WILLIAM ODDIE wonders why English Catholicism has become so withdrawn and defensive
THESE TWO HOOKS COULD hardly be more different. Fr Aidan Nichols is a worthy representative of the high intellectual tradition exemplified by the seven English Dominicans who are his subject. Sister Marie belongs to a very different monastic tradition, and she is not an intellectual. And yet, the scholarly and mentally hyperactive Dominican and the simple but impressive Carmelite are palpably part of the same world. Both books are fascinating in their own right. But to read them together, as I did, is a moving and powerful experience, a vivid confirmation of the unity in diver sity of the Catholic idea: it made me wonder, in passing, why so much of today's official and bureaucratic Catholicism regards cultural diversity in the Church as a dangerous source of division.
Fr Aidan's intellectual range and energy is already legendary; it is confirmed by this tour de force, for, to write convincingly about intellectuals as various and formidable as Victor White, Gerald Vann, Thomas Gilbey, Sebastian Bullough, Gervase Matthew, Kenelm Foster and Conrad Pepler requires at least a basic competence in their very different specialist fields. Fr Aidan's competence is a good deal more than basic: so the book also serves as an introduction to 20th-century Thomism, Jungian psychology, the English Reformation, Byzantine civilisation, Eric Gill and the Ditchling circle, the theology of the Holy Trinity and many other subjects. There are useful chapters on the English Dominican tradition, and a particularly valuable Dominican Gallery: Portrait of a Culture by Aidan Nichols. Gracewing, Countryside and Cloister: Reminiscences of a Carmelite Nun by Marie T. Litchfield. Family Publications, 77 Banbury Road. Oxford 0X2 6LF, £6.75.
one on the English Catholic world in the period of Belloc, Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, the Wards, and so many others, a period in which there was an active Catholic engagement both lay and clerical with contemporary secular culture, of a depth and persuasiveness which makes one wonder where all the apologists went and why the English Catholic Church became so withdrawn and defensive.
One has the firm impression that with very little extra effort, the author could expand his separate chapters into as many full length studies; and indeed, one derives as much nourishment from them as they stand as from a shelf full of books of greater length than this modest 400-page volume. His central chapters are not only critical studies but lucid and colourful biographies of men who, while fired by the same underlying tradition achieved a splendid and idiosyncratic individuality, in some
cases bordering on the eccentric.
I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Fr Gervase Mathew. Fr Aldan quotes the splendid vignette by a fellow Dominican of Fr Gervase and his brother, Archbishop David Matthew (Fr Aidan's skilful and telling use of quotations is one of the books great joys): "The two brothers, always in correct clerical dress though otherwise distressingly dishevelled and unkempt, were often to be seen in the streets of Oxford, sometimes arm in arm, as they made their way somewhat ponderously to a small French restaurant for a special celebration... or pottering over to Blackwell's to leaf over the latest book by one of their many friends... The enigmatic silences, the sudden hilarity which ended with the disconcerting abruptness with which it began, and the oracular manner... alarmed many people; but many others found in their love for one another and in the absolute simplicity of their religion, a touchstone of fidelity."
The life of Sister Marie has been very different, both intellectually and socially. But at a deep level, it has been the same: she too, even more clearly, has manifested in "the absolute simplicity of [her] religion, a touchstone of fidelity". Her early life unfolded in the English countryside; her spiritual background was that of many
another ordinary Catholic family, one of quiet and faithful observance. When she was eight, she tells us, "an apparently very small incident occurred which which was to have a profound effect on the whole of my life and indeed on that of all our closely-knit family. Auntie Lucy gave me for Christmas a Life of St Therese of Lisieux, written for children... 1 read it over and over again, and decided that I, too, would be a Carmelite one day." As simple as that. Other ambitions pushed this early aspiration into the background: to be a dancer, a musician, a poet, even an aviator but in the end her vocation was not to be denied.
The early part of the book is an extended account of the life of an ordinary English family before and just after the war: perhaps too extended one finds oneself impatiently turning towards the pages describing her vocation and entry into Carmel. Her account of life as a Carmelite, certainly, is the most interesting part of the book: especially fascinating are her memoirs of the establishment of the Carmels at Thicket Priory in the North Riding, and then of Wood Hall in the diocese of Leeds.
All the same, her childhood reminiscences are of immense value. One finds oneself wondering if there was not something in Catholic family life in those days which we need to recover, a givenness about Catholic observance and a natural lay spirituality which has since been weakened. Though the loss of a daughter into a contemplative order was felt as a very great wrench by her devoted family, it was also seen as part of the order of things, an obedience to a call which could not be denied rather than a personal whim or a sign of an excessive and unhealthy religiosity.
How many Catholic aunties today give eight year-old nieces inspirational books about St Therese? How prominently do the lives of the saints figure in today's catechetical literature? How many vocations to the religious life have ben fostered by Weaving the Web?
Both books, then, pose uneasy questions about contemporary English Catholicism: on the other hand, both are part of it. The deep well-springs of faith which both authors evoke and exemplify are very far from dry: and these two books point the reader towards their source. I would not be without either of them.