The ancient city of Oxford is a picturesque but cluttered little town of narrow cobblestoned streets lined with gothic stone buildings and souvenir shops. When I was there in September, just before the start of Michaelmas term, tourists were thick on the ground, hurrying from the Ashmolean Museum to the Bodleian Library, some waving wands on what were plainly Harry Potter walking tours. It is easy for the casual visitor to miss the real beauties of Oxford, which are mostly inside the walls, hidden like pearls in elaborate stone shells.
Happily for me, on my recent visit I stayed in Magdalen College, built as a Catholic college in the fifteenth century. I was on pilgrimage, prayerfully visiting places related to the Catholic history of England, and in Oxford we feasted on the works and sites of St. John Henry Newman. The flowered fields of Magdalen College, one of the university’s largest colleges, extend along a stretch of the Cherwell on which the punts go slowly by. On its meadows, bucks with giant antlers amble through the grass. An arched and ornately decorated cloister encloses one of Magdalen’s five vast, blooming quadrangles, and “chapel” is too homely a name for the sumptuous building where Evensong is sung daily.
While I was there, I tried to enter into the spirit of the place as it must have been experienced by St. John Henry Newman in 1842. He was then Oxford’s most influential intellectual, an Anglican priest, and a fellow of Oriel College. Far from the hustle and din of commerce and manufacturing, Oxford was a training ground in the art of thinking. The university sought to produce fine minds in morally healthy bodies, graduates who could follow the logic and rhetoric of argument, who could reason well, who could stretch out a hand for truth and even grasp it.
The peaceful and lovely colleges were built as proper settings for the life of the mind, their beauty conducive to contemplation and an elevated perspective. They were also set apart—from squalor and dirt, from Victorian poverty and the “madding crowd.” The cream of society taught and learned there, and the sermons and intellectual musings of giants like Newman were followed breathlessly by the general public in a way that we can’t conceive of today.
Oxford in 1842 was, in short, as high and elite a space as an intellectual could inhabit. It was also entirely closed to Catholics, whether student or professor. They were not admitted until 1871, and then by act of Parliament. In fact, admittance to the universities was the last act of legal relief for Catholics from brutal penal laws enacted under Elizabeth I, designed to rid England of any trace of “popery.” In the wider English society of Newman’s time, Catholics were generally considered idolaters, and suspected of giving their highest allegiance to the pope instead of the British sovereign.
It was in this climate that Newman, in his own restless search for truth, finally found himself unable to accept the Via Media, which he had long championed as a reasonable Anglican middle ground between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. It was while reading St. Augustine, he writes in his autobiographical Apologia, that, for him, “the theology of the Via Media was absolutely pulverized”—and, with it, his Anglicanism. There was nothing to do but the unthinkable: leave idyllic Oxford, and in that leaving, lose the fragrant meadow-walks at dawn, the esteem of the public, the prestige of his position, the affection of his friends, the regard of his family.
Newman withdrew to Littlemore, an impoverished village three miles from Oxford, to a modest converted stagecoach station with no expansive meadows or gothic chapels, and no wide space between his little prayer room and the bustling inn across the way. It was there he was received into the Catholic Church. From Littlemore one can see, in the distance, the spires of Oxford. How it must have made his heart ache to see them. He well knew that until his death, he would be in a kind of exile from all the comforts and habits of his pleasant and congenial former life. His conversion to Catholicism was nothing short of a personal cataclysm, a white martyrdom.
In my pilgrimage through England I was inspired by the lives of Catholic spiritual giants like St. Thomas More, a monument of integrity, and St. Edmund Campion, a tower of courage. I stood in awe and wondered, like all the faithful do when contemplating the lives of martyrs, if I could possibly stand the test of faith in similar extreme circumstances. But I was no less affected by the quiet renunciation of St. John Henry Newman and his retreat to Littlemore. Do I stand ready to quit the pretty places and comfortable settings of my life? Am I prepared to lose the esteem of others? We must hold the comforts of our lives lightly. And we certainly can’t let them hold us. We are meant to seek truth, and when we find it, follow it wherever it leads.
Grazie Pozo Christie is a senior fellow for The Catholic Association.
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