Sunday, December 30, 2007

Nottingham's Cathedral


















The Cathedral in Nottingham (St Barnabas) was built under AWN Pugin in 1842-4. At that time the diocese had not yet been formed, but this commission was to be a great church for the Midlands, second in Pugin's career only to St Chad's in Birmingham. It was funded in part by Bishop Walsh, but mainly by Lord Shrewsbury. As ever Pugin incited controversy, with ever more grandiose designs making his work greater than had been originally intended. It is built in the early English style, with a long low nave and aisles, transepts and crossing, a chancel with three sides built over a crypt, and round the back on the east side are three projecting chapels. It is built in local sandstone, the likes of which I am familiar having grown up in Nottingham and climbed many exciting cliff faces!

Lord Shrewsbury thought the plans would produce a barn-like bare building. But Pugin was passionate about perspective, with "pillar beyond pillar, screen beyond screen". Ironically, Lord Shrewsbury's fears were only realised once the building had been tampered with down the centuries. It became a Cathedral in 1850 with the creation of the Nottingham Diocese, and successive Bishops went about changing the structure entirely, especially that of the sanctuary. The ex-Oratorian Bishop Brindle (1901-15) demolished the rood screen and high altar. Bishop Ellis replaced a later restored high altar with his throne, placing a new altar in the crossing of the nave with the transept. That is where the altar remains today, now being a strangely square affair. I remember the re-orderings of 1994 well, with furnishing by Smith and Roper, new stencilling and painting which I imagine go some way to restore what Pugin had originally intended.

Probably the best way to glimpse back into time, at the intended character of the Cathedral, is to visit the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in the south transept - a beautifully stencilled and decorated area of the Cathedral which stands out as the most sacred and prayerful place. Exposition and adoration on a Saturday morning is really a wonderful thing, with confession also readily available at the back of the cathedral.

I often attend the 'High Latin Mass' at this Cathedral on my family weekend visits (albeit when they do not coincide with the monthly Corpus Christi, Clifton Tridentine Masses). They are really a forum for the Cathedral choir to sing Latin polyphony and plainchant, which is of course a good thing. Unfortunately the performance of whichever priest they manage to find is usually out of character altogether, mingling Latin choral singing with typical trendy English folk warmness. On one occasion there wasn't a priest available, so we were treated to the most elaborate Liturgy of the Word and distribution of Communion that I can imagine! A poor seminarian presided, and did a terribly good job in the circumstances. Such is the state of the Church today, I suppose; terribly short of priests even when everyone else is present en masse!

If you find yourself in Nottingham, be sure to visit this gem of Pugin's, which has prime city centre location and always a friendly welcome! And it is of course the seat of the wonderful Bishop of Nottingham Malcolm McMahon, who I hope gets round to celebrating a Pontifical High Mass in his own diocese, as he has in others!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

A Reminder...

I am certainly excited, and so should you! This is not widely publicised outside the Oratory's newletter, so here's a reminder:

In this joyous time of Christmastide the Birmingham Oratory has changed the time and venue of the weekly Sunday Tridentine Mass to:

9:30 am
in the Main Church
at the High Altar


Please give this 'experimental' change your support if you happen to be spending the weekend in Brum (which I'd recommend; the lovely cosmopolitan city it is)! You can also stick around afterwards in thanksgiving, with the grand High Mass which is sung by the wonderful Oratory Choir in the ordinary form.

God bless you all and Happy Christmas!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Expectation of Oliver

I am pleased to point my readers in the direction of a fellow Brother of the Birmingham Little Oratory - Oliver Hayes. He has recently started a new blog entitled The Expectation of Our Lady. This is the old feast day of December 18, which Oliver is happy to shed some light upon. I think everyone will agree that this image of Our Lady, heaving with advanced pregnancy, is a very valuable one, and close to any mother's heart! I remember quite clearly this stage with Wendy: the feeling of discomfort and eager anticipation, as well as acute awareness of the budding life within.

Most interestingly, Oliver sheds some light on what it is like to be part of the elitist Oratory Choir. I do recommend a read, since it truly enlightened me as to the work that is put in. Oliver failed to mention the wages, but I'm sure they are only paid a pittance!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Blair Crosses the Tiber

Welcome to the fullness of Faith Mr. Blair! I wish you every blessing in your new found communion with Christ!

It is with great surprise that the rumours have been confirmed true: Tony was received into the fold of Our Saviour by the Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Conner yesterday evening. Not only will he now be in full communion with Christ's Church and the Holy Father, but also with his own earthly family of Cherie and children.

