27 November 2007

Liturgical Reform

These are the first and last words I ever plan to write about liturgical reform, inspired by a well-done talk sponsored by the Oxford University Newman Society this evening.

The Extraordinary Form is a beautiful Mass that encourages contemplation and reverence. The Ordinary Form is an accessible Mass that encourages participation and community. Both have strengths and both have weaknesses. And supporters for either side fail to realize that arguments for either are almost always lacking an answer to one pivotal question:

What is the point? Why do we have a Mass?

It's a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Supporters of the Extraordinary Form would emphasize that it is to glorify God and celebrate the sacrifice. Supporters of the Ordinary Form would emphasize that it is to grow as individual Christians and as a Community through sharing Communion. Neither side would deny that either objective is important, but the question of emphasis is the crux of the argument.

As far as I know, there are currently no liturgies which give due weight to God without sacrificing some of the edification of the congregation--none which properly teach the congregation without sacrificing some of the dignity shown to God in a High Mass. Until both sides can concede that this ambiguity is inherent in the very idea of the Mass, there will be no true, viable, healthy liturgical reform.

10 November 2007

Celidah and Context

I think I have discovered where the modern liberal arts, particularly the study of English literature, have failed. (At least, I've come a step closer to realizing what my father has been telling me for years.) Part of becoming educated is to develop a sense of context. To properly understand a text, a student has to have read many of the books that influenced the writer. He may even need to have tried writing texts himself to get a feel for the narrative. The goal of context is to build up a body of ideas and experiences held in common with a writer. Without this context, modern students are simply floundering in the dark for a world of lost meaning.

Tonight, thanks to a tradition barn dance called a celidah sponsored by the chaplaincy, I am one step closer to the context I need for the works of Jane Austen. Just imagine the experience...

The band slows toward the end of a song, signaling a dance is about to begin. A young man asks me to dance. I feel no sense of drama because my heart already belongs to someone else, but I am excited to be dancing. We line up in triplets--girl, boy, girl. The caller briefly outlines the dance and off we go, galloping down the floor, turning, and returning again. A few spins, a circle, and we're off galloping again until the caller calls out "boys advance" and the two women pass our partner on to another man. As the dance continues, I notice how different it is to be partnered with each different men. Some are unfamiliar and strange, bizarre partners. Others just aren't attractive, probably sweating profusely. Some can't dance very well and I lead them through an awkward round before passing them on gratefully. Others are familiar and I cling to them like a lifeline in a storm of chaos. Around and around we go and every time we switch, I imagine the ecstasy of meeting the man I love at the next reel. And that is the moment I realize what it must have been like to be Anne Elliot. I look around them warm room, sweaty, smiling young faces all around me, and realize I've stepped into the world of any of Jane Austen's heroines.

That is context. That is a life experience that will fundamentally shape the way I read a particular author's books for the rest of my life. The celidah opened a window into another time and another place, bringing one step closer to the sophistication and art of Austen's works.

Of course, that realization comes with the far more humbling one that I will never grasp the full depths of Austen's works. She is in a time and a place far removed from me. I shall have to continue, as an English student, to do my best to have as many exciting experiences and to explore as many new ideas as I can.

25 October 2007


Inordinately late due to the inadvertent destruction of my USB ports, I present for your enjoyment a post about matriculation--the day on which I became an official student at Oxford University.

First of all, I feel compelled to explain that the weather was extremely sticky. My hair looks a bit Hermione-esque. But, here I am in all of my sub-fosc glory.

The head burser said I would earn a reputation wearing this hat. He tried to talk me into borrow a mortar board. But I've worn mortar boards and I think they are far sillier. Besides, students must carry their mortar boards--they aren't allowed to even wear them until graduation. I, on the other hand, must wear my soft cap as it cannot be carried.

En masse, the entire new undergraduate and graduate body of Exeter College marched down the street to the Sheldonian Theatre. The experience was rather strange. Oxford is one of the only places in the world you can stand on the street looking like this without anyone thinking anything of it. As a group though, you attract loads of attention. We did look rather dashing.

The Sheldonian Theatre is very nice, though very small. The colleges could not all come at once. The colleges marched in in order of foundation, so Exeter was in the first group.

The ceremony itself was rather anti-climactic. It gave the surreal experience of actually earning my place here, achieving my dream of coming here, a degree of cold, final reality. This is really happening and I am really here!

10 October 2007

Why I Couldn't Sleep Last Night

I just wanted to share with you the reason I couldn't sleep last night. It was so perfectly British...

