Monday, August 20, 2012

Carpe Diem -- seize the day: the sunny days, the rainy days, the last glorious days in Oxford

On Friday I joined Beatriz on her trip to Burford.  While she had her tutorial, I walked over to the small neighboring village of Fulbrook, through fields dotted with cows and to the tune of crowing roosters.  Nestled among charming English cottages with their flower gardens is a Norman church.  It is incredible to be able to walk amidst so much history!

Saturday was spent writing up my last tutorial paper for Mr. Stephen Barrie.  It was on the theory of double effect, which is the ethical principle that a person is not responsible for the side effects of his action, but only those consequences which he directly causes. 
Dispersed among the paper writing were lovely chats with some of our Blackfriars friends, an essential part of what will be missed about the Blackfriars’ library.
Sunday we kept up the delightful routine of tea and coffee with friends after Mass at the Oratory followed by lunch at one of their favorite Asian noodle restaurants.  Maximizing our time conversing with the lovely people we met!

On Monday Fr. Richard Conrad planned a countryside walk to view the wall paintings in different medieval churches.  One of the students at Blackfriars studies religious artwork, and his tutor came along to act as a tour guide.  We caught a bus out to the first little village, North Leigh, and stocked with rain coats and a picnic lunch, hit the country roads.  The wall paintings date from the 14th and 15th centuries, before flying buttresses came into vogue in church architecture.  Since the churches then had fewer stained glass windows and more wall space, the wall paintings were the usual way of decorating the church interior.  The scenes that we saw were of the Last Judgment (hence they are also called “Dooms”), with serpentine demons struggling up to swallow souls on one side while angels welcomed the saved into the heavenly Jerusalem on the other.  Our circuit covered St. Mary’s Church in North Leigh, the Church of St. James the Great at South Leigh, and Eynsham. 

Fr. Richard was our dauntless leader as we braved the incredibly squelchy, muddy paths through the woods and tramped through the soggy barley fields.  The signs were extremely scarce and far between, and we passed no one else adventurous enough (or would it be crazy enough?) to undertake a cross-country walk on this drizzling day.  I’m amazed at how Fr. Richard would examine his map to try to puzzle out which side of the group of trees up ahead we wanted to steer towards.  Despite the rain, we stopped for a picnic lunch which Fr. Richard most generously provided, complete with cheese, sausage rolls, apples, cakes, and Blackfriars labeled wine bottles. 

By the time we finished our seven mile loop, my pants were soaked past the knees from brushing past the wet barley stalks, and I don’t think my shoes will ever be quite the same again.  It never felt so luxurious to change into dry socks!

On Tuesday we journeyed via train through the English countryside to Highclere Castle (aka Downton Abbey, for those who are fans!).  It was hard to imagine that a family still occasionally lived in the house (apparently they use it for dinner parties).  I guess the notion of an aristocracy is especially foreign to American minds.  In the family photographs decorating the rooms, you could see various family members strolling, chatting, and posing with the Queen and Princess Diana.

That evening, Brother Oliver invited us to a farewell ‘Dinner with Dominicans.’  We have been so privileged to be able to study and participate in the various activities at Blackfriars.  All of the friars and student brothers were so welcoming, and it was lovely to be able to celebrate with one last meal with them at their long dining table in the refectory. 

Wednesday, the Fourth of July, was an interesting combination of American holiday and last day in England.  Beatriz and I went to Burford, a quintessential English country village, and had one last afternoon tea. 

Beatriz decorating the flag cake

Back in Oxford, we gathered at a friend’s house to celebrate Independence Day with our American friends.  Our British friends were there as well, of course, although I think they would dispute the ‘celebration’ part; several eyes were rolled during the playing of patriotic American tunes, and the host insisted on hanging the Union Jack prominently on the living room wall.  All teasing confrontations aside, it was the best way to spend our last evening in Oxford that we could have dreamed of.  Who would have thought that we would have met so many wonderful, generous, hospitable people over our six week stay!  What a blessing! 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

London and Beaconsfield

On Wednesday morning, we caught a bus to London, where flags were beginning to be arranged in preparation for the Olympics.  We saw Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, and then paid a visit to Westminster Abbey.  The nave was beautiful, lined with chairs marked with the crests of the different aristocratic households, and ending with intricately carved arches that let in a golden light. The Poets’ Corner housed the graves of many prominent English authors, including Chaucer, Samuel Johnson, Tennyson, Dickens and Kipling.