Meanwhile Cherie continues her campaign to be elected as the first female Pope in the history of the Church.

Cherie I Pontificus Maximus (QC).

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Gaudete!

Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say, rejoice. Let your modesty be known to all men: for the Lord is nigh. Be nothing solicitous: but in every thing by prayer let your petitions be made known to God.
I awoke today in a bad mood. The last thing on my mind was rejoicing. Quite honestly, this Advent has run away from me, and with it any contemplation of heavenly things. I have found it far easier getting carried away with earthly worries, like getting through each day at work, and looking for somewhere new to live. Ultimately, I have been preoccupied about my own affairs, and a sort of self-centredness (even if orientated towards my family rather than just myself) had ensued.

I even toyed with the idea of not bothering with Mass at all today. But, as my wife reminded me, the days we feel least inclined to attend Holy Mass are the very days we need it most. And so it was for me. I arrived in the little cloister chapel grumpy and tired, intent on fulfilling my obligation but in no way inclined towards participating fully as I should. However, the Lord had other plans. The liturgy itself begs God; "by the grace of Thy visitation, enlighten the darkness of our minds". This sentiment, uttered in today's collect, reawakened my need to appeal for God's grace and mercy. The Mass was sung, and the Introit "Gaudete, iterum dico vobis, Gaudete" which I opened this post with (from St Paul's letter to the Phillipians) reminded me of this Christian imperitive, and in the context of Advent, the looking forward to Christ's second coming.

The whole setting of the liturgy could not fail to stir my heart towards God, even though I was only expecting a Low Mass with relatively little solemnity. But a further cause for 'Gaudete' is the announcement today that the Birmingham Oratory Fathers have taken into consideration the needs of their faithful flock and, for an experimental period, will move the 1962 Latin Mass into the main church at the earlier time of 9:30am, commencing the Sunday after Christmas. I think this is a more traditional time for Mass, enabling even an overnight fast for those that way inclined. Most of all, it will be fitting that the older use of Mass will return to the High Altar, since Pope Benedict XVI has restored dignity to this use of the Roman Rite. It would be nice if this new slot were supported during the time of ad experimentum. Our family will certainly enjoy the silence and space in the weeks following Christmas very much. I'm afraid we had felt that we'd outgrown the cramped cloister chapel, and are reluctant to segregate ourselves from the rest of the parish to that degree!

The High Mass will follow directly after, as usual at 10:30am, in the Novus Ordo, but mainly in Latin with plainchant and polyphony from the professional Oratory Choir. Perhaps this link between the two will demonstrate further the continuity which the Holy Father is exorting us to realise and implement.

There need not be segregation if we realise we are all Catholics who can understand each other. That is what any Parish Church should demonstrate, and the Oratory is far from a litugical museum as some may think, but rather a living, active and passionate community, often transcending its geographical territory. It will be interesting to see whether having the old Mass in the main Church will open the door to a newer and larger attendence. The best attended Mass on Sunday is incidentally the 12 o'clock Low Mass designated for 'families with small children'. It is indeed encouraging that so many families make it to Church, and are welcome at all masses the Fathers provide.

In conclusion, today's liturgy taught me that, in all our affairs and worries, we must offer to God our whole heart with joy and thanksgiving. Nothing must turn us inwards, and make us feel anxious or concerned about trivial affairs: we must have our hearts and minds on heavenly things, as the cause and completion of our every work. If we struggle to do this, as I have recently, then we should ask God all the more to enlighten the darkness of our human minds with the light of divinity, made perfectly clear in the vivid image of the Nativity.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

St Nicholas

What a jolly feast day! So near to Christmas we are presented with a figure familiar to us all: Santa Claus. But who is he and why do Christians venerate his feast today?

St Nicholas was born in Myra in the third century (now modern day Turkey) during the period of persecution by the Roman Empire. St Nicholas was a very holy and humble man, giving up his wealth and becoming a Priest, and later a Bishop. He helped the sick and needy and is celebrated for his compassionate care of families and children. He famously threw bags of gold into one household's window; three bags for as many daughters, so that their poor father could pay the dowry on their marriages.

He was thrown into prison under the great persecution of Christians, but later released when Rome converted to the Faith. He was present at the Council of Nicaea, and displayed righteous indignation for the Arian heresy by attacking Arius himself. Not so jolly when heresy is concerned, are we Santa? For this he was again, thrown into prison. But an appearance by Our Lord and His Blessed Mother quickly helped to re-establish his office of Bishop.