As you know, I live in the chaplaincy. That means a lot of people come and go from what is basically the ground floor of my house. Last night, the Oxford University Newman Society had a drinks party. (Eighteen year-olds are allowed to drink here, so most freshmen events for organizations involve beer or wine.) The Newman Society's involved champagne cocktails and had a pianist. Very ritzy. The entire event was much more fun than I expected and I shall probably participate in more of their events later in the year. I retired early to do some more work before crawling into bed around eleven.

It wasn't until I turned off my computer that the noise began: loud, tipsy British men. The pianist seemed to be banging on the keys as chorus after chorus of patriotic hymns wafted up the two flights of stairs--'God Save the Queen,' 'I Vow to Thee My Country,' round after round of enthusiastically sung songs. I don't know what time it ended, but I do know it lasted more than half an hour.

Now, tell me, where else would some of the more masculine men boisterously sing patriotic carols at midnight?

09 October 2007

Walk to Littlemore

Last night, I had the honor and privilege to attend a walk in honor of John Henry Newman's conversion. We walked for two hours, in absolute silence, before arriving in Littlemore for Eucharistic adoration and then a walk through the Newman's retreat. The entire experience was very moving.

I don't know how many people are familiar with the story of Cardinal Newman. Newman was a very famous Oxford Anglican clergy-man for many years, but he was constantly struggling with his faith. He gradually retired from public life to a small and austere retreat he had made for himself and for others a little way off from Oxford called Littlemore. Eventually, he sent for a famous Italian priest who journeyed to Oxford and then from Oxford to Littlemore in the pouring rain. While warming himself by the fire in the library, he was surprised to turn around and find perhaps England's most famous contemporary religious figure, kneeling before him, begging to have his confession heard so that he could be received into the Catholic Church. He wrote a very famous book about his religious life called the Apologia Pro Vita Sua. He is now remembered as the namesake of most Catholic student centers, at least in the English-speaking world.

The four-mile walk, entirely in silence except for twelve stations related to Newman's spiritual biography, gave me an opportunity to think about the experience of conversion and the quest for truth. Newman spent his entire life seeking something from God. It made him isolated and unpopular on many fronts, even after his conversion. He made a name for himself as a icon of faith and intellectualism in the Anglican church, but was always insistent on ministering to the poor and ill. And yet, despite all he knew he represented, he was willing to endure isolation and to be ostracized for the rest of his life in order to join Christ's Church. That is a courage I'm not sure I possess. It's not a sacrifice many in the West have been in a position to make.

It is one beautiful and amazing thing to be martyred, to make a decision to obey Christ even in the face of death. But, in some ways, it is a more courageous thing to commit to a life of separation, even from one's family. That's what dying to self really means. To choose daily to put the truth before all other things. To live the truth by choosing to deny ones self for the sake of others and for God.

As students, we are reminded of John Henry Newman's example every time we step foot into a Newman Center. The name reminds us that, although faith and reason aren't the same thing, they both search for truth. We must always, in all our actions, search for truth. God is that truth.

John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote a beautiful poem, not when he converted, but several years before his conversion while on a trip to the continent. Newman begs for just enough light, just enough truth, to see the next step before him. It isn't a song about God's greatness or an ode to man's reason; it's merely a man searching for the truth. Lead Kindly Light seems a fitting hymn for students and for anyone seeking the truth:

Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom, lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home; lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till the night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile, which I
Have loved long since, and lost awhile!

Meantime, along the narrow rugged path, Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Savior, lead me home in childlike faith, home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life.

06 October 2007

Applying to Oxford

As far as I know, there are no American first undergraduate degree candidates matriculating at Exeter College this year. I began to wonder why. Many American students are quite clever!

Then I began to think about the application process and several travails came to mind that seem peculiar to American students.

I want to apply for Oxford. What should I do now?:
1. Stop spending your extra money.

Now. Instantly cancel your i-Tunes and Netflixs accounts. Call your girlfriend and tell her you won't be taking her out tonight. Oxford is amazingly expensive for American students. (British students have their educations almost entirely funded by the government and the colleges at the university.) You have to be able to tell the university how you will pay for your degree on your application! And don't count on US federal loans, some of which won't work for overseas study.

Oxford will be a sacrifice--for you and for your parents. You will have to give things up in the States to have the money to spend in the UK. You will probably have to take a job during your breaks, which means you will have to work very hard to finish all of the work tutors assign during your time away from the university. And you may have to live in Oxford at the lowest cost possible, which may mean skipping some nights out and eating most of your meals in the hall.

Make sure Oxford is worth it to you. It was to me.

2. Be certain--or nearly so--of what you want.

I didn't realize before I came here that English students were asked to specialize in specific subjects by high school. That means, when it comes time for university, they are prepared to apply for a specific subject. Americans are not.

