Monday, October 29, 2012

Torn Between Two Worlds

Last week a tree in glory.  This morning all its upper branches have lost their leaves.  Most of the lower ones have turned rust and will hang on until the new leaves come in early summer.  Typical of red oaks.
Autumn is ending today with a bang.  Our mountain county is caught between two weather systems, hurricane from the east and blizzard from the west.  It looks like the blizzard has won, though maybe it is aided by the winds from Sandy.  It started about an hour ago with snow coming straight down mixed with rain.  Within twenty minutes it was big flakes of snow blowing almost horizontally from west to east.
Wednesday my kitchen calendar said, "Trees let go gracefully; can you?"
Friday from Neale D. Walsch the quote was "You cannot let go of anything if you cannot notice that you are holding it."
I hate to let go of summer.  And now autumn.  I wasn't quite ready for a winter blizzard.
(The calendar is from the sisters at MinistryOfTheArts.)

Friday, October 26, 2012

Bodleian Library

Less than a block up the street from where I was staying is this unique building, the Radcliffe Camera.  "Camera" is the Italian word for "room."  It  was built in 1749 and is now a reading room for the Bodleian Library next door.
The Bodleian, built in 1602, started with 2,000 books.  It now has some 11 million books and 100 miles of shelving, most of it in underground tunnels.  Every book copyrighted in England is deposited here, about 400 a week.  It is a reference library that is used by all of the colleges.  None of the books may be checked out.
Even with a tour guide we were not allowed to see much of the Bodleian Library.  Our tour guide talked so low that most of us could not hear her.  We were allowed in the Divinity School, a very large, beautiful room, on the ground level.  It was used as the infirmary in the Harry Potter films (the above Camera, by the way, was not named after Daniel Radcliffe who plays Harry Potter.)
To be in the presence of such an enormous number of books, even though most of them could not be seen, was an overwhelming experience for me.  I thought of what value we place on authors' ideas  that we would save their books and manuscripts for centuries.  Again my awe of the age of things.  It whetted my appetite for learning.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Oxford's Colleges

I was surprised to find that Oxford University is made up of 38 independent, self-governing colleges, where the teaching takes place.  The University teaches nothing.  It administers the exams.
This is Balliol College, directly across the street from where I stayed.  Most of the colleges look like this from the  streets.  When we went through the gates we saw the quadrangle which was usually a large square lawn surrounded by a walkway.  Each college has its own rooms, dining room, and chapel.
I was tickled to find out that I was living right across the street from the college where some authors studied who greatly influenced my Catholic faith.  Graham Greene's novels helped me to understand that God's grace could work in flawed human beings.  Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry thrills me with God's Grandeur.  Hilaire Belloc's essays were brilliant introductions to things Catholic when I was in college. Ronald Knox's translation of the New Testament gave me new insights into Jesus and his translation of the original manuscript of Therese of Lisieux's journal, with all her warts and blemishes, made her a model for my life.
Among some other favorite authors from Oxford that have influenced me are C.S. Lewis and Oscar Wilde who studied at Magdalene College; Tolkien at Merton College; and Evelyn Waugh at Hertford College.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Christ Church, Oxford

The first place I visited in England was Oxford.  This was a kind of pilgrimage to the place where some of my favorite authors were educated.  As soon as I got settled in my small hotel I went looking for the cathedral.  It is the only cathedral in the world that is also a college chapel.  Henry VIII, a law unto himself, made it so.
This is the gorgeous view that greeted me as I walked through Christ Church College gate.  The garden is a memorial to those who died in war.  In the opposite direction was a quiet meadow with a stream and some cattle grazing.  The dining hall was as grand as a cathedral.  It looked very familiar.  A copy of it was used as the dining hall of Hoggwarts in the Harry Potter movies.
The cathedral is handsome, with a very intricate ceiling.  The present building was constructed by Augustinian monks between 1150-1210.  So on my first day in England I am already experiencing  awe at the age of buildings.
William Penn (Pennsylvania,)  John Wesley (Methodism,) and Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll. Alice in Wonderland) went to Christ Church College.  The day I was there the small museum had a display of Salvador Dali's extraordinary illustrations for an edition of  "Alice in Wonderland."

