of the Oratory church

On Friday morning, I took the train back to Oxford to begin what has been a very eventful weekend with our friend Robert coming to visit Nathan and me from Rome, where he has been working for the summer.  I'll be posting again within he next few days with pictures from the Blackfriars Ball, our whirldwind  tour of London, and the Oxford Corpus Christi procession.  Now, however, it is time for me to get packing and start saying my farewells to the wonderful people I've met during my time here.  It's amazing how quickly these six weeks have passed!

Fr. Guy Nicholls and me

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Of Punts and Pilgrimages

The past week has brought with it a number of opportunities for both exploring Oxford and doing some very interesting work on my research.  Last Tuesday, Jonathan, a friend I met through the Oxford Newman Society, invited me to formal hall at Oriel College in Oxford, which is the college where John Henry Newman served as a fellow and a tutor for several years.  Formal hall is a formal, three-course dinner, which takes place every night in the main dining hall at the college.

Dining Hall at Oriel College

After dinner, Jonathan, who is finishing his MBA at Oriel, gave me a great tour of Oriel.  I got to visit the chapel where Newman prayed and preached during his tenure at the college, the common room where he spent many evenings in conversation with his students, and I even got to catch a glimpse of the rooms where he lived (albeit from the outside because they are currently occupied by the chaplain of the college).  Oriel is filled with statues and portraits of its famous students and fellows, and it was fascinating to see so many familiar names and faces from Newman's diaries and letters placed throughout the college.

The window pictured below, which is located in the main dining hall, was Newman's favorite in all of Oriel.  When he was taking the examination to qualify for his fellowship at Oriel, he had something of a nervous breakdown.  When he looked up, however, he caught a glimpse of this window, which was donated by Pierreponte family, benefactors of the college, which reads Pie repone te (a play on the family name), which, translated literally, means place yourself piously (read: chill out).  It was a great comfort for Newman, who eventually received the fellowship, and he had a great fondness for the window and its message for the rest of his life.

Newman's favorite window in Oriel

On Wednesday, I was able to travel out to Burford, a small village in the Cotswalds about 40 minutes outside Oxford, to meet with Fr. Ian Ker.  Fr. Ker is widely regarded as the one of the main authority on all matters related to Newman.  He has published the definitive biography of Newman and produced critical editions of most of Newman's major works.  For such an accomplished and reputable scholar, he was a very down-to-earth priest, and we had a great conversation about my research.  He was able to point me to some sources that have been very helpful for my work, and he shared some of his own experiences in studying Newman over the years.  It was a fantastic opportunity, and I'm very grateful to have met him.

On Wednesday evening, the Anglican Ordinariate, which I've mentioned earlier, held its inaugual service of Solemn Evensong in the chapel at Blackfriars.  Because the Ordinariate was just established this year, they don't have a permanent church and they have been using the same liturgical rites as other Roman Catholics.  Evensong, which is a service of psalms, hymns, readings, and prayers from the English choral tradition, is a staple of the Anglican heritage, and it was very special for the Ordinariate to be able to celebrate this service as Catholics.  It was my first experience of Anglican-style Evensong, which was combined with the distinctly Catholic service of Benediction, and it was quite beautiful.  Afterwards, there was a reception at Blackfriars, and I was able to speak with some members of the Ordinariate to learn about their experiences of conversion from the Church of England to the Church of Rome.

Benediction following the Anglican
Ordinariate's Solemn Evensong at Blackfriars

Thursday and Friday were mostly library days since it was rather rainy in Oxford, but Saturday afforded some opportunities to explore.  Nathan and I spent some time browing through more of Oxford's many, many used and rare bookshops.  We also spent some time wandering through the Ashmolean Museum, which is Oxford's main art museum, featuring art from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome all the way through the Renaissance, and the contemporary period.  We spent most of our time looking through the medieval and Reinaissance art (the collection is far too vast to see it all in one visit).

The Ashmolean Museum

That afternoon, we went to visit Magdalen College, one of the largest and most famous colleges in Oxford, and was the college where C.S. Lewis was a tutor.  It has a number of gorgeous quadrangles and gardens, and some very beautiful architecture.  We also attended Evensong at the college chapel, which is often hailed as the best Evensong in all of Oxford, and we were not disappointed; their choir was fantastic!

One of the Magdalen College quads 

A view of Magdalen Tower

On Sunday, we spent a pleasant afternoon at Blackfriars for the annual JCR (junior common room - the student organization in the hall) photo.  After taking the photograph, we spent a while in the garden enjoying Pimm's and strawberries - traditional Oxford treats - as well as each other's company.  Blackfriars, because it is a "permanent private hall" rather than a college, has a very small student body - only about 40 studets in all, which makes for a unique community where students and friars all get to know each other quite well.  Having such a close community makes gatherings like Sunday's small garden party quite fun.

