I'm typing this in the House kitchen, as early preparations for this Thursday's House Christmas dinner are underway (photos to follow). The dinner will just be for the (now 7-strong) community itself. On Wednesday evening, however, there'll also be a Christmas party - for all our friends here in the college - following our final advent talk.
In the relative lull between mince pies going into the oven, and us starting work on assembling and decorating our gingerbread house, it seems an opportune time to look back on some of the House highlights of the past three and a half months. This seems particularly fitting, given that we've just bottled up seventeen bottles of ale as gifts for (in fact, just a small selection of) our friends and benefactors.
Of course, the most important aspects of community life here aren't the ones that get blogged about. Weekdays' lauds and vespers (more and more parts of which are now being sung, sincerely albeit sometimes falteringly); chats around the dinner table, or - more often - in front of the television (the Apprentice being a big House draw); cooking for each other, whether impromptuly (yes, that is a real word) or on a designated 'community' night (which we try to have once a week, though don't always manage due to everyone's different commitments). Things aren't always fun and games, naturally. But our 'joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties' are shared - and, it has to be said, so far we've had rather more of the former than we have of the latter.
Most of the other 'events' that have happened here have been mentioned previously: our tea party in celebration of the Papal Visit, Advent talks, the various Frassati Masses and goings-on, baking for Wells for India, etc. Things which, for no particular reason, failed to be blogged include a talk on science and religion from a priest in the Faith Movement, two of the girls making a snowmanblob (called Dave), various 'eventful' evenings following talks or dinners across the road, and a series of five three-course dinners for (in theory, though not in practice) all the fresher Theology and Religious Studies students at St Mary's.
All in all, not a bad first semester's life and work at Benedict XVI House!
Benny House's homemade cakes, bread, jams and chutneys have previously been mentioned here. For the past couple of weeks though we've been brewing up something even more exciting...
Our homemade beer - Ale, Holy Queen! (would you believe that Ale Mary was already taken?) - will be formally launched after the final advent talk next Wednesday. But in order to toast Our Lady's immaculate conception, we've decided to have a sneak preview this evening.
I can't say that it fully lives up to its name, but it's really rather nice.
Happy Feast of the Immaculate Conception! (It is also, of course, the college's feast day. Hopefully, I'll get chance to post more later on - depending on how late I get back from the chaplaincy festivities this evening...)
Belatedly as ever...
The first of the Benedict XVI House advent talks was held last Wednesday. Susan Clarkson of St Francis House, the Oxford Catholic Worker, came to speak to us on the subject of 'Practising the Works of Mercy, Resisting the Works of War' - both of which Susan, in common with other Catholic Workers, does in plenty.
The talk was accompanied by tea and cake, and followed by watching a fairly recent, excellent documentary on Dorothy Day: Don't Call Me a Saint. It's just under an hour long, and comes thoroughly recommended.
The 113th anniversary of Dorothy Day's birth was remarked upon a month ago. Between then and now, there was also the 30th anniversary of her death. Pleasingly, this was widely marked in print and online, including fine articles in both the Tablet and the Catholic Herald, and two excellent blog posts over at Fr Stephen Wang's Bridges and Tangents (here and here).
Don't Call Me a Saint? Sorry Dorothy, but we already do...
We'd been planning yesterday evening, as a memorial Mass for the deceased friends and family of both the House and the Frassati Society, for several weeks. We weren't able to do something together on All Souls, so made sure we found time later on in November. We've also been praying for those on our November dead list at lauds and vespers every weekday.
Tragically, on Wednesday night, one of the community members heard that one of his friends from school, and a fellow student here at St Mary's, had died in particularly distressing circumstances. So needless to say, our already-planned memorial Mass immediately became a Mass for the repose of his soul.
As expected for such a well-liked and much-loved young man, a significant number of people joined us for our Mass last night: the chapel was mostly standing-room only, and even so, about half a dozen had to stand outside. It was a deeply profound and moving occasion - even for those (like myself) who never met the young man involved - presided over by Dom Hugh Somerville-Knapman OSB of Douai Abbey. A good number of our grieving friends were able to join us for a drink and something to eat afterwards. And we shall be keeping them, their departed friend, and his family and other friends, very much in our prayers.
'Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.'