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Deep Roots

In this picture I can see how the lintels fit across the standing stones and how the lintels fit into each by tongue and groove.  Sticking up behind the joined stones is another even taller stone with a carved protuding peg. The lintels in the picture are held securely in place by a hole in them that fits over that kind of peg.  The large standing stones weigh over 40 tons.  The smaller stones that can be seen past the large stones are about 7 feet high.  It is clear that carving, as well as moving, these stones required some skill that we don't usually associate with Stone Age human beings.
One of the turn-ons for me in England and other European countries I have visited is the age of buildings.  It is one source of the awe I feel as I contemplate Stonehenge.
This time in England is the first that I began thinking about the age of families.  I suppose it is possible that some people living in the Salisbury area today are descended from the people who built Stonehenge 5,000 years ago.  I have been impressed by the fact that my father's mother's family have been in this area since 1790.  While in England I began to imagine what it would be like to live in a town that your family had lived in since the coming of Christianity, or since Druid times, or since the time that Stonehenge was built.  The sense of owning the land would be very powerful.

Friday, October 19, 2012


My spiritual experience at Stonehenge was second only to my profound experience at Canterbury.   It was so simple to get to from Salisbury.  I walked over to the bus station, got on the bus, bought a ticket that included entry to the field, and arrived shortly in a parking area.  It seemed so prosaic that I began to think that it might not be a very intense experience.
I have been fascinated by Stonehenge since I first heard about it maybe 30 years ago.  Before leaving home I read a novel called "Stonehenge."   Bernard Cornwell, the author, had studied well the theories about how and why Stonehenge had been built.  He composed an interesting fiction around its building.  I'm convinced, along with most, that it was a temple to the Sun God.  It is a holy place.
In his book "The Experience of God," Raimon Panikkar points out that the sun is accepted universally, even by Catholics, as a symbol for Divinity.  The origin of the word God is Sanskrit, Dyau, which means "day."  It suggests brilliance, light.  Light gives life and makes it possible to see. 
I spent two hours, walking three times around the stone circle: first just taking pictures, then listening to the taped explanation, and finally simply finding God in the stones and in their arrangement.  I felt connected back through 5,000 years to the people, so unlike me, who were in such awe of the Sun that they went to physical extremes to bring the stones from a distance and get them into this arrangement.  This impulse to honor some Ultimate Power seems part of our human makeup.  I was quietly drawn into worship.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Servant Leadership

Mark 10:35-45 throws light for me on one of the Second Vatican Council's most important teachings.  Jesus tries to teach the disciples that leadership among his followers is not to be like that of the rulers they know, lording it over their subjects and making their authority felt.  He offers himself as the model of Christian leadership: not to be served but to serve.
The Council describes a servant church.  Both laity and clergy make up the People of God, a communion of believers.  The image is that of concentric circles with the Bishop of Rome in the center, encircled by the other bishops, and then the laity. 
In Mark's Gospel the disciples don't get it and not many centuries later we see church leaders "lording it over" the laity and "making their authority felt."  One speaker at the conference said that for about twenty years after the Council, Rome seemed to have got it.  Since that time, however, he described an even greater centralizing of authority in the Roman Curia.
Jesus says, "It must not be so among you.  Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant, whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all."

Monday, October 15, 2012

Vatican II at 50

I had been hoping for a way to observe the 50th Anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962.  So October 11-12, I went to Georgetown University in D.C. for a conference, "Vatican II After Fifty Years: Dialogue and Catholic Identity."  It was excellent.
There were six speakers who presented different aspects of the Council.  Threading through all was a common theme that because of the Vatican Council dialogue has become an essential part of Catholic identity.  Jesuit John O'Malley gave the opening talk, describing dialogue and tracing its development.  A few years ago I had read his book, "What Happened at Vatican II?" and found it extremely enlightening.
Massimo Faggioli, a young Italian layman, now living in the United States, gave the most fascinating talk, "The Battle Over Gaudium et Spes - Dialogue with the Modern World."  The Latin name of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World means "Joy and Hope."  The document shows a clear openness to the 20th century, to the dimensions of human culture opened up by advances in the historical, social, and psychological sciences.  He pointed out that there were some present who were not as open to the 20th century as the document was, but it was still accepted by more than 2,000 of the 2,500  bishops present.  He ended by saying that if we ignore Gaudium et Spes, we will have neither joy nor hope.
I found the conference hope-filled and energizing.
(The picture above is of the intricate ceiling of one of the rooms in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, one the the places I visited on my recent trip to England.)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