There are many legends and stories attached to his life, of miraculous protection and generosity. One occasion which particularly demonstrates his affection for the young, concern three theological students travelling on their way to Athens. They were cruelly captured and murdered by a wicked innkeeper, and kept in a vat of pickling water. St Nicholas later happened to stay at this very inn, and in the night had a terribly vivid dream depicting these three young men being killed. Awaking from this apparition, he called for the innkeeper to come at once, and fell on his knees in prayer. Whilst he begged God's mercy and compassion, the three boys miraculously came back to life. It is not known how St Nicholas then took care of the innkeeper!

Even long after his death (6th December 343), St Nicholas' intercession has been attributed to many miracles. He even appeared to a young slave boy and rescued him from his evil Arab master, returning him to his parents in the Saint's home town of Myra, who were desperate for his return. There are also many stories about his assistance with people at sea, and for this reason many seaports have chapels that are named after him. For more on the 'historical' Nicholas, see here.

He is the Patron of children, mariners, sailors, scholars, orphans, labourers, paupers, maidens, innocent captives, even murderers! Although his tomb was in Myra, his relics were rescued away to Bali in Italy, which became a great centre of pilgrimage. He is celebrated among Europeans with acts of generosity, like the giving of gifts. In Germany and Poland, boys dressed up as bishops and begged for alms for the poor. Dutch children leave hay and carrots in their shoes for the saint's horse, hoping they will be exchanged for gifts!

All these things can help us understand where the cult of Santa Claus comes from. I think that by celebrating this feast day early on in advent, it keeps the focus on Christ as the centre of Christmas Day, rather than anticipating imaginary visits from sleighs and reindeer on Christmas eve (however fun that may be)!

So I decided this morning, to wake up the little one by donning a Santa costume and gave sacks of presents to go under our Christmas tree. Of course, they will only be opened when the Nativity comes, and serve as a sign within our family of the love we share.

Friday, November 30, 2007

HAPPY ST ANDREW'S DAY!!


We humbly beseech Thy majesty, O Lord, that as blessed Andrew the apostle was both a preacher and a ruler of Thy Church, so he may unceasingly intercede for us with Thee. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

This picture of Madeleine (now crawling!) was taken in the Roman Basilica, Sant Andrea Della Valle, last week. We thought and prayed, as we do now, especially for Maddy's godfather; whose patron Saint is Andrew, being his namesake. We also think especially of the Scots in our kingdom, who hold this feast in special honour as the Patron of their country.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Christ the King

Almighty everlasting God, who in Thy beloved Son, King of the whole world, hast willed to restore all things anew; grant in Thy mercy that every creature, set free from slavery, may serve Thy majesty and praise Thee for ever.
Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.

Pagan Rome


We began a large part of our stay in Rome without even setting foot in a church! We stayed in the southern district of Testaccio, and on our first day we walked up towards the Colosseum and Foro Romanum. It is remarkable that such an ancient civilisation still bears such a mark upon Rome's cityscape.

It also seems a great wonder that many of these decadent buildings, now largely in ruins, were erected around the same time that the King of Kings was born and raised in Roman occupied Palestine. Rome is a beast of constant evolution. The great Babylon; the 'whore' responsible for the death of countless Christian martyrs, including Ss Peter and Paul, the founding pillars of the Catholic Church. Barbaric Rome; a civilisation of great technological ability yet debased moral practices, corruption, and oppression.

But this destructive Pagan empire was eventually evangelised, its great basilicas and temples turned over to the true worship of God made Man, truly present in the continual renewal of His sacrifice in the Mass. The conversion of Constantine, vividly portrayed in this fresco directed by Raphael in the Vatican, was the baptism of an entire world empire to the Christian faith. For many, this is seen as a disaster and corruption of the suffering christian faith. But for the wise among us, it was the glorification of beliefs already enshrined and practised by centuries of loyal, faithful martyrs. It is a great mystery; the transformation of pagan humanity into a divine and fruitful institution.

The Roman Empire eventually collapsed, but its indelible Christian mark remained - the city where Ss Peter and Paul spilt their blood for the establishment of the Kingdom of God. Ruling sovereignties and powers have come and gone, but Rome will always remain Eternal Rome - the city deigned by God to be home to his eternal family.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Back from Rome!

