Ushaw’s Wooden Boards

Mass in the trenches

I recently had the opportunity to visit Ushaw College (in pre pandemic, normal life days). Ushaw is a continuation of the English College seminary in Douai, which had to return to England due to Catholic persecution during the French Revolution. France was a safe haven for English seminarians during the English Reformation, but by 1795  it was safer for the English to return to England. In 1847, the college at Ushaw expanded to accommodate its growing number of students, and Pugin designed the beautiful chapel of St Cuthbert, which was later rebuilt twice the size. It is the kind of place that leaves me feeling like a pathetic writer; it is too beautiful to describe. I like to think I’ve seen it all, in terms of beautiful churches and chapels, but I audibly gasped as I walked in.

However, despite its beauty, and the beauty of the adjacent Lady Chapel (which also leaves me scrabbling inadequately for words) what really interested me were two very small chapels nearby. Small enough that only a few people could comfortably stand inside at one time; perhaps room for a priest and a server. Like St Cuthbert’s chapel, they were both exquisitely designed, but with one anomaly; instead of a tiled step or sanctuary area around the small altar, there is instead a step made from wooden boards. 

This architectural quirk was explained as follows:

In the pre-World War One era, tiled floors in churches and chapels (especially on the sanctuary) were the only floor material allowed. This was, of course, in order that any spillage of the Precious Blood could be cleared up with due reverence. However, during the First World War, special dispensation was given so that Army chaplains could say Mass out of doors, in whatever suitable places they could find behind the lines. 

When Ushaw completed these two chapels; their war memorial chapels, instead of a tiled step to the altar there are wooden boards. It is a simple yet poignant nod to the unprecedented situations chaplains said Mass in. 

In the historical and cultural landscape of the First World War, we are familiar with much that has seeped into our collective consciousness. You only need say its name and images of trenches, dugouts and war poets leap to mind. But in any shorthand of a huge historic event, much detail is lost. 

In 1914 Catholics in Britain were largely accepted in society, thanks to a complicated process of Catholic emancipation that trickled through  acts and laws down the 18th and 19th century (even into the 20th century). Catholic priests, churches, and schools were all allowed, and London had a new Catholic cathedral. Still, prejudice and discrimination were rife, particularly against the Irish Catholic population who had done so much to further the development of England during the Industrial Revolution, and who had been a catalyst for Catholic emancipation. There was- and perhaps still is- a suggestion that being a Catholic in any professional position that serves one’s country; soldier, politician, judge, put one in conflict between loyalty to England and the Queen, and loyalty to the Pope, and Rome.

 There were very few Catholic Chaplains in the British Army at the start of the war, and Kitchener wanted to keep it that way. He was to be disappointed; his wife persuaded him to allow the Catholics their priests, and religious orders quickly supplied chaplains for the fight. Unlike in France, British clergy, Catholic or otherwise, were exempt from conscription and plenty of chaplains made their way to serve and support the men in the lines. 

There’s a wealth of information about Catholic chaplains during the First World War, and some very moving accounts of their loyalty and solidarity to their men, their bravery and their determination to minister the sacraments no matter the cost. Men were attracted to the tangible nature of the devotional life of the Catholic church; rosaries, prayer cards, crucifixes and Miraculous medals were all in popular demand. Confession, general absolution and Mass could all be offered to and for the soldiers by the priests. To any Catholic, these were (and are) necessities as vital as food and drink. 

More deserves to be written about Catholicism during the First World War, especially within the narrative of how it furthered Catholic conversions in England at the time. The wooden boards at Ushaw are just one of many forgotten symbols that remind us that Christ was in the midst of the battlefields too.