I drove yesterday with two friends along Stemple Ridge to enjoy autumn's colors spread over the most spectacular mountain views in our neck of the woods.  Every turn brings a scene more beautiful than the last, God's revelation deepening as we keep searching.
I discovered this ridge about ten years ago on my way back from one of my many sight-seeing trips into nearby West Virginia.  Driving up a narrow mountain road by myself I kept getting glimpses of mountains reaching into the distance.  When I got to the top, I took a left on another road to see if I could get a better view.  The scene in the picture above was the one I came upon, though that day was full summer, not fall.  When I turned and followed this ridge towards home, I found striking view after striking view.   Since this drive is so close to where I live, I was surprised that no one had ever told me about it.  I have since told many people about it and taken friends there to show it to them.
I kept forgetting the name until I realized that by dropping the "S" I would get the word for the house of God.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Holy Places

St. Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury in 597.  Two years earlier when Pope Gregory the Great sent him as a missionary to England he told Augustine, "Do not pull down the temples.  Destroy the idols; purify the temples with holy water, set relics there and let them become temples of the true God.  So the people will have no need to change their places of gathering."
When Augustine built his cathedral at Canterbury, it doesn't seem to have been the site of an earlier temple, but there are other churches in England and Ireland and in other parts of the world that are built on sites of pagan worship. That worship would have made the site a holy place.  "Holy" means set aside for God.  Or possibly the pagans themselves chose the site because they sensed a special other-worldly air about it.
Pope Gregory's advice reminds me that Catholic means finding God in many different ways and in many different places.
This picture was taken in the crypt of the cathedral.  It is the remains of an earlier Romanesque church upon which the present cathedral was built.  The sculpture that seems  to float in the air is made of nails and hangs over the spot where St. Thomas a Becket's body was originally enshrined before it was taken up in 1220 to the newly built Trinity Chapel.  (Clicking on the picture enlarges it and makes it possible to see the floating body.)

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Old Canterbury

The first cathedral built on this site was built in 597 by St. Augustine of Canterbury who had been sent by the pope as a missionary to England.  Several cathedrals have been built and rebuilt on this site since then.  Most of the present cathedral was finished in 1077
St. Thomas a Becket was murdered in his cathedral on December 29, 1170.  Almost immediately the site became a center of pilgrimage.  Already in 1184 Trinity Chapel was added to the cathedral behind the high altar to accomodate a shrine that held the body of St. Thomas.  The stained glass windows in the above picture were built at that time.  They depict miracles and stories associated with St. Thomas.  The shrine was destroyed by Henry VIII in 1538.  Fortunately these splendid windows were not.
These dates thrill me.  To be able to walk around in a 900 year old church and contemplate 800 year old stained glass windows, I'm sure added to the profound prayer experience that I described two entries ago.  Stained glass has always lifted my heart.  Living in a nation where "old" is 200 years inspires the awe I feel in a building as old as Canterbury Cathedral.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Canterbury Cathedral

In England I found myself resenting the fact that all these grand, old, cathedrals that were once Catholic were now Anglican.  It seemed to me that Catholics weren't noticed much.  When I went to the Tourist Information Office in Canterbury and asked the young lady where the Catholic church was, she was very taken aback and finally recovered enough to say, "I don't think there is one."  A man working the same desk came over and told me where it was, and added, "It's the only Catholic church in Canterbury."
I found myself in sympathy with the disciples in Mark's Gospel the Sunday I came home.  They want Jesus to stop a man who is healing in the name of Jesus, "because he does not follow with us."
I heard Jesus say to me, as well as to them, "Why would you want to stop them! Whoever is not against us is for us."  A good guide for working for Christian Unity.
In each of the Anglican churches that I visited, I was able to find a quiet corner where I could sit and pray.  Finding God in other churches and in the people of other denominations can bring us a long way toward unity.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Canterbury Pilgrimage


I went to England recently for two weeks.  My main goal was a religious pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral.  I was not disappointed.
The lighted candle in this picture marks the spot where a shrine containing St. Thomas a Becket's body stood for several centuries before Henry VIII destroyed it.  The picture looks down the main aisle of  Canterbury Cathedral towards the entrance. 
Not far from this spot in the 12th century Thomas, the archbishop, was murdered during vespers by four knights from King Henry II's court.  Almost immediately the cathedral became a very popular place of pilgrimage.  I was pleased to be a pilgrim among the 800 years of pilgrims who flocked here.
Near the lighted candle I found a quiet corner where I could sit and pray.  God drew me into some time of deep prayer.  Before leaving the cathedral I asked St.Thomas to pray for the healing of my many small infirmities.  I also prayed that I might know when to stand and when to fold, when to follow my conscience and speak truth to authority and when to let go of an issue and keep my peace.
The night before last I watched the old movie "Becket" with Richard Burton as the archbishop and Peter O'Toole as Kind Henry II, two powerful actors.  The movie extended my pilgrimage to Canterbury.