From Roma 2007
After a whistle-stop 3 days in Rome, we are back in Birmingham. I hope to be able to report on this wonderful trip soon, which proved to be such a nice introduction for us. The eternal city holds so much, how can anyone ever claim to have exhausted its treasures?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Blessed Antonio Rosmini Serbati

It is with great joy that I share the announcement that Fr Antonio Rosmini is being raised to the glory of the altars! After a long and difficult process, his beloved followers have persevered to finally see tomorrow, the Beatification ceremony of the Venerable Servant of God, in the small town of Novara in Northern Italy.

Rosmini was born in Rovereto (then part of Austria), 1797. He was a deeply intelligent boy, excelling at all his subjects. He was ordained at the age of 24 and received his degree from the University of Padua a year later. When he was brought to Rome, his reputation preceded him, and even the Pope of the time, Pius VIII, personally recommended that he devote himself entirely to his writing.

He wrote many works, including philosophy, theology, spirituality, politics and ecclesiology. At the age of 42, the congregation which he founded, the Institute of Charity, received official papal approval from Pius IX, a personal friend. However, he eventually fell out of favour with the papal court in large part due to the political strife of the time, with Rosmini opposing the actions surrounding the war with Austria.

It has now been over 150 years since Rosmini died, amidst a certain amount of suspicion from the churchmen of his day, including the Jesuits. Two of his books were placed on the Forbidden Index, and 32 years after his death a series of 40 propositions drawn from his works were condemned by the Holy Office. However, in 2001 he was 'absolved' of these charges, in a document issued by none other than Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

On July 1st last year he was declared Venerable, in that his life and writings expressed true Christian virtue to a heroic degree. Finally, on 6 March this year, a decree was issued detailing a miraculous cure attributed to the intercession of Rosmini before our Heavenly Lord, whereby a nun living (and dying) in Novara, was relieved of her terrible affliction.

But of all the many virtuous Christians acknowledged by Holy Mother Church; why do I draw my attention to this one? Well, as a misguided youth I was shown very clear paths in life by my attendance at a school founded by the Rosminian order. It is an interesting place for many reasons, but I will simply say that its founding principles are noble, and a good guide for Catholic education today. Visit this site to explore some of the present-day work in the footsteps of a true saint in the life of the Church, based in a neglected corner of my old school.

Rosmini's intercession will always be sought by myself for difficult intellectual problems that continually stump me in life... most importantly when faced with those who use so-called 'intellect' to disprove the very existence of God. Rosmini, incidentally, had his own writings on this topic, especially in his Nuovo saggio sull'origine delle idee (New Essay Concerning the Origin of Ideas). When Rosmini was a little younger than myself, he wrote the following poem, which I will close with:
How delightful it is to speak with God,
To talk of God,
To be satisfied with God alone;
To recall, desire, understand, know, and love God;
To seek and find God in God,
Giving oneself wholly to God.
To leave for the sake of God even the delights of God;
To think, to speak, to work for God;
To hope only in God, delight only in God;
To keep one's mind always intent on God;
To do all things with God in God,
Dedicated and consecrated to God,
Pleasing God alone, suffering for God,
Rejoicing solely in God;
To desire God alone,
To abide with God for ever,
To exult with God in times of joy, in times of pain;
To see, touch, taste God,
To live, die and abide in God,
And then, rapt and translated into God,
With God and in God, to offer God to God
For God's eternal honour and glory.
O God, what joy, what sweetness there is in God,
God, O God!; God, O God!; God, O God!; God, O God!; God, O God!

Monday, November 05, 2007

Holy Souls Month


Help, Lord, the souls that Thou hast made,
The souls to Thee so dear,
In prison for the debt unpaid
Of sins committed here.

Those holy souls, they suffer on,
Resigned in heart and will,
Until Thy high behest is done,
And justice has its fill.

For daily falls, for pardoned crime,
They joy to undergo
The shadow of the Cross sublime,
The remnant of Thy woe.

Oh, by their patience of delay,
Their hope amid their pain,
Their sacred zeal to burn away
Disfigurement and stain....



- Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Art. 5, § 1

Art. 5, § 1 In parishes, where there is a stable group of faithful who adhere to the earlier liturgical tradition, the pastor should willingly accept their requests to celebrate the Mass according to the rite of the Roman Missal published in 1962, and ensure that the welfare of these faithful harmonises with the ordinary pastoral care of the parish, under the guidance of the bishop in accordance with canon 392, avoiding discord and favouring the unity of the whole Church.