Next we stopped by Westminster Cathedral which has striking mosaics in the side chapels. 

We took a quick peek into the Brompton Oratory, the Oratorians church in London.  It was quite spectacular!
To complete our tour of London’s Churches, we dashed off in search of St. Dominic’s Priory.  It took us a while to hunt down – it’s quite off the beaten track, down a side street of old apartments.  It was definitely worth the trek, though!  There was a beautiful side chapel dedicated to each mystery of the Rosary.
Fr. Richard Conrad had most graciously (especially at such late notice) arranged for us to stay the night with the Dominican sisters in Ealing.  Taking the train there, we passed rows of English city houses.  They made me think of C.S. Lewis’ Magicians Nephew, with the connected attics. 
The sisters kindly welcomed us into their home, heating up some dinner at chatting with us around the kitchen table.  There were four sisters living at the house at the moment.  Unfortunately, the state of religious vocations in England is suffering.  The congregation these Dominican sisters belong to has a scarcity of young vocations, and with so many aging sisters in need of nursing care, they will have to close their London house next year.  Hearing this, we realized how extremely fortunate we were to be able to visit them when we did and to witness their inspiring hospitality (as just one example out of the many small ways they showed their welcome, they had placed vases of freshly cut flowers in both of our rooms). 

In the morning, we awoke to the sounds of a sister’s singing.  We joined them in their simple breakfast, while Sr. Tamsin Geach (daughter of Elizabeth Anscombe!) regaled us with tales of her childhood and adolescence. 

Going back to the center of London, we visited the Church of St. Ethelreda, which was the first cathedral in London to be restored to the Catholics after the Reformation.

Next we visited the National Gallery, which has an amazing collection of paintings of artistic gems.  We especially enjoyed the medieval and Renaissance paintings. 

Next stop: Beaconsfield, home to G.K. Chesterton in his later life, after he left the bustle of London.  It was a small town, but rather spread out, so it took some searching to find Chesterton’s gravestone.  His house was quite charming (from the outside; now it is in private ownership, so we didn’t get to see the indoors).  Note the slightly largish doorways.

As the bus from London drove back into Oxford, it almost felt like coming home, seeing the familiar streets after the hubbub of the big city.

Bath, Bikes, and Picnic Baskets

June 21st was the feast of St. Aloysius, the patron saint of youth and the namesake of the Oratory.  The Oratory held a Solemn Mass to mark the occasion, with a parish dinner afterwards (with picnic food, but given the English weather it was in the parish hall). 

Beatriz with friends at the parish "picnic"

The next day, Beatriz and I ventured off to Bath.  The medieval cathedral was quite impressive.  On its ornate front, groups of angels climbed up and down a pair of ladders, often in rather comical positions.  After lunch, we paid a visit to the Roman baths, where warm water still flows into a greenish pool.  We also drank a bit of the Bath waters.  Dickens mentions them in his Pickwick Papers, and I think his character describes them well:
“I thought they were particularly unpleasant. I thought they’d a very strong flavour o’ warm flat irons.”
Rather nasty.
One of the most stunning things about the city of Bath was seeing the Roman and medieval architecture juxtaposed.

On Saturday, the morning dawned looking sunny (or at least only partly cloudy, which counts as fine weather in England!) and I dragged Beatriz over to the bike rental shop.  As we waited for our bikes to be checked, ominous clouds began to close in.  Hoping for the best, we set off down a jolting trail along the Oxford Canal.  Small houseboats lined the banks, with pots of flowers and herbs on their roofs.  On the other side of the narrow trail were fields with cows grazing.  Just as we reached Wolvercote, it started to downpour.  We waited for the rain to finish its fury in a tiny Chinese take-out place (note for future travels: not Beatriz’s dining choice of preference!). 
Once it was slightly more safe to venture out, we headed through the town to the ruins of the Godstow Abbey.  Supposedly Henry II imprisoned Rosamond there.  Only remains of the front of the chapel and of the outer walls are still standing.  Personally, I think the threatening clouds gave a neat atmosphere for traipsing around a 12th century monastery.  On the bumpy bike ride back, we stopped to feed a flock of ducks and a pair of swans.  One of the swans in particular was intimidatingly aggressive, plodding after us with its huge webbed feet. 

