When the boys’ choir began to proclaim the psalm, tears pooled up in my eyes. On my last evening in Oxford, a fellow classmate and I went to Evensong at Christ Church University. Listening to the renowned chorus of boys was a nearly perfect ending to my trip.
Studying in Oxford from the end of May and all through June was one of the best experiences of my life. I grew academically, taking 40,000 words of notes. I grew socially, spending hours studying in the library with a new friend before relaxing in a cheery pub. I grew in health, conquering my eating-disordered thoughts while trying unique food.
Mostly importantly, though, I grew in faith. Every experience — climbing the bell towers of beautiful cathedrals, studying philosophical ideas, choosing to drink water at pubs — taught me a bit more about God, myself, and our relationships with others.
The newness of the country gave me the freedom to try something unique or to search for a similar faith community to at home. Feeling ambitious and not wanting to let this experience slip away from me, I decided to do both by finding a Catholic church to attend regularly and also visit other denominations.
There were four main types of Masses or services that I went to during my time abroad: Church of England, Russian Orthodox, Latin Mass, and Mass/Vespers at a Dominican Priory. Through this adventure, the world seemed wider with more people and ideas than I could have possibly imagined but also smaller as I realized similarities between all people and the Church’s oneness as a body of God’s children.
The English Church
The Church of England is Protestant, but many have strong remnants of their Catholic roots. This is especially true in Anglo-Catholic churches. These churches emphasize many of the same beliefs as Catholicism and celebrate their family in a similar way. For example, their services have a similar liturgy while their churches are decorated with pictures of the saints and Mary. Some even believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the Pope’s authority.
When I stepped into St. Mary Magdalen for their service, I was shocked to hear them repeating nearly identical words to a Catholic Mass. If you want to learn more, you can read about it on St. Mary Magdalen’s website.
Going to Evensong (as mentioned above) and visiting English churches helped me to see how despite our differences, most Christians have the same goal: to glorify and love God while bringing others to Him. Spending the evening in church listening to Psalms proved a beautiful way to end a long day of studying and sightseeing.
Vespers or other forms of worship such as Tazi prayer are done in some Catholic churches. However, I have not found one in my area. Every English church had at least one a week if not one every evening. Incorporating this uplifting praise into my faith was a wonderful blessing in Oxford and one that I hope to find again in the United States. This, along with an increased sense of Christian unity, were two major ways I grew in my faith because of the Church of England.
The Russian Orthodox Church
Our walk downtown went past a little Russian church, St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. On a whim one day, I decided to go inside and see what it looked like. To my shock, three nuns and a priest were stenciling some of the ceiling murals. They invited me inside to pray. Although nervous, I gazed in wonder at the walls filled with color and gold. We exchanged few words, but they were obviously touched (if confused) that a Catholic, American student was taking the time to worship in their church.
I ended up going back for two dedications to St. Nicholas and then the Sunday liturgy. These were mostly in Russian and very long, and the congregation stood for the entire time. Since I could not follow the words, I spent much of the time mediating on the glorious aspect of our faith. The candles, icons, incense, and chanting gave me a little glimpse into the glory of God.
Sometimes, we may be lulled into forgetting the God’s Kingship. Being part of a totally different type of service that emphasized this so strongly taught me to see those same aspects of glory in Catholic Mass. Plus, standing for nearly three hours showed me the importance of self-control and sacrifice for God.
Latin Mass at a Catholic Church
Oddly enough, my first experience of a Latin Mass was in England. St. Aloysius, the Oxford Oratory, had both regular Masses and a Latin ones. One of my classmates loved going to the Latin one, so I joined him there several times. This once again reminded me of the glory of God like the Russian Orthodox liturgy.
However, Mass here also transported me back several centuries. The saints I had read about growing up and history I had learned suddenly made more sense. Being here made me realize that my faith comes from an ancient and epic tradition. There are centuries of study, prayer, work, and hardship that we are echoing every time that we celebrate Mass. Learning