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In the Footsteps of Newman and Tolkien

With Magdalena Dajka, ‘20

Every year, Thomas More students have the opportunity to participate in the Second Spring Summer School, a program based in Oxford and dedicated to spreading understanding of English Catholic culture. Students spend two weeks living in the heart of Oxford, studying the life and thought of great English saints and writers from the Middle Ages to the present day, and visiting important Catholic cultural sites. 

This August, I was blessed to be one of the TMC students to participate in the Oxford Program. Those were a memorable two weeks indeed. I was delighted to be in the very place that nourished and inspired the men who have most formed my thought and imagination: to sit in the Inklings’ own corner at the Eagle and Child, to walk in Tolkien’s footsteps, to imagine Newman preaching in the pulpit of St. Mary the Virgin, to see the views that made Hopkins exclaim, “Towery city and branchy between towers; / Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmed, lark-charmed, rook racked, river-rounded.” In the still quiet streets lit by golden morning sunlight, in the stately colleges clothed in ivy and speckled with daisies, in the striking Stations of the Cross at Blackfriars, in the Bridge of Sighs dazzling my eye as I turned a corner, I soon learned to see the beauty of Oxford, Waugh’s “city of aquatint.”

The lectures (sweetened by regular breaks for tea and biscuits) helped us to understand the spirit of England–so deeply Catholic in the Middle Ages, so completely transformed by the Reformation–and its influence on our own culture. 

Our days in Oxford were filled with lectures and trips. The lectures (sweetened by regular breaks for tea and biscuits) helped us to understand the spirit of England–so deeply Catholic in the Middle Ages, so completely transformed by the Reformation–and its influence on our own culture. The trips made everything we were learning so present and personal.

One of my favorite days began with a lecture on Chesterton, after which we all headed to the Uffington White Horse, a pre-historic chalk figure carved into a hill, which inspired Chesterton’s “Ballad of the White Horse.” The weather was slightly drizzly and the wind threatened to blow us off the hill, but we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, wandering along the grassy hilltops, leaning into the wild wind, and shouting with glee. Then we found a quiet hollow, sat in a circle, and read fragments of the “Ballad” aloud. 

Another highlight was a certain Sunday, a perfect Brideshead Revisited kind of day. After Mass and lunch, we all headed toward Magdalen College for punting on the River Cherwell. We spent an idyllic hour floating on the quiet river, feeding the ducks, and admiring the views of Oxford’s towers from afar. Back on land, we walked around Christ Church Meadow to see those dreamy views again, picking flowers the while. The hour was growing late and we were growing hungry, so we headed to dinner at the Turf Tavern, a haunt of Charles and Sebastian in Brideshead. We stepped back out onto the streets after nightfall and–wonder of wonders–Oxford was empty! No tourists, no noise, only gray old buildings glistening after a passing rain shower.

Best of all, though, was our visit to Littlemore, the place where, on October 9, 1845, Blessed John Henry Newman was received into full communion with the Church. Ever since reading Newman’s Apologia in our Humanities class, he has become my dear friend. At Littlemore, we were able to hold and pray with Cardinal Newman’s rosary. That was such a powerful moment.

The Oxford Summer Program emphasizes the idea that a place can influence those living and learning there, that place can be a classroom in itself. The monastic foundations of Oxford, its stately buildings designed for study and prayer, its scholarly spirit–all have formed generations of men, whose lives have in turn been woven into the fabric of the city. In the two weeks I and my classmates spent exploring Oxford and its surroundings and studying its great men, we too were enriched by the city and its traditions of thought. Having gained a greater appreciation for the men who have shaped the Catholic culture of our own day and for the land which shaped them, we returned home full of zeal to follow in their footsteps.

 

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