Today would be the 113th birthday of the Servant of God Dorothy Day, the cofounder (with Peter Maurin) of the Catholic Worker Movement. Both Dorothy and the CW have been - and continue to be - a huge influence over at least two of us at the House. Furthermore, the very first Frassati Society event earlier this year, on 1 May (the Feast of St Joseph the Worker, and the anniversary of the founding of the CW), was to the Catholic Worker Farm in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire (as well as to the National Shrine of St Joseph at Farnborough Abbey).
For those who don't know who Dorothy Day is, the following excerpt from one of her articles should give some idea...
‘It is no use saying that we are born two thousand years too late to give room to Christ. Nor will those who live at the end of the world have been born too late. Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts. […] But now it is with the voice of our contemporaries that He speaks, with the eyes of store clerks, factory workers, and children that He gazes; with the hands of office workers, slum dwellers, and suburban housewives that He gives. It is with the feet of soldiers and tramps that He walks, and with the heart of anyone in need that He begs and longs for shelter. And giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving to Christ. […] Not because it might be Christ who stays with us, comes to see us, takes up our time. Not because these people remind us of Christ […] but because they are Christ, asking us to find room for Him, exactly as He did at the first Christmas.’ (‘Room for Christ’  in Selected Writings, 94, 97)
'New York's Mother Teresa' (l) chats with her close friend 'Calcutta's Dorothy Day' (r)
At St Mary's today there will be a cake (and cards, jam, chutney, etc.) sale in aid of the School of Theology, Philosophy and History's pet charity - Wells for India. This is a wonderful organization, set up in 1987 by Mary and Nicholas Grey, focusing on the provision of safe and sustainable water resources in rural Rajasthan. (Mary Grey is also currently a research professor at SMUC.)
Giving drink to the thirsty is, of course, one of the corporal works or mercy: something we take very seriously (or try to/like to think we do) at Benny House. As such, our kitchen was even busier and messier than usual yesterday evening. Since very few of the SMUC student halls have serviceable kitchens, we threw ours open to any student wanted to contribute. Here are some of the results:
One of our freshers...
... and (some of) the fruits of her labours.
A chocolate fudge cake and an oddly-oblong Victoria sponge in a process of becoming...
The chocolate fudge cake in all its glory.
(Apparently, Shaun didn't consider the Victoria sponge - nor a couple of jars of homemade chutney - photogenic enough to take a picture of...)
Last month, the residential community here were fortunate enough to have Mass said for us - our first in the House, and altogether - at one of our weekly community nights, followed by a very nice shepherd's pie cooked by two of the girls. It was a special occasion, and in many ways confirmed and solidified the foundations of our life at Benny House.
Last night was the second Mass to be held here: this time, for a meeting of the Frassati Society. All six House members were present for this too, along with a priest and fourteen more St Mary's students. Most of these have, at one time or another, come out with us on a Monday night, though a pleasing number were completely new to the House, completely new to the Frassati Society, and - in one instance, I believe - completely new to a Catholic Mass.
The latter is an important point, and central to the gradually forming charism of Benedict XVI House. For the House is, in fact, by no means an excusively Catholic community. All St Mary's students interested in a life of prayer, community and service are very welcome to apply to live here. One of our current residents is an Anglican, and a fair proportion of Frassati members, and those who are involved with the House through other ventures (more on these in a later post), are not Catholics. One Monday night Frassati regular couldn't be at Mass last night as she had a Christian Union meeting. Fortunately though, was able to join us for the tail-end of dinner (vodka pasta, homemade focaccia, and a couple of homemade cakes) and drinks afterwards. Benedict XVI House is open to, and enriched, by all.
But importantly, none of this stops the House being named after the Holy Father, the Oratory being in honour of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, our prayer life being centred around the Divine Office, our regarding our faltering attempts at charity as 'the corporal works of mercy', or our having (hopefully more) regular Mass. Based as we are in what will hopefully soon be this country's first Catholic university since the Reformation, we see no point in building some lowest-common-denominator, for-everyone-and-therefore-for-noone sandpit to play in. We're striving instead to build our House upon the rock - and indeed, that same rock whose current 'alias' that House is named after.
Fortunately (stretching the metaphor a bit here) it's a big rock, and, if presented correctly, an attractive one. There's plenty of room on it for others to come, visit us, and stay awhile. The trouble with big rocks, such as mountains, is that from a distance they can look daunting and austere. But once you're on them - even for a brief while - the view can be exhilarating. Perhaps, in one or two cases, our friends might spend enough time on our tiny part of what is built on the rock, and enjoy their time here sufficiently, that it might just come to feel like home (as indeed it did, much to our surprise, to several of us). Then again, perhaps not - but having come to visit once, they'll hopefully always feel welcome back to visit again.