In the evening, we attended the Jubilate Concert at Blackfriars, which was centered around British music, from Handel to English madrigals. 
After Mass on Sunday, we went with a group of friends to a neighboring restaurant for tea and coffee.  Someone suggested a picnic, we divided up the supplies list, and all went our separate ways to our contributions and then to meet at the gate of Christ Church.  Walking through the meadows for a bit, we found a perfect picnic spot along the banks of the Thames, and feasted on a smorgasbord of bread, cheese, sausage, grapes, strawberries, and raspberries. 

After leisurely chatting for a while, and still wanting to enjoy as much of the lovely sunshine as possible, we ambled off along the river towards the village of Iffley to see the 12th century church there.  On our way back along the river, we happened to pass one of the locks as a boat was passing through.  It was interesting to watch the dams opening to raise the boat to the new water level.

On Monday afternoon we attended walked past Magdalen College to the South Parks.  The view of the city skyline was quite spectacular! 

The Monday Aquinas group switched topics that evening, since Fr. Peter, the Aquinas expert, was away.  Instead, Dr. Rowland lectured on the Theology of the Body.  This week he talked about the two accounts of Creation in Genesis and what we learn about human nature from man’s state of original solitude.
Tuesday morning I had a tutorial with Dr. David Jones on the relationship between theology and bioethics.  We discussed how much of a role theology should, or has to, play in bioethics.  Should a Christian bioethicist only use arguments based on natural law?  Are there some instances when faith provides the most practical guide to bioethical principles?  It was interesting to hear how he contrasted America and Britain.  In the US, separation of church and state is a standard assumed position.  Yet in England, ecclesiastical and political roles overlap more. 
In the afternoon, we visited Christ Church chapel and hall, as well as the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. 

For dinner, we went to the Eagle and Child, enjoying both the photos of the Inklings on the walls, and the fish and chips!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Trinity Term Festivities

Since we arrived in Oxford four weeks ago, we’ve often passed students wearing “subfusc” biking to their examinations, their gowns flapping in the breeze, and a peppy carnation tucked into their buttonhole (white for the freshers, pink for second year, and red for the final exams).  But this week the academic term comes to a close, and with it comes a slew of garden parties and end-of-term balls. 

The festivities began for us last Tuesday, when Stefany Wragg, a 2010 PC Alumna, invited the Oxford-PC students to hall at St. Cross College.  The theme of this week’s dinner was Wimbledon Picnic Hall, complete with provencal tarts and strawberries and cream.  Students from the hall wore their academic gowns, and the master led the dinner, starting with grace in Latin and knocking on the table to announce each course of the meal.  It was great to have a small PC reunion in Oxford, sharing memories about favorite professors and changes around campus.  People often comment about the strong sense of community at PC, but who would have guessed that it would extend across the pond!

Tiffany Donohue, Meredith White, me, Tom Reilly, Stefany Wragg, Beatriz
On Wednesday afternoon, after a tutorial with Fr. John on virtue ethics, I wandered across the Magdalen Bridge to South Parks.  The green expanse of meadows dotted with trees is a peaceful break from the streets of the city.  Climb to the top of the hill, turn to face the city and a panoramic view of the Oxford skyline unfolds before your eyes.  School children in their uniforms enjoyed their recess break, picnickers lounged on their blankets leisurely basking in the warm sunshine, and I sat reading and trying to identify the various spires that pierced above the roofs of the city below.

Oriel College

As the sky grew overcast, not wanting to be caught in a downpour in the middle of the meadows, I relocated to the quad of Oriel College.  It felt quite appropriate to be reading Bl. John Henry Newman’s novel Loss and Gain at the college he attended!

Wednesday evening, the Aquinas Reading Group had their end-of-term garden party.  It was lovely to get to chat with the others students and friars, and amazing to think how many good friends we’ve met in only a few weeks!
On Thursday we attended our last lectures: one in moral theology on the family, and one on Aquinas. 

The next day, Blackfriars held its end of term festivities, beginning with a garden party behind the chapel.  Friendly conversation bubbled as people sipped Pimms (it has a unique, distinctive taste, but I suppose it could be described as an alcoholic cross between fruit punch and ice tea, with orange and cucumber slices floating in it – the British love their cucumbers!) and savored the fresh strawberries and cream.  The celebrations continued after Mass with the Blackfriars Ball: first dinner at the long refectory table, then live music and dancing in the aula.  It was entertaining to see Fr. Peter and Br. Haavar dance in their long habits!

