I have been in England for the past week. It was a week of mixed emotions. I traveled with my older brother to visit our sister who is very ill with cancer. While there we also visited Oxford and I was able to share with my brother some of my favorite nooks and crannies of that beautiful city.
We drank beer at C.S.Lewis’ pub and walked out to St Margaret’s church in Binsey to see the healing well. We did a little Newman tour of the city too–visiting Oriel College where he was a fellow and touring St Mary’s–the university church where he was vicar. Oxford is one of the most glorious cities in Europe. With the fine old medieval colleges built from the golden limestone, the spires soaring and the quads peaceful and ancient. The city also reeks of privilege, wealth and the power of the establishment. This is the university from which Prime Ministers are graduated. It is the place of princes and presidents and the school of not only the intellectually gifted, but the sons and daughters of the aristocracy.
It is difficult to visit Oxford and not be enchanted by the history, the mystery, the magic and romance of the place. However, the greatest gift in my visit was to finally, at the end of the day travel with my brother out to the College at Littlemore. Littlemore is the village to which John Henry Newman retired. He resigned his fellowship at Oriel, resigned from being vicar of the university church and went with a few friends to live in a converted stable block in a humble village outside Oxford. There he was eventually received into the Catholic Church by the humble missionary priest Bl.Dominic Barberi.
You can stand in the place where Newman fell to his knees to ask Barberi to receive him into the church. You can visit Newman’s very simple and bare cell and the simple chapel where he was received into full communion with the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
No Catholic should visit Oxford without finally going to Littlemore. At Littlemore we see, in John Henry Newman’s decision, the response every Catholic should have to all the great glories of the world. Newman had it all. He was famous. He had earned the rewards of his hard work. He had the greatest accolades the world had to offer, and had he stayed in the Anglican Church he would no doubt, have added more to them. The Anglican Church is interwoven with the establishment of England in an inextricable way. It is what it says it is: the Church OF England–with the emphasis on “England” not on “the Church”.
For all its glories and greatness, for all its undoubted goodness, spirituality and Christian witness, the Church of England is at the end of the day a national church. Newman realized this and set out for something which was at once simpler and greater. He gave it all up and went to Littlemore.
What interests me is that Nemwan left it all and in the midst of the darkness he did not know what would come of his decision. Indeed, in worldly terms not much came of it. In the Catholic Church he met with failure, suspicion, isolation and seeming indifference. He labored away at his scholarship and all his plans and ambitions seemed to come to sand. But look what his great obedience has produced! A great harvest which continues to grow and prosper in the world. Had he remained an Anglican what would be the accomplishment now? I suspect not so much.
In my experience every convert to the Catholic faith goes to Littlemore. They go through a negation. They give up everything. They step out in faith and live according to the designs of Providence. To a greater or lesser extent they go through a time of conversion not only from one church to another, but a time of complete conversion “costing not less than everything.” A visit to Oxford and Littlemore becomes a micro-symbol of the whole process of conversion. Layer upon layer of meaning is piled up in the life of this saint, for Newman became a New Man as he went to Littlemore. There he discovered the great truth that Little is More.
This is the essence of conversion and my own visit to Oxford this week was therefore a profound and moving harvest of much that has been and much that will be. It was a bittersweet experience which took me into deeper levels of grace than I can here express: an experience of nostalgia for the past and anticipation for the future.
So today my prayer is:
For all that has been: “Thanks”.
For all that shall be: “Yes”.
Read my homily Newman at Littlemore