'Liberal arts' at Oxford does not mean that you are required, over the course of two years, to take a variety of courses to help you 'find yourself.' In Oxford, you hit the ground running in a specific subject. You take few or no classes outside of your discipline, although there are some very cool combinations like 'Philosophy, Politics, and Economics' or 'English and Classics' that you might like to explore.

Though not impossible, it is very difficult to change courses. Oxford is not a good school for the indecisive.

3. Start thinking about your application for 2008 now.

Oxford undergraduate applications are due a full three months before most undergraduate applications are due in January. By the end of this school year, you should already know who's writing your teacher recommendations. Before summer vacation is over, you should have your essay drafts finished.

Applications are due in October.

4. UCAS is not made for Oxford or Cambridge.

All English universities require students to apply through a universal system called the UCAS. It is a web-based service into which you will type your information. It is also the service which will notify you if you are accepted and through which you must accept the offer of admission. But the UCAS application, though required, is not comprehensive for Oxford. Other essays, recommendations, etc. may be required.

It is your responsibility to check the Oxford website to make sure you've submitted everything necessary to Oxford.

5. Don't count on the Oxford website to user-friendly.

Oxford's website is a tangled mass of information. It's all useful and relevant, but finding it is a bit tricky. Spend some time making sure you've read the entire thing.

Everything you need is on the Oxford website, but it will take you some time to find it. Call or e-mail the university if you aren't clear about something.

6. Oxford doesn't care how 'well-rounded' you are.

Oxford, by all of the admission of professors I have heard so far, is looking specifically for 'clever people.' Fortunately, they strive very hard to ensure that doesn't imply 'People from schools where most of the students are clever,' so students from unknown schools may actually have a better chance at Oxford than some American universities. They don't intentionally accept good athletes or student council presidents. The interview will not give you an opportunity to show the interviewer much about your personality. They want to know, on your application and in your interview, if you can think... and if you can be taught to think better.

Academics are almost all that matter to those who read Oxford applications.

7. Be prepared for a few special challenges for overseas applicants.
a. Interview
In England, no one realizes that it might possibly take more than six hours to get somewhere for more than $40. You may get a letter inviting you to interview in two weeks. You will either need to pay an inordinate amount to travel to the Oxford University Press' office in New York City or be willing to do a phone interview. Although I know nothing about phone interviews, I cannot imagine they make as solid an impression. On the other hand, it may give you an opportunity to speak with a tutor under whom you are more likely to be studying.

b. Picking a college
Another advantage of going to interview is that you are generally able to look around the school and get a feel for all of the colleges. Oxford is divided into thirty-nine different colleges and seven private halls, which are mostly like colleges in most ways. You will have to choose one to three to indicate on your application, although you may also choose to be considered for any open space in the department if you would like. Different colleges have different attitudes toward life, academics, and themselves. They will be in different parts of the city and look and feel different. They will have different specializations and may even offer a different number of courses.

My college, Exeter, is a small medieval school--the fourth oldest on the city. It has particularly strong English and science tutors. People here are laid back (about life, not academics) and there isn't much social pressure. Schools generally foster these types of sentiments intentionally, so their websites are pretty revealing. You can also try to get your hands on an alternative prospectus if you need more guidance.

Picking a college is important because it will determine the community in which you will live and the tutors under which you will study, at least to some degree. But don't get too worried about the decision. Even after all that work, you may or may not get into one of the colleges you choose; Oxford may shuffle you around if too many qualified people apply for the same program in the same college.

This advice certainly won't get you into Oxford, but it should at least set you on the right path for an application. Never hesitate to ask if you have questions.

05 October 2007

Contacting Me

There are several ways you can contact me while I'm in Oxford.

First, as you probably didn't need to be told, via e-mail.

Second, by chatting over Google Chat.

Third, by calling me over Skype, when I'm on-line. My username is alison.m.fincher.

Fourth, by sending me at letter at:
The Catholic Chaplaincy
The Old Palace
Rose Place
St Aldate's
Oxford UK

And finally, but calling me on my AMERICAN cellphone. The call will forward at no expense to either of us.

But please remember that GMT is five hours ahead of EDT. And don't call me at 2am--like a certain inattentive sister whom I love--unless it's a real emergency.

For your convenience, I've posted a link to this handy time-zone calculator. For most of you, convert America/New_York to GMT to know what time it is here.

I hope to hear from all of you very soon!