It is very important if you are a supporter of the ancient Roman liturgy, to make formal requests in writing to your parish priest.

My local parish church (above, not the Oratory) is a beautiful building, and I could previously only dream of having the venerable Roman Rite celebrated on its high altar. But now, the recent Motu Proprio data, Summorum Pontificum, seems to suggest that the pastor has a duty to provide the faithful with this request.

We still await further guidance from the Ecclesia Dei commission about whether my family of 3 constitutes a "coetus fidelium traditioni liturgicae antecedenti adhaerentium continenter exsistit" (or 'stable group'!!) Perhaps I will have to have some more kids, or find some more parishioners!

On a related note, the provost of the Birmingham Oratory, for the Commemoration of All Souls, celebrated his second Low Mass of the day (in the old Rite) on the high altar (as opposed to the cloister chapel). It was a beautiful Mass, even Jackie Parkes enjoyed it! I hope and pray the regular Sunday 1962 Mass can be celebrated in such a place of dignity one day!




Thursday, October 18, 2007

Damian 10 years on... (Part Six)

Click here to start from Part One

It was a sudden exit from this world, however inevitable it may have been. There was an appreciation for us that Damian never had a drawn out period of dying, which would have separated him from the daily patterns of life which he loved to be a part of. A few months before he died, shortly after the public outpouring of grief over Diana Spencer’s death, Damian had a similar dizzy episode which resulted in a brief period of hospitalisation. We were on holiday at the time in Cornwall, and there was an overwhelming fear that took hold of me. During that short time waiting for the ambulance I thought that I would never see my brother again. The next day when we went to the hospital Damian was as lively as ever, having made a complete recovery, and typically complaining about the vegetarian meal option available! It was perhaps this dogged determination and optimistic countenance which kept us going. Many times Damian would dryly remark “well, I’m already past my sell-by date” referring to his life expectancy of 14 years, which he was given when very young. Any time he was given, was a blessing, which Damian was always grateful for. Most of all we can also look back on Damian as a blessing for ourselves. Over the past few months, as I have set about arranging this commemoration, I have come across people familiar with Damian simply through the short legacy he left, and not even having met him. His popularity lay in aspects which are often unexpected in our culture; contradictions which remind us that our life is only transient, with greater virtues than earthly ones enduring. A friend from University, Giles Heather, recounts his memories:

I was in his year at St Benet's. We played cards and had pizza take-away in my room a couple of nights before he died. Although we all knew about his precarious health, his death still came out of the blue and made a profound impact on the college. I was a pall-bearer at his funeral and remember that occasion as intense, crammed, uncomfortable even. I keep a photograph of Damian in my (old) missal, the one where he is holding up a glass; happier times... I am so glad that a requiem is to be celebrated. I didn't know he had a brother, and was on the verge of approaching Fr Henry to ask him if he was planning such a Mass. I think about Damian and his physical and spiritual courage often.

One thing I perhaps regretted most was not being able to speak at length with Damian about the prospect of dying which he surely reflected upon. But through his creative writing perhaps we can see a glimpse of how he felt: In his screenplay ‘The Unknown Man,’ the central character Daniel is on his deathbed, having spent the story struggling to know who he was, following a sudden amnesia which had blanked out his memories. He consoles Alison, the one he loves, denying being afraid of dying, with the following words:

Death is merely change. What I hate is the pain...

When I looked into the empty abyss, the nothingness, and saw it in myself and in the world too, that was when I was frightened because I realised that everything is merely images, scenes in an eternal film, where everything is merely an expression of life exploring its own infinite depths. Life is no thing in itself, but in the universe, it is in everything. And I am life. That is who I am.

Don’t cry... I don’t want you to be sad. I’ll be with you always... in your memories. If you ever want to speak to me, I’ll always be waiting in the infinite corridors of your imagination. Just simply close your eyes and start talking.

This world isn’t real... it’s just perceptions. Love is what is real.
- END -

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Damian 10 years on... (Part Five)

FINAL FRIENDS

Unfortunately Damian was never able to complete his degree. He died in the first month of his final year. Fr Michael, whom Damian knew as ‘Brother Anthony,’ recounts his time at St Benet’s in vivid detail:
At St Benet’s. Damian was happy there. His room on the half landing had been the Master’s bedroom in years past. He enjoyed showing people where he lived, and also photographs of his family. There was often a story about them.
At Matriculation, in his gown and mortar board. He had achieved the impossible.