Beatriz, Shaun, Genevieve, me, and Elizabeth in the
Magdalen dining hall.
On Saturday morning, Elizabeth invited us to Magdalen college for breakfast and morning prayer.  The dining hall is gorgeous!  Long tables with candlesticks, wooden paneled walls, stained glass windows – hardly your typical breakfast setting.  Elizabeth told us that they had a several formal dinners there, and I expected that meant a few a term – but no, formal dinner is served there three times a week.  What a life!  Genevieve led morning prayer in the beautiful chapel, which houses a copy of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” the one that is used when renovations are being made to the original.  On our way out, Elizabeth showed us the house above the water mill where she lives.  Apparently some of the undergraduate rooms have two-stories!  Now with an attic room overlooking the deer park, Elizabeth says there is a lovely feeling of being in the country, outside the bustle of the city.
The house in the background is where Elizabeth lives.

Saturday evening we attended a “Shakespeare in Love” concert at Hereford College, which included music by Vaughan Williams and from West Side Story.

On Sunday we went to Vespers and Benediction in Latin at the Oratory.  The organ music was sublime!
The Anscombe Bioethics Centre hosted a conference on Human Dignity and Healthcare on Monday, and we were able to volunteer and attend some of the lectures.  Some of the issues that were discussed were the distinctions between inherent, attributed, and incandescent (the speaker coined this term: dignity having to do with flourishing to the fullness of the human potential) dignity.  Inherent dignity, the dignity a person has simply by existence, is the most fundamental and the basis for the other two types of dignity.  Another topic mentioned was the relationship between dignity and dependence; man has a fundamental dignity, but also a fundamental dependence.  In contrast to the Greek notion of “magnanimity” where a man would be generous to others, but would refuse to receive help himself, the Christian perspective sees a value in the virtue of humility, and blesses the poor and helpless.  Christianity acknowledges man’s basic need to receive help from others in a somewhat passive sense, in addition to respecting him as a free, active moral agent.
It was sunny on Tuesday, so Beatriz and I went out planning to buy a quick picnic lunch.  As we were walking down the street, though, we came across Heinrich, who introduced us to his friend Xavier and generously invited us to join them for lunch at Balliol.  Aren’t these spontaneous adventures always the best?  Balliol is one of the oldest colleges in Oxford, founded in 1263, and the dining hall is magnificent: again, the long tables, and paneled walls, with portraits of the masters and an organ and choir loft at one end.  Heinrich and Xavier’s conversation, one so extremely German and the other so quintessentially French, was hilarious! 
As they headed off to their physics lab, Beatriz and I ventured over to the Carfax Tower, the clock-tower at the end of Cornmarket Street.  Climbing to the top, we had an amazing view of the city, with the Cotswolds unfolding in the distance.

On Wednesday, Oxford held its Encaenia ceremony, where the honorary degrees are awarded.  We got a small peek at the procession, complete with academic regalia.  One man (I’m not sure his position, but it must have been important) had a long robe, and a little boy followed behind him carrying his train. 
In the evening, Bernhardt invited us over to dinner at his house.  It was so kind and generous of him!  There are so many incredible people at Blackfriars, and it’s rather amazing to think what wonderful friends we’ve made in such a short time.  We’ve truly been blessed to be so welcomed into the heart of the community here!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Corpus Christi Weekend: Tea and Laughter

               Amid all the exciting outings and wonderful people we’ve met, it would be difficult to narrow it down to a favorite day.  Yet this past weekend just might take the cake for the loveliest that we’ve spent in England yet.  Where to begin?  I suppose our weekend’s adventures started Friday afternoon.  We had signed up to go punting and really wanted to make sure we fit it in before the term ended (because when we sign up with the JCR, Junior Common Room, we can use the boats for free), but the weather didn’t look like it was going to cooperate.  Peering through the library windows, we tried to guess whether the rain was coming or going, and finally decided to venture out and take our chances.  As it turns out, perhaps it was good that it was such a bleak and damp afternoon, because that meant only the geese were there to chuckle at our antics as our punt turned and lunged in all imaginable, unwieldy directions.  Punting sounds so graceful: elegantly poling one’s way down the river with a picnic lunch on a nice sunny day.  Such was not us.  The sixteen foot long aluminum pole is rather more difficult to maneuver than it looks.  Especially when it’s slippery, wet, and cold.  And when you are bouncing from bank to bank of the river, running into every possible obstacle and having to duck under tree branches (still holding onto the 16 ft. pole, mind you).  Even if not the most refined punting ride, it was quite the entertaining one, and we disembarked damp, but with many a good laugh.