Two more pictures from last night below (note the delightfully overfull oratory and dining tables!):
Thanks to Shaun and Lucy for taking the pictures! (More here.)
Once again, it's been a couple of weeks since the last update... but that doesn't really matter. Catholic with Attitude is doing sterling work on updating the blogosphere on some of our goings on. His appeal for the Oratory of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati has born remarkable fruits. No doubt he'll post some photos to confirm that in due course. (Update: so he has!) But put it this way... we pray for our benefactors at lauds and vespers every weekday, and post-appeal that means we're now praying for a lot of people.
On the subject of Bl. Pier Giorgio, the university college's Frassati Society - founded earlier this year, and in many ways the soil out of which Benny House ultimately grew - has grown rapidly over the past few weeks. The House itself was set up not just for the residential community, but also to attract others into our life of prayer and service. In providing the Frassati Society a chapel for prayer (14 for Vespers and the Angelus on Monday! Also, rosary every Thursday), and a base from which we can head out to try to practice the works of mercy (and having done so, end up in the pub), Benedict XVI House is, slowly but surely, fulfilling this role.
(In other news, an interesting blog post appeared on the Guardian website last week, the last paragraph of which was inspired by several of the FrassSoc members and Benny House residents...)
Following the excitement of the Papal visit, the community has started to establish a routine of community life and some plans for our future activities. The life of the community centres around prayer - currently we are praying Lauds and Vespers every day at 8am and 6.30pm. In addition one evening a week is community night, an opportunity to eat and socialise together. Plans are afoot to celebrate Mass 'in house' once a month, at which non-community members of the student body would also be welcome. Our hope here would be that the community would support visiting priests in providing the music, readings etc. Community members have begun looking at plainchant for this purpose. We hope that these meetings may also incorporate other activities such as talks, film nights or discussion groups, as long as, by general community agreement, The Greatest Story Ever Told is not one of the films shown. With the occasional cake mornings these will, we hope, provide opportunities for other students to, variously, worship, find out about the community or discuss a range of issues in informal settings.
An Associated Press photographer happened to be walking down our road just as we were formally renaming the House (this basically involved covering over the old plaque with a laminated piece of A3). We made it onto 'the wire' but, frankly, I can't imagine this one stopping the world's presses...
So it’s finally happening! We’ve all been getting excited this morning watching the BBC coverage. Lovely scenes from ‘Edinburg’ – especially the seemingly impromptu meeting with the schoolchildren at the Archbishop’s House – and we were pleased to see that the College’s (Scottish) chaplain has been roped in as a pundit.
The real excitement for us, of course, will be tomorrow morning. SMUC is hosting three events – a meeting with religious in the chapel; the Big Assembly with several thousand schoolchildren out on our running track; and the ‘Faiths Working Together’ summit with non-Christian faith leaders and public figures (I’m told the first event of his kind to ever happen on a Papal Visit). Two of the community are involved as volunteers – myself helping with the interfaith event, and Catholic with Attitude (who did some sterling work on the radio this morning too) at the Big Assembly. One will be watching from across the road (the exit Benedict’ll be leaving from is in sight of the House). And one, unfortunately, has to be in Oxford for most of the day.
This is certainly the biggest thing ever to happen here, and preparations have been intense. Walking around campus today, things seem to be all coming together… no doubt everything will be set for the festivities tomorrow. (We have lots of photos, which I'm hoping to add in an edit later on.)
Speaking of preparations and festivities, Benedict XVI House is hosting a post-Papal Visit afternoon tea party, for various of our friends who are around tomorrow. Various jams, banana bread and a couple of Jamaica cakes are already done; a lemon polenta cake and some lemon curd are the tasks for tonight; and a mountain of scones will be baked in the morning (heroically by someone who won’t even be around to eat them). Praying lauds on Wednesday morning, I was struck by the intercession: 'May we bring joy to our homes, to our work, and to all whom we meet'. Cake and scones have a genuine role to play here, I think...
Or rather: 'At Benedict XVI House... a week is like an afternoon'.
I signed off the last post on Monday morning of last week with a cheery 'More later!', and with every intention of posting again later that day. In fact, I had in my head a whole series of posts to gradually roll out over the week. But it was not to be.