In that blue sweater. Damian was always cold. We used to joke that it had become attached to him and could not be removed. He enjoyed hitting me for saying things like that.

Waiting for taxis. We seemed to spend a lot of time in dusty outer offices, waiting for a driver to take us back to St Giles. Damian would teach me patiently about the Star Wars universe. The fact that I was so old that I’d seen the first film on its release was amazing to him. He was glad to complete my education.

Working. Damian did well, especially in the first terms when his health kept up. He enjoyed philosophy. He hated Greek.

Laundry. The laundry at St Benet’s was Damian’s nadir. Down a steep back staircase, it was tough for him to reach even on his best days. Some of us became his laundry aides. It was one of the ways that Damian spread goodness around him. He trusted people to help him and they did.

With friends. I will never forget the evening of the visit to Freud’s Art CafĂ©. A trendy bar built in an unused church, Damian had long talked of going there, not with me – he didn’t really want a monk to take him to somewhere like that. His fellow undergraduates made it happen. They arranged the evening – they took him there. I remember watching his slight figure among those others, all of whom seemed so tall around him.
Towards the end, the main stairs of St Benet’s became very hard for him. Even coming to meals was sometimes tough. One evening, a friend carried Damian down.

The day of Damian’s death began like many others. He came down to breakfast very late and ate his toast with a mixture of honey and marmite. A taxi took us to Jericho and the doctor’s surgery. We had, a few weeks before, spent the day at the John Radcliffe. Now his test results had come.

In the car, we talked about an essay he was writing.

We sat together in the waiting room. This was all quite usual. The doctor, Michael Kenworthy-Browne, was someone Damian liked.

Damian knew that the results would not be good. He had weakened over the long vacation, and the first few weeks of that Michaelmas term had been difficult.

He started to get very short of breath.

He held my hand.

As the receptionist called out to the doctor, Damian suddenly stood up. He crumpled onto me. By the time the doctor laid him on the floor, Damian had died.

I think of that day very often. Of how normal it was, how Damian had done the things that Damian normally did. Being at Oxford was a huge accomplishment, against all the odds. He knew his family were vastly proud of him. And his presence in St Benet’s made it a finer place.

Damian died too quickly to feel the loss of any of those qualities that made his life so beautiful.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Damian 10 years on... (Part Four)

HIS LITTLE BROTHER

When Damian was five years old, I was born. It must be said that at this age and onwards, he had a particular knack of getting his own way! Shopping expeditions would often consist of a series of temper tantrums. Even letters from Boarding School would finish with a list of new toys and videos which he required! I can best divide our childhood into different ‘crazes,’ often with markedly discrete shifts of interest, always led by Damian! I can remember as early back as Roland Rat, whose soft toy persona would accompany Damian wherever he went. A loss in any of his stuffed animals would be met with a piercing cry! Shortly after this he best liked Star Wars toys, which have since become a cult collector’s item. Regardless, Damian ended up swapping all his figurines for the latest craze: Transformer toys! Perhaps this was due to their television serial designed at marketing them. Next came Action Force army figures (or G.I. Joe) which Damian would also enjoy customising with specially built wooden bases. But the overriding craze which always endured was Star Wars; a science fiction fantasy movie which spawned toys, novels, comics, role-playing games and much more. Damian was an avid collector, and as an adult he even kept toys which he bought in their boxes to increase their value.

He later came to see the story of Star Wars as a modern-day myth, encapsulating the same great principles of story telling which he had come to love from literature, history and religion. He identified several strands of contemporary philosophy within the spiritual areas of the story line, and from an emotional point of view would always identify with the character of Luke Skywalker: a boy who grew up without a father, intrigued by the mysteries and excitement awaiting him in the world. He began to expound a great ‘Theology of Star Wars,’ which he would impress upon others at every opportunity, including the Monks at St Benets Hall, who had never come across such a concept! If he had lived but another year, he would likely have written a dissertation on the subject.