I’ll give the last words of this post to Fr William Doyle, an Irish Jesuit, who wrote poignantly about saying Mass in the trenches:  

By cutting a piece out of the side of the trench, I was just able to stand in front of my tiny altar, a biscuit tin supported by two German bayonets. God’s angels, no doubt, were hovering overhead, but so were the shells, hundreds of them, and I was a little afraid that when the earth shook with the crash of the guns, the chalice might be overturned. Round about me on every side was the biggest congregation I ever had: behind the altar, on either side, and in front, row after row, sometimes crowding one upon the other, but all quiet and silent, as if they were straining their ears to catch every syllable of that tremendous act of Sacrifice – but every man was dead! Some had lain there for a week and were foul and horrible to look at, with faces black and green. Others had only just fallen, and seemed rather sleeping than dead, but there they lay, for none had time to bury them, brave fellows, every one, friend and foe alike, while I held in my unworthy hands the God of Battles, their Creator and their Judge, and prayed to Him to give rest to their souls. Surely that Mass for the Dead, in the midst of, and surrounded by the dead, was an experience not easily to be forgotten.

Have you heard of St Herbert’s Island?

My favourite place in the world is Keswick, in Cumbria. There, on the shores of Derwentwater you can look out across the water and see the humped, dragon-like ridge of Catbells, and further down to the misty peaks of the Jaws of Borrowdale. 

There are four islands on the water. The largest is named after the 7th Century saint, St Herbert. He was a friend of St Cuthbert of Lindesfarne and both are mentioned in Bede’s History of the English Church and People, though we know very little about either of them. What we do know is that St Herbert lived in seclusion and prayer on this little island, leaving only once a year to visit Lindesfarne.

The shore of Derwentwater, especially Friar’s Crag, which looks out over the island, is usually teeming with tourists. But if you manage to visit early or late in the day, it is not hard to imagine the completeness of solitude St Herbert lived in. On a windy day it is a particularly wild spot, seagulls calling and pitching into sea-like waves that batter the shore. Surrounding the lake are the fells; they’re not high by great-mountain standards, but they’re inhospitable, and sometimes they are killers. It’s a small island, but the tree coverage is so dense in places you cannot see the lake. We may not know much about St Herbert’s life, but his hermitage surely says a lot for him; his perseverance and wholeheartedness to something bigger than him, his complete dedication to God. How small he must have felt, so dependent on things outside his control. 

But in the summer months, when the rare warmth touches everything so that the shore recedes and the rocks are dry as bone, he must have lain and watched the still lake and unruffled grass of the hills beyond, and in the silent heavy air, contemplated the face of God.


Thoughts on a Rededication in Lockdown

It was not the Rededication we had planned. 

We did not gather in our cathedrals, churches or chapels. Our national Shrine at Walsingham was not packed with pilgrims. Instead, we lit candles in our homes, looked out on deserted streets, and watched online,  almost two weeks into a national lockdown and a global pandemic that has changed our lives.

It all sounds very apocalyptic but to be honest, I found it very beautiful, and very simple, in a good way. 

Just before midday, my fiancé (25 miles away in another city;  another planet for now) called me and together with at least half a million others, we prayed the Rededication prayers. There was something powerful about seeing the near-empty shrine at Walsingham but knowing that there were thousands of unseen others, praying together for our country and offering the little that we have to Our Lady, knowing that she will not abandon us in our hour of need. 

‘The Rededication is a reminder that this is a living tradition, it’s a tradition that tells us something about the past but it also tells us something about now, because our faith – to be vibrant and real and powerful – is ever ancient, ever new!’ Msgr Armitage

How beautiful that after all the great and wonderful preparation for this event, the years of Cathedral tours, the encouragement of our Bishops, the message from the Pope, the crowning moment was what we prayed in our hearts. In our silent cities and cramped homes, I’ve never felt my own sense of need so much. Far from family, I called on our Mother:

‘Dos too pia haec est, quare leges, Maria’ – This is your dowry, O pious Virgin.

Lingering Echoes

(Warning: This post contains mild spoilers to the novel Brideshead Revisited).

I’ll start at the beginning. There are many beginnings I could choose from, but for this particular post I’ll go back ten years, to the winter of 2009. I was nineteen, and I had just read Brideshead Revisited for the first time.

From March to November my usual existence was in the manic, messy world of a commercial water sports company, where I taught dinghy sailing practically from sunrise to sunset (my boss had a “relaxed” attitude to working time regulations). It had its idyllic moments but mostly it was a stressful, unhappy environment. Socially, it was a wilderness that tested my somewhat chaotic but passionate Catholic faith.