04 October 2007

Academic Dress

Academic dress is a part of the Oxford University tradition. (View the three page guidelines, if you like--I did!) They are beautiful and exciting, but if you were thinking, "Oh boy! Alison gets to dress up like Hermione!" take your standards... and put them lower. At Oxford, Harry and pals would only have sleeves on their robes if they were post-graduates. On the bright side, I get an awesome Saint-Thomas-esque hat of which Harry even Dumbledore never dreamed.

There are three degrees of dressed up for students without hoods, ie me:
1. Casual dress with the robe on top, which I think looks particularly silly
2. Nice dress with robe on top, which is how I am pictured here.
3. Sub-fusc (pronounced fosc as best I can tell) with robe on top and with awesome hat, which is how I will be dressed for matriculation next week

03 October 2007

Second Impressions?

Today was the first day with real academic emphasis. I finally got to meet with my tutors and turned in my summer assignment, which I have published at literarycatechist.blogspot.com for the interested/bored.

So far, everything seems to be going well. I have honestly gotten on best with the English undergraduate freshers so far. It's really nice--at GW, I was impressed by the complex and knowledgeable conversations I had as a new student about politics. Oxford is like that, but with a much wider variety of topics. We had a discussion about the varying merits of Jane Austen's novels this afternoon which was quite refreshing.

Friday morning, I will be participating in a photo shoot contest. I plan to bring my own camera and then to post a large number of pictures so you will be able to see more of this beautiful city. For now, please find yourself entertained by the following anecdote:

Walking home down St Aldate's Street, I pass Christ Church College. Christ Church College is one of the largest and richest schools in Oxford, which not only means it looks like Hogwarts, but was actually the film set for the Hogwarts dining hall.

Little boy: Look Mum! That's wear Harry Potter lives.
Mum: No, darling. I don't think Harry Potter is in there.

01 October 2007

First Impressions

I hope you'll forgive the complete self-centeredness of this post. My goal for this blog, I think, is eventually to reflect on being an American in England, making generalizations and writing things of actual substance. But for now, I think there is a wide enough interested audience (ie, my mother) to justify a few posts just about my and my initial experiences.

My first day as a student at Exeter College, Oxford went quite well, although I must admit that it is bizarre to be at "freshers" week, doing the "Yea! I'm in college now" thing all over again. I felt socially awkward the first time.

The most exciting event of the day was probably buying my academic gown and dressing up to go see the head of the college, the Rector--photos will follow soon.

My favorite part, though, was finally getting to meet all of the other English students. It was nice to be able to discuss substantial things beyond, "What's your name?" and "What are studying?" It seems to be much easier for people with common interests to communicate, even about things outside of that shared field.

I had an interesting conversation tonight with a young man from (Old?) Jersey--which I have only just learned is NOT a part of England. After thirty minutes or so of conversation, he brought up abortion, an issue that makes clear fairly quickly that I am a conservative theist. He started to ask me, "Are you a Christian?" but stopped and checked himself before revising his question to, "Are your opinions shaped by religious beliefs?" Needless to say, I was amused by his British--but not English--diplomacy.

The conversation, though, was really refreshing. This young man really wanted to know why I believe, or perhaps how I can believe. And he actually listened to my answer, even though he is an atheist. I normally don't get to go very far into my, "I tried to be agnostic but found Christianity to be logically reasonable argument," before people begin to laugh. But this young man kept a very open mind. It was a far cry from GW to actually have a conversation from two opposite viewpoints rather than a shouting match.

I hope Oxford will be like that. I hope I am in an environment where the students at least are very willing to learn about new ideas. Of course, that means I must strive to be more of one myself.

Coming soon: pictures of Exeter, Oxford, and Alison in her academic gown!

30 September 2007

I'm Here!

I did it! I made it to Oxford with 100 lbs. of luggage all by myself, although at times I was reminded of the moment in The Prisoner of Azkaban when Harry and Ron miss the train, pushing their carts blindly toward it to no avail. But now it is ten o’clock and I’m nestled snugly in my little room at the Oxford University Catholic student center

This is what the five hundred-year-old part of the building--the Old Palace, Rose Place--looks like...

... and this is what my part of the building looks like.

As you can see, the space is small, but functional and cozy…

…even if I do have the saddest bookcase that ever existed.

I do at least have my own sink...

…and an incredible view.

I will post more pictures and information about my goings and comings as soon as I can suffice it to say, I have met several other second undergraduate students and I feel very reassured about my decision to come here.

26 September 2007

A New Beginning

I have started this blog for those of you who are interested in the ramblings of a twenty-two year old American, temporarily expatriating to the UK for two years of study on Old and Middle English. I will post about my life abroad. For more academic or literary reflections, please visit my other blog at literarycatechist.blogspot.com. Stay tuned.