He often struggled with his own Faith, unable to understand the reason for plurality of religions. Subsequently he strove to discover common threads and themes, and particularly loved the study of the human spirit which he found in films and books. He was certainly a believer in an omnipotent God, and as such he believed in a divine providence which transcended that which many would understandably see as a bitter position to be in, in terms of health. He saw in the teachings of Jesus a way to experience the Kingdom of Heaven, but never fully came to trust the teachings handed down by His Church. He searched other systems of belief, many claiming to be from Jesus Himself, but encompassing ‘New Age’ type philosophies. Eventually he despaired that systems of transcendent spiritual development such as these were impossible in application; his mind was too active and imaginative to ‘meditate’ upon nothingness for even five minutes! In his final years he lived above the Chapel at St. Benet’s Hall. He would often hear the Latin Gregorian Chant as part of the Mass and Divine Office in the life of the Monks there. This he appreciated, but occasionally felt irritated by! Nevertheless, he took great delight in taking me to a University performance of Gregorian Chant and Sacred Polyphony, which gave him great relaxation and peace of mind.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Damian 10 years on... (Part Three)

FROM PREP SCHOOL TO UNI

The state education system was not very conducive to Damian’s individual needs. Scared of his poor health prognosis, the teachers forbade him from leaving the classroom during play-time, and so his only perk was finishing off the free milk which was left over from first break. One day, another boy decided to stay in with him and play with his Transformers toys. Damian was reluctant to donate any of his milk, though! This young boy, Luke, was Damian’s loyal friend right up to his death. Eventually the opportunity presented itself to move Damian into an environment which was more holistic and understanding. He went to Grace Dieu Manor, a Catholic independent preparatory school, run by the Rosminian Institute of Charity. Here he thrived, and developed essential life skills through inspiring instruction. He would talk hours every weekend about his lively teachers and exciting lessons. He developed a passion for English and other languages, like Latin. He also loved all forms of Art; painting (for which he received particular commendation), pottery and woodwork. Despite the teasing which can be expected of not being able to join in all activities, he was calm and refused to react adversely. This earned him the respect of all.

Before he progressed onto the senior school, Ratcliffe College, he broke his leg in a freak accident involving a piano! For months he needed wheeling around in a wheelchair; although this had its perks, it affirmed his disdain to be seen as ‘different’ or requiring care. During his senior school years he proved his academic ability with numerous studies prizes, and obtained excellent GCSE results. For A-level he specialised in Computer Science, English and Theology. He attained respectable grades, with particular amplitude for computing, having famously taught the head of the department a great deal himself! On interview he made a strong impression with the Master of St Benet’s Hall at Oxford University, who admitted him as an undergraduate to study Theology and Philosophy. Two years later the same Master, Dom Henry Wansborough, would preside over Damian’s funeral with a personal and heartfelt eulogy. Damian’s mother, Monica, reflects on this difficult upheaval:

10 years on, I divide my life into two halves: that before he died and the utterly different path I had to take afterward. My whole being was changed... it was as if I was re-forged in a kind of fire.

It seemed shortly after Damian’s death that God spoke to me directly and told me that Damian was with Him and that He had given me Jerome (who was 4½ years old). He quelled the incredible anger I felt after the death.

Recently, I was having difficulties with Jerome, now approaching 15, and was at a loss at what to do... amazingly I found myself praying... but it was not to God, it was to Damian. So I have become a mother who can ‘pray’ to her own son, who is with God.

As Father Henry said to me ten years ago, “Life goes on.” I must admit I was somewhat sceptical about this in my case! But like him, I have learnt much from my son Damian, and before I lost him I bathed in the serenity he had. He was beautiful and I am eternally grateful that God chose me to be his mother.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Damian 10 years on... (Part Two)

Damian was born in South Africa shortly before the release of his favourite film Star Wars, in 1977. Immediately, he went into heart failure and required maximum medical intervention to keep him alive. He was unable to feed, initially required a feeding tube and numerous other invasive devices. He was kept at the hospital, and only allowed home after several months. His mother had to cope on her own in a very difficult climate. Characteristically, she broke cultural taboos by taking Damian on a ‘blacks-only’ bus one day, since she had no use of a car. Although somewhat apprehensive, her disdain for the system of segregation was rewarded with friendliness and good humour, with Damian being passed around by the swooning ladies on the bus, saying “Little Master!” and all desperate to hold him!

He was a remarkably pretty baby: Born a month premature, he was small for his age but quickly developed a huge grin which would often have his mother stopped in the street by admiring passers-by. His hair was rich blonde as a young boy, his bright face matched by a remarkable intelligence and creativity. He would love to draw and write stories; pastimes which he enjoyed to the last. His illness never limited him a great deal in the early years; the pressures in his heart favourable, his cheeks were flush and his lips pink. Regrettably he suffered a great deal in other ways; an unsupportive step-father meant he struggled to feel secure until his family moved at the age of six to England. Here he enjoyed the company of his great grandparents in Nottingham, where he lived all his life. Also, many second cousins from both sides of the family. In particular, he loved holidays with his great uncle in Harrogate, where he would play Star Wars with his cousins.