The past week has passed very quickly indeed. Jo has come and gone again. The students - Shaun and Emily - have each come, gone, and come back again. (In fact, they're preparing dinner for the three of us as I'm typing this - which is rather nice of them, I have to say.) Various jobs to get the House up to speed for the new term - sorting out the internet and phone, getting someone to come and fix the boiler, putting up a bookshelf or two - have been done. Most importantly, as far as I'm concerned at least, we now have a bird table (albeit a fairly ricketily-assembled one), plus several bird feeders. Not that we've fed many birds with them yet: the squirrels have seen to that. This morning, though, I did say some magpies, a crow, a couple of woodpigeons and a fairly ballsy robin braving the rodentine hordes. Not that I mind feeding squirrels of course, it's just that I wish they'd leave some for the birds.
Last week was also the annual conference of the Catholic Theological Association, conveniently this year located just across the road at St Mary's. It's been up at Ushaw College near Durham the past few years, but they had a bookings clash this year, so we relocated. The theme was 'The Theology of Cardinal Newman', for obvious reasons, and it was as enjoyable as ever: all the usual faces, plus several new ones.
This week, of course, is another busy one. We're gearing up not only for the new term (freshers week, as well as teaching for the 2nd and 3rd years, kicks off next week), but also - naturally - for the Holy Father's visit across the road on Friday. It's only really started sinking in how near it is now: Mulier Fortis has recently written well about the mounting excitement. I'll write about the preparations at St Mary's in the next couple of days - and then, hopefully, about what actually happened on the day itself. (Though that may prove tricky - Benedict XVI House will be hosting a post-Papal Visit afternoon tea party immediately after - then a visit to friends in Surrey in the evening - then a trip to north Oxfordshire on Saturday in order to travel to Cofton Park with our former parish on Sunday morning... Ah well, it all get fitted in somehow.)
Having got the keys - and endured a 3-hour run-through of the inventory - on Wednesday, I've been away for a few days, and came back yesterday evening. Two of the students, Shaun and Emily, are moving in today. My wife, Jo, is arriving in a few days' time. Other members of the community will, hopefully, be joining us over the next few weeks.
Praying lauds alone this morning was somewhat strange. As you can just about make out from the photo in the last post, our chapel is by no means the most inspiring room in the House - aesthetically-speaking, that is (more on this later). The Presentation Sisters who recently moved out were fortunate enough to have the Blessed Sacrament reserved here. This has rightly been removed - though when and by whom I'm not sure - and so we're left now with an empty tabernacle. Before long, of course, we hope to have the Blessed Sacrament residing in it once again. We'll be starting the canonical procedure fairly soon (i.e., once we've worked out exactly what we need to do!), and praying for its success. For the time being, though, we're left to pray before 'the empty tomb'. It's a little unsettling, but thinking theologically, by no means inappropriate.
Well actually, the real beginning happened 6 months ago in the Holy Land - but that's a story for another time...
Benedict XVI House
In just a few hours, I'll be collecting the keys to Benedict XVI House - a brand-new, residential community here at St Mary's University College, Twickenham. The Holy Father will be visiting the college on 17th September (details here), and the House will form a major part of the Visit's legacy. I'm sure you'll agree that the House itself - formerly known as 'Wellspring', and leased from the Presentation Brothers - is a fitting tribute. For our own part, we hope and pray that we live up to the name!
The basic idea is for a small group of staff and students to live together, pursuing a communal life of prayer, study, and service. Many of the details are still to be decided, but we'll certainly have community meals, and daily lauds and vespers. Plans are also afoot for regular rosary, film nights, 'theology on tap', speakers, barbecues, cake mornings, pilgrimages, processions... Above all, we hope to practise the corporal works of mercy. We plan to be of service to each other, to St Mary's as a whole, and to the wider community.
Our chapel/oratory (work still to be done here!)
The purpose of this blog is, primarily, to let others know how we get on - and to invite them to participate, in person or in prayer, with certain of our ventures. Hopefully, several members of the House can be persuaded to contribute here, at least occasionally. Unfortunately one of our residents, Catholic With Attitude, is currently on 'sabbatical'.
Though today is the birth day of Benedict XVI House, it won't be until next week that the House starts properly filling up...
Whatever else may come of it, it's sure to be an interesting and challenging (initial) 12 months! Still, as the servant of God Dorothy Day was fond of saying, 'by little and by little...' And as Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati was fond of saying, 'Verso l'alto!' ('To the heights!'). (You'll be hearing a lot more about both of those in the months to come.)
Needless to say, we'd be very grateful if you'd - in descending order - a) pray for us; b) follow us; and c) link to us.