“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Mt 18:20)
While this line is said by Our Lord in the context of fraternal correction, since coming to Oxford, it has gained a new meaning for me. It speaks about the beauty which is to be found in a Christian community.
Before coming to Oxford, I didn’t know anyone my own age who was a practising Catholic, so you can imagine the shock I received upon arriving in Oxford! Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a marvellous shock! The simple joy of having people around you who share your values is one of the most often unsung gifts which God gives us.
It is often said that you only become aware of what you had when you lose it, which was certainly the case for me when I went home. While I love my home parish and it is doing wonderful things, it’s not on the doorstep in the same way that so many churches are here in Oxford. The ability to go to daily Mass, to sit in front of one of the city’s many tabernacles and be in Our Lord’s presence and experience His peace for a brief moment, or even the ability to have a drink or a bite to eat with a fellow Catholic and have some shelter from the storm… All of these are beautiful and precious moments which bring us together in the same love of Christ.
Perhaps the most accurate description of my time, albeit it little so far, can be found in the first two lines of a hymn from 796 attributed to St Paulinus II, which is often sung during the washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday:
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor.
The love of Christ has gathered us into one.
The love of Christ has gathered us into one.
These lines express what a Christian community is. When we enter the Chapel of St Thomas More in the Chaplaincy, or any one of the many churches in Oxford, we are gathered together because of our shared love of Christ. I noticed while writing this post that Anna Branford (now Wilmore) expressed her gratitude for the Christian community which surrounded her. This is testament to the timeless value which is to be found in friendship.
When thinking about friendship, I often think about St Augustine’s thoughts in his Confessions. He says, “Friendship has joys that captivate my heart – the charms of talking and laughing together”. He goes on to say rather beautifully that:
“Such signs of friendship spring from the hearts of friends who love and know that they are loved in return, signs to be read in smiles, words, glances and a thousand gracious gestures. These are sparks that kindle a blaze to melt our hearts and fuse them inseparably into one.”
Augustine is often depicted holding a heart aflame, as seen below. The symbolism here is complex. Augustine famously said, “our hearts are restless until they rest in You, O Lord”, so the fire can be seen to reflect this restlessness. Furthermore, the heart aflame is symbolic of the fire which is started in our hearts by the truth of Christ, this desire to share His love and truth.
St Augustine’s ideas come into play in the rather odd environment of a thoroughly secular university like Oxford. The importance of community needn’t be restricted to those who already call themselves Christians. It is often underestimated how powerful quiet witness can be. When we are honest to others about our faith and the fundamental role it plays in our lives, it opens up a wealth of conversations. That isn’t to say that these will be easy conversations, far from it! They will no doubt be difficult, but they will nevertheless get the ball rolling and challenge someone’s preconceived ideas about the Church and Catholics more generally. Fire spreads, that is evident from the Church’s history, the lives of the saints and, most importantly, the Scriptures. Once we open our hearts to reveal the fire within them, there is nothing to be done. In the words of St Edmund Campion SJ, a student and fellow of St John’s, “it is of God, it cannot be withstood”.
Clearly, one way of spreading this flame is by writing. So, if any of you are budding writers and perhaps want to write something other than an essay, please do get in contact with me either in person or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org). The blog will hopefully provide a space for you to share something about what you love, be it the Faith, your favourite saint, Oxford, or perhaps a combination of all of the above!
Nicholas Champness, BA German, St John’s