Similarly he had very supportive cousins further south in Oxford, who would take him on holiday and provide great love and friendship. Quite early on he would joke that Oxford University was his intended destination in life! This cousin, Candace, now has her own family; but looks back with fondness on the times she looked after Damian. After he died, Candace wrote him the following letter:

Dearest Damian,

At 6 years old – your age when I first met you – you told me you knew me from my voice, before you ever saw my face. Age 20, you prepared me for your death, softening my path to grief with your humour:

Look at it this way, Can” you said, “I passed my sell-by date years ago!

And yet I never expected you to go. Your sense of humour, your positive grip, your great lovingness and above all, your braveness – were all so life-affirming, it did not seem possible.

My mind turns to all the stages and eras we went through from Star War figures and cardboard spaceships onwards. To our many diverse conversations on everything from film directing to psychology to St. Mark’s gospel. I miss borrowing books from your bookshelf.

As tears come to my eyes because I no longer see your face, I suddenly hear your voice:

Cheer up, Can. I am not gone. Smile about all those little memories of me growing up. The tantrums in the toy aisles of Woolworths. Piggy backs across Oxford to the Sheldonian Theatre. Dancing to Michael Jackson in your garden at Mill Street . Promising to drive you across America in a pink mini. Making your computer keyboard sticky when I typed my stories. My long hair phase. And so on. All good practise for bringing up your two boys... Give them empathy – especially when they’re in the middle of a tantrum or growing their hair. They’ll turn out all right. Look at me, I did.

You certainly did, Damian. More than all right. I am so proud to have known you and had the privilege of looking after you. Thank you for the riches you gave me. You are a positive example to us all on how to live life to the fullest that we are able. And you are right. You are not gone. The light in our hearts - which is you - will never go out, you most precious, most special Damian.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Damian 10 years on... (Part One)

Part One of a Six-part series

A PRECIOUS LIFE

This time ten years ago, the chapel at St Benet’s Hall was full beyond capacity. A huge number of people came to bear their final farewell to a 20 year old man cut off in his prime. Many people who couldn’t come sent letters of condolence. As the Requiem Mass was offered for the repose of his soul, the standing-room-only became hot and still, thick with respect and sorrow. The silence was broken by the occasional sob, and then suddenly by the thud of someone fainting! Had another young man’s life been snuffed out?! Thankfully not; a representative from Grace Dieu and Ratcliffe College (and a friend of mine) had fainted and keeled over in the most unexpected of ways. Perhaps the only person who would have seen the funny side of this was the man we were all grieving: Damian Coghlan.

He had such a joyful and exuberant sense of humour. Laughter for him was not a mere expression of an interior appreciation for some clever wit; it was a shaking up of his very being. This was clearly evident if anyone saw him watch a comedy show. He would buckle over, draw his knees up, throw his head back, and wail with an uncontrollable explosion of excitement. It is easy to be sad and depressed when someone dies, especially one so young. Happy memories often fade the fastest of all, amidst the sombre and macabre disposition which grief surrounds us in. But as healing takes place we find a new awakening of the essence of this life, which can never be smothered or stifled. Damian was certainly blessed with a rare gift of unique joy. He knew exactly how to shake himself out of the dark and sinister feelings which life can sometimes evoke; he would turn to laughter. A laughter that was genuine and heartfelt.

For most people, especially his age, it was hard to understand where Damian mustered this joy from. He had a lot to feel downtrodden about, but things which can easily make us bitter towards life somehow gave him extra strength. Damian was born thirty years ago with a congenital heart defect which hung above him like an omen of death for all of his days. He carried this cross of suffering, not only as a mark of reduced life expectancy, but also of gradually deteriorating health. As he passed through his adolescence, his lips became more often dusky than not, and most of the time he seemed breathless and struggling for energy. As Eisenmenger’s Syndrome presented itself, the medical profession had less and less to offer. Damian was faced with Haemoglobin levels spiralling upwards; a sign that his body was trying desperately to provide him with more oxygen, whilst putting him more at risk of fatal clotting events. Most people were simply ignorant of the extent of his problems due to his happy demeanour and refusal to give up. Of course several activities were out of his grasp; sports, long walks and, to his greatest regret, dancing! But this never stopped him pushing his abilities to the limits.