In the evening, we went to New College for Evensong.  The chapel was gorgeous and the polyphony was beautiful.
House where Shakespeare was born

Holy Trinity Church,
where Shakespeare was baptized and buried
    Saturday morning, bright and early, we strolled down to the train station to embark for our Stratford-Upon-Avon adventure.  The country side slipped by, with its vibrant green meadows criss-crossed with darker green hedges, and soon we were in Stratford, touring the house where Shakespeare was born.  We also visited his daughter’s house, the site where they are excavating the house he bought when he returned from London at the end of his life, and Holy Trinity Church, where he and his family are buried.  It was incredible to think that we were strolling the streets that he would have when growing up, and also that so many other great literary figures had previously visited the same place with the same purpose as we had, to visit the home of one of the greatest geniuses of the English language.  (Charles Dickens, for example, was instrumental in working to have the buildings preserved for the public.) On our way to Anne Hathaway’s cottage, we walked through some fields and residential areas, passing gardens with bright strawberries and children playing in wellies.  The thatched-roof cottage with its colorful flower bed in front was quite charming. 
                After having a scrumptious cream tea, we headed over the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre.  Their performance of Richard III was phenomenal!  Richard is such a conniving, malicious, perverted character, and the actor did an incredible job portraying him.  There is this one scene towards the beginning where he is wooing Lady Anne (whose husband and father-in-law he has killed).  Reading the play, it seemed hard to believe: how could it be possible for her to be in the least sympathetic towards him?  But the actors were really able to capture the full range of emotions and make the story come alive.  And the small band of instrumentalists above the stage most definitely added to the drama.
                Since the performance ended later in the night, there were no more buses or trains going back to Oxford that day, so we ended up spending the night in a youth hostel – an unexpected adventure (neither Beatriz and I had stayed at a hostel before).  But it worked well; after a full day of traveling, falling asleep was easy, and we got to be roommates again for the night!
                The bus ride back to Oxford on Sunday morning took us through numerous small country villages, where the houses were all still centered around the church steeple, piercing the sky above the gentle folds of the pasture lands.  We made it back in perfect time to go to the Latin Mass at the Oratory.  The singing was gorgeous and the homily was beautiful: it was about how, like in the Corpus Christi procession, we are called to be monstrances bringing Christ to the world.  After Mass, Bernhardt, Sean, Aaron and Heinrich invited us to join them for lunch.  It was a treat to follow the “locals” to a favorite eating place, and even more so to enjoy their friendly company.
                The Corpus Christi procession was wonderful!  It began at the Oratory, stopped at Blackfriars for a sermon by the Bishop, and finished at the University Chaplaincy with Benediction.  Fr. Daniel led the praying of the Rosary through a megaphone, and a small band played the hymns with us, which was quite helpful in keeping the crowd (of probably around 200 people) in time!  As we processed through the streets of Oxford, passersby with puzzled looks stopped to watch and take pictures. 
                After the procession, Genevieve invited us to an afternoon tea party at the Rowlands.  They are the personification of generous hosts!  Mr. Rowland, whom we had not even met before, went out of his way to pick us up at the Chaplaincy.  Mrs. Rowland was at the door, welcoming us into their charming English home.  As we stepped inside the cozy, low-ceilinged dining room, people were gathered around the kitchen table with a very generous teapot, plates of sandwiches, tiered dishes with cupcakes, scones, and biscuits, bowls of fruit, carrot cake, and a multitude of tea cups – I’ve never seen so many in one house.  Genevieve and Theresa cheerfully bustling about the kitchen, bringing forth a seemingly endless supply of daintily prepared, tasty morsels to accompany the jolly conversations.  It was beyond lovely!  Before we left, we took a quick peek at Theresa’s pristine rose garden, the fragrant blossoms flourishing next to wizened apple trees.
                All the memories of this idyllic weekend – what treasures!