The Real Charm of Oxford
“Yes, Oxford in September, in the quiet, the scarlet creeper, and the mist, is the Oxford of dreams and visions: ‘She needs not June for beauty’s heightenings’ (Matthew Arnold). And yet, you know the real charm of the place is not the quiet but the contrast (at least remembered) between the venerable grey walls and the un-venerable pink humanity that floats noisily between the walls.”
—Bede Jarrett, “Letter to Leonard Parker,” September 23, 1922.
On my shelves I have had a book entitled Social Theories of the Middle Ages: 1200–1500. The book is written by the English Dominican priest, Bede Jarrett (1881–1934), and was first published in 1926. This book contains nine chapters respectively entitled: Law, Education, Women, Slavery, Property, Money-Making, War, Christendom, and Art. There is an appendix on the Summa Theologica.
Although I am interested mainly in the letters, let me begin by citing one passage from the final chapter on art. I think it is quite insightful: “Now each poet or artist, who had his purpose in composing his poem or work of fine art, must have had a concrete purpose to fulfill. He was making a thing. It was to be outside of him. It was to stand independently of the mind that made it. It was to be on its own. Hence a local habituation is of its essence, it must bear a name” (248). This remark reminds me both of Gilson’s 1957 Mellon Lecture, Painting and Reality, and Dorothy Sayers’s The Mind of the Maker.
Bede Jarrett was a member of the English Province of the Dominican Order. He was a preacher, scholar, sometime provincial, and letter writer. The volume that I was recently given is a selection of Jarrett letters. Each person to whom or about whom Jarrett writes is identified. One simply has to admire the very names of some of the correspondents—Lady Anne Lucy Arundell of Wardour, Bonaventura Garcia Paredes, O.P., Serenus Cressy, Sir David Oswald Hunter-Blair, or Herman Walmesley, S.J. The latter, a Jesuit among Dominicans, had been rector of Stoneyhurst College (1891–1898). He next goes to South Africa as rector of St. Aiden’s College, Grahamstown (1898–1907), then becomes Assistant to the Jesuit Generals in Rome until 1923 (Werntz and Ledochowski), after which he retired at the Gesu Church in Rome.
Books of letters can cover almost anything. Jarrett wrote many letters to his fellow Dominicans that recounted what he had been doing. Recently, I had occasion to reread Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World, a rather sobering book about the end of the world. Benson was the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury, a convert, novelist, and theologian.
Jarrett had attended a conference in Brighton, the closest the English have to a seashore. It was sponsored by the famous Catholic Truth Society. The bishop of Christchurch in New Zealand was there. From St. Dominic’s in London, Jarrett writes about Benson to his friend Jerome Rigby, O.P., on September 29, 1909.
Barrett judged that Benson’s talk on “Christian Science” was the best paper given at the Conference. Benson’s paper was also “the most amusing.” The paper was “clever and true, though many seem to think he ought to have been more serious, as the theory has more in it than may appear.” This brings up an old question to which Chesterton also addressed himself.
If a thing was funny, was that necessarily a sign that it was not true? Is it necessary always to approach what is true with gravity and solemnity? Chesterton did not think so, nor did Jarrett. “But I fancy that humour of a refined kind, as is his [Benson’s], is quite a good solvent. F. Hugh’s [Hugh Pope, O.P.] retreat [which Jarrett had been attending] was very good. ‘Be ye English, as your Heavenly Father is English’ was the refrain. Sorry to scandalize you” (12).
Such playfulness, I think, is always welcome. In today’s multicultural world, we would have to say: “Be ye Muslim as your Heavenly Father is Muslim.” “Be ye Hindu, as your Heavenly Father is Hindu.” “Be ye European as your Heavenly Father is European.” But under no circumstances, “Be ye American as your Heavenly Father is American.”
On February 6, 1932, Jarrett was at the Dominican House in Hinckley. He wrote to Sister Mary Anthony Morrison, O.P. concerning the death of a Dominican lay sister at Carisbrooke, who seems to have borne the name Sister Angela Butt, O.P. He thanked Sister Mary Anthony for the account of Sister Angela’s death. This is how Jarrett describes the nun:
She had—as so many do have—all the great virtues and few of the little ones! In religious life we are inclined to judge fervent religious to be those who do the little obvious things of the life we lead and not to realize that the great commandments are still the great commandments in the cloister as well as outside. Hence we sometimes underestimate our fellows because of their failures in the things that are most visible (179).
One has to be amused at the nun in 1932 who has “all the great virtues and few of the little ones.” The implication is that if we have all the little virtues but none of the big ones, few will notice what is lacking.
Earlier, in May of 1925, from an unspecified location, Jarrett wrote to Mrs. Amy Campbell. Mrs. Campbell is otherwise unidentified. Jarrett tells her that it is fine to send a prayer card to the some twenty-five Dominican novices at Hawkesyard Priory. It seems that Mrs. Campbell met G. K. Chesterton. Evidently, Mrs. Campbell experienced an otherwise “luckless day” so the Chesterton talk cheered her up.
Jarrett also, with some kidding, tells her that a “cocktail” might help her “through a succession of disappointments.” This thought brings Jarrett back to the question of humor. “The Lord had a quaint sense of humour and believes thoroughly in cocktails, usually before the meal of sorrow, though sometimes it comes as a cognaced coffee after the event. Whichever comes first you know will be surely followed by another, and so get prepared” (96). I always suspected those old English Dominicans were far ahead of backward Jesuits!
This book was given to me by Scott Walter on the occasion of the baptism of his fourth child. He flagged one page for me to note, which was a sermon that Jarrett preached “at the blessing of the communion rails in the Catholic church Crayford.” This dedication was in honor of a lady by the name of Mrs. Sybil Mary Magdalen Hart-Davis. She was a sister of Duff Cooper. Her son wrote a book about her entitled The Arms of Time. “Her marriage (to Richard Hart-Davis) was not a success, though she and her husband stayed together. She had a succession of lovers, being (as her son said in the book), ‘as generous in love as in everything else.’”
Sybil Hart-Davis attended a retreat that Jarrett gave at Grayshott Cenacle in October, 1923. Eventually, she straightened things out and died as a Dominican tertiary in 1927. I think what amused my friend Scott was the very idea of solemnly blessing altar rails, which so many liturgists subsequently were so zealous in removing. Jarrett said of her: “There was in her, in this intensity of hers, above all, an absorbing interest in beauty. She loved it wherever she found it; and she found it everywhere” (118).
I began these reflections on Bede Jarrett by citing a letter about Oxford. The letter was to Leonard Parker, a lawyer and member of the Royal Air Force. In 1934, Parker wrote to Father John Baptist Reeves, O.P., that he and Jarrett had corresponded almost weekly from 1919 until Jarrett’s death. I like the observation that Oxford is beautiful at all seasons of the year. Yet, as Jarrett noticed, its quiet is realized best when contrasted to the noisy chatter of students in term, without which it would not be Oxford.
James V. Schall, S.J. retired in December 2012 as professor of government at Georgetown University.
Posted: December 16, 2012 in On Letters and Essays.