The 2010-2011 Blackfriars Hall Photo

Later in the afternoon, I had my first English punting experience!  A punt is a long, wooden boat, which is propelled down the Thames River by means of a long, metal pole, which is pushed against the bottom of the river - much like a gondola.  I was joined by Nathan, Emile, and Emile's friend Gregoire, who was visiting from Switzerland for the weekend.  We spent almost three hours on the river, which passes through the gardens of both Magdalen and Christ Church colleges, so it made for a beautiful ride.  Without a doubt, Emile was the best punter of the group, but I didn't fare too poorly for my first attempt!

A view of the river from our punt
Gregoire, Nathan, and Emile enjoying the afternoon

Me and Gregoire

The Trinity term at Oxford, which is the third and final term of the academic year, is starting to wind down, and yesterday, I attended the final lecture in the Mariology course that I've been auditing at Blackfriars.  The lecture series has been very interseting and has been taught by Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P., who is a very highly regarded English theologian, so it's been great to learn from him!

Yesterday, I was able to complete what I have termed my "Newman pilgrimage" in Oxford in which I sought to visit all the places where Newman spent time during his days in Oxford.  My last trip was to Trinity College, where Newman spent his undergraduate years.  It has a beautiful campus with some impressive ivy-covered buildings and very spacious gardens, and there is even a bust of Newman tucked away in a corner of the college grounds.  I also joined Emile and Gregoire for a visit to New College (the location of a great deal of Harry Potter filming) for some exploration and Evensong.

With the bust of Bl. John Henry Newman at Trinity College

It's hard to believe that my fellowship is rapidly approaching its conclusion with only one week left!  Nevertheless, I still have a bit of exploring and work to do before heading home.  From Wednesday until Friday of this week, I'll be traveling to Birmingham, where Newman lived the second half of his life after converting to Catholicism and becoming an Oratorian priest.  I'll be visiting the Birmingham Oratory, which Newman founded, and meeting with my tutor for our final tutorial there.  When I return to Oxford on Friday, we will be celebrating the end of the term with the annual Blackfriars Ball, and Nathan and I will be joined by our friend Robert, who is spending the summer working in Rome, for a visit during our final weekend!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Weekend in Switzerland

Greetings from Oxford once again!  I apologize for such a long break in between posts, but things have been quite busy for the past week!  I was fortunate to be able to spend last weekend in Fribourg, Switzerland with the Dominican friars who teach in the theology faculty at the University of Fribourg.  It was a fantastic experience, and I was really able to experience Swiss culture during my visit!

On Friday, I flew from London to Geneva, and then took a train from Geneva to Fribourg, during which I got to see some spectacular views of the mountains and of Lake Geneva - quite a change from the landscape of Oxford!  When I arrived at the train station in Fribourg, I was greeted by Fr. Dominic Legge, O.P., a Dominican friar who taught at Providence College during my first two years at PC and who was my professor for an independent study in Christology during my sophomore year.  Fr. Legge is currently in Fribourg writing his doctoral dissertation in theology at the University of Fribourg.  Fr. Legge brought me to the Albertinum, the Dominican priory in Fribourg, where I got settled in, and then we went out for a brief tour of the city.

The Albertinum

Fribourg is a quite old, with parts dating back to the thirteenth century.  The center of town, called the Basse-Ville is built in a valley and originally had strong fortifications and walls surrounding it, some of which are still standing.  The architecture in the city is absolutely fantastic - very Germanic and medieval-looking, with cobblestone streets, and plenty of beautiful religious art and statuary placed throughout the city.

The Basse-Ville

Walking around Fribourg is quite the source of exercise because the terrain is very hilly, and the city if full of enormous staircases - there is no need for a stair-master there!  The city is also located on the banks of the Sarine river, which runs through the Basse-Ville and serves as a main power source for the city.

The spire of the cathedral and a view of the river

On Saturday, I went to morning prayer with the friars in the Albertinum, and after that, I was introduced to Fr. Paul-Bernard Hodel, O.P., who is a professor of Church History at the University of Fribourg.  Before I was given the opportunity to study at Blackfriars this summer, I had been planning to work with Fr. Hodel in Fribourg, so it was a pleasure to meet him after we had spent a while corresponding.  He had planned quite the adventure for the day.  After being in Fribourg for less than twelve hours, Fr. Hodel, Fr. Legge, and I set off for France, which is actually right on the other side of Lake Geneva, about an hour's drive from Fribourg.  We made a stop in Evian (yes, the home of the bottled water; no, I didn't have any bottled water, although I did drink out of a fountain in the town square, which is probably dispensing the same water that everyone else is buying!).

Fr. Hodel then took us to Chateau des Allinges, which was one of the holdings of the Duke of Savoy and which dates back to the tenth century.  It was partially destroyed in battle, but its chapel remained intact.  During the Protestant Reformation, St. Francis de Sales lived in the chateau and traveled daily into the city below to preach.  Much of the chateau is still in ruins, although a newer building (17th or 18th century) has been built next to the chapel and serves as a residence for the Salesian community that lives there now.  Fr. Legge and Fr. Hodel celebrated Mass for me in the chapel there, which was where St. Francis de Sales celebrated his daily Mass when he lived at the chateau.  The chapel has a beautiful mural in the central apse, which is an original piece from the tenth century and is pretty well preserved.