In the winter “off-seasons” most of my colleagues went abroad, to ski resorts, or further afield to windsurf in warmer waters.

I returned to my parents, where I wrote profusely, and read even more, and it was then that I first read Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. I had never read anything like it before; an avid reader, I read widely, but somehow I’d missed Brideshead through my teens. That winter I devoured it, staying up late, finishing it in the small hours and returning to it again and again. I had never read something that so accurately described what it feels like to be an English (Roman) Catholic, even if the wealth in the book (which Waugh later lamented) was a complete enigma to me. I saw bits of my self in each of the characters; I loved Sebastian, restless, desperate Sebastian, who longed for love and freedom and found his solace in wine and champagne. Charles was my questioning search, Cordelia my childhood, trusting self. I cried for Julia and her dilemma of who would marry her; too Catholic for most, not Catholic enough for her family. It’s not a novel that always shows the Church in its best light, and I appreciated that. What it does show is God’s grace working through imperfect humans, unperturbed by their inabilities or greediness, always calling them to something better.

I’ve read it countless times since, sometimes several times a year, and I collect editions. In my original copy, the only copy I mark, there are copious underlinings and notes in the margin. One of my favourites is the line “This was my conversion to the Baroque” and it is from its subsequent paragraph that this blog title comes: Lingering Echoes.

At this point in the novel Charles Ryder, young and still dragging himself through his studies at Oxford, begins to visit Brideshead Castle, Sebastian’s family home. Charles describes himself as agnostic, and is continually baffled by Sebastian’s Catholicism, which seems at odds with Sebastian’s wild university antics (don’t we all know it). Charles falls in love with Brideshead Castle; particularly enchanted by its baroque architecture.

“This was my conversion to the baroque. Here under that high and insolent dome, under those tricky ceilings; here, as I passed through those arches and broken pediments to the pillared shade beyond and sat, hour by hour, before the fountain, probing its shadows, tracing its lingering echoes, rejoicing in all its clustered feats of daring and invention, I felt a whole new system of nerves alive within me, as though the water that spurted and bubbled among its stones was indeed a life-giving spring.”

Brideshead Revisited, Chapter 4

Here’s where it gets interesting. A long time later in Charles’ life, at the height of the Second World War, it is hinted, obliquely, as thought through a veil, that Charles has become a Catholic. It’s not a very triumphant end, if anything, it’s an anticlimax. But he is one, and readers might wonder what, given all the bad examples of Catholicism he’s been shown, has brought him to the Church.

But Charles is an artist, and a great lover of architecture. Before he converts to Catholicism, his first, arguably greater conversion is to beauty: the baroque. It’s interesting that while his Catholic conversion is hinted at in a rather commonplace way, his baroque conversion gets quite the treatment. Before anything else it is beauty that has led him to God.

The baroque period was the European response to the Reformation. Encouraged by the Catholic Church, its opulence and drama reflected the splendours of the Catholic faith. A quick look at any baroque artwork will show you plenty of Biblical stories, and a good deal of flesh. Its emphasis on the goodness of the body, rather than the suppression of the body, emphasised in turn the beauty of the Incarnation. There is nothing about the baroque movement, whether in its music, art or architecture, that is minimalist, plain, or dare I say, puritanical.

Charles’ first conversion is to beauty, beauty that portrayed the fullness of God’s creation through human hands. His baroque conversion brought him alive, taking him into the Edenesque garden of Brideshead and to the lingering echoes of the water fountain that is witness to so many important scenes in the novel.

It’s in this rather longwinded way that I look at the history of English Catholicism; lingering echoes of a great fountain that was once a life giving spring for the whole nation. Pre Reformation Catholicism and Englishness was entwined, Walsingham, still our national shrine, was once on par with the greatest Shrines of the world; Jerusalem, Rome, Santiago. The Reformation forced Catholicism to go underground, and when it came out again, in the 18th and 19th century, much of our Catholic cultural heritage was lost.

When I first read Brideshead Revisited aged nineteen, I had no idea that it would accompany me through my own rediscoveries of beauty and Catholicism. For me, it’s the ideal place to start this blog; my exploration of the lingering echoes of English Catholicism.