Chapel of St. Francis de Sales

Chateau des Allinges

After Mass, we headed down toward Lake Geneva to a local restaurant right on the water, where Fr. Hodel, Fr. Legge, and I had lunch.  We had delicious, fresh perche, which had been caught in Lake Geneva, as well as authentic, French, French fries, and, of course, dessert.  It was a great meal with a beautiful view!

After lunch, we headed back to Switzerland for a visit to Chateau Chillon, a twelfth century castle located right on Lake Geneva, which had been a residence for the Counts of Savoy, and ws later used in the sixteenth century as a prison and arsenal for the Swiss.  It was great to explore the castle and learn a bit about Swiss history!

The Chateau Chillon in Switzerland

On Sunday morning, Fr. Legge and I took off after morning prayer to go to the Cistercian Monastery at Hauterive just outside Fribourg to celebrate Mass for Pentecost.  It was a beautiful liturgy celebrated by the Abbot of the monastery with a beautiful monastic schola which sang the Mass in traditional Cistercian chant.  It was very different from any Mass I had been to before, and even though it was celebrated in Latin and French, I was still able to follow along, and I was very happy that I was able to experience this type of monastic prayer which has been such an integral part of European Catholicism for centuries.  After Mass, one of the monks took Fr. Legge and me for a brief tour of the grounds of the monastery.  The monks still farm and raise cattle to support themselves, which is a tradition that many religious communities seem to have abandoned.

Chapel of Cistercian Monastery of
Hauterive in Fribourg

Fr. Legge and me on the monastery grounds

After Mass, we returned to the Albertinum for the main meal, which was quite a feast because it was Pentecost.  The main course was a delicious steak, cooked to a perfect medium-rare and very juicy and tender.  At one point during the meal, I turned to Fr. Legge and said, "This steak is delicious!"  He smiled and replied, "I'm glad you like it, but it isn't beef.  I'll tell you later."  As it turns out, it was horse!  Apparently, beef in Switzerland is not of the greatest quality (even though their dairy is top-notch), and horse meat is much cheaper, more readily available, and much better tasting.  I must confess, it was delicious!

After lunch, Fr. Legge and I took off for the German speaking region of Switzerland headed toward the Alps.  We stopped in a small village called Steckelberg, where we boarded a gondola which brought us almost a mile high into the mountains.  We hiked one of the mountain trails for a good part of the afternoon, catching some fantastic views, some close-up cow and goat encounters, and even getting to walk under a waterfall!  It was an absolutely fantastic experience.  At one point, when we were coming out a forested area and getting ready to turn around and head back down, we came across a solitary restaurant sitting in the middle of a wide-open field, so we stopped there and tried the local beer of the region before heading back down.

Passing under the waterfall

The restaurant we happened upon during our hike!
We met some of Switzerland's proudest citizens!

Me and Fr. Legge after our hike

Upon returning to Fribourg, I still had one last essential element of Swiss culture to experience - fondue!  Fr. Legge and Fr. Dominic Langevin, O.P., an American friar who is also studying at the University of Fribourg, made an authentic homemade fondue with local Gruy√®re made right in the canton (like a county) of Fribourg.  At the beginning, it was a bit odd to just be eating pieces of bread soaked in cheese, but it was actually quite delicious!  During the meal, I learned that the preparation of fondue is a very preicse and scientific process, so it was fascinating to observe the friars being so meticulous as they made it.

Fr. Legge prepares the fondue

Fr. Langevin and Fr. Legge enjoying dinner


On Monday morning, Fr. Legge and I went for another brief walking tour for a sort of pilgrimage to the churches of Fribourg.  Fribourg has several churches all within walking distance (at one point we came across five churches within a 300 yard radius!), which were historically associated with different religious orders.  They all date from different time periods, so some were very medieval looking, while others were quite baroque; it was very interesting to see the contrast in styles and to see the vestiges of the Catholic culture which once thrived in Fribourg (while there is no separation of church and state in Switzerland and the official state religion of Fribourg is Roman Catholicism, there are very few practicing Catholics in the city and the Catholic culture seems to have all but died out there - a very sad situation, indeed).

On Monday afternoon, I boarded my train from Fribourg to Geneva and caught a flight from Geneva back to London and arrived back in Oxford on Monday evening.  It was certainly a very busy weekend, and I got to see and experience a great deal!  I'm very thankful to Fr. Legge, Fr. Hodel, and the Dominicans in Fribourg who arranged such a wonderful visit for me.

Now, however, it's back to the books; I'll be posting again soon to share some of what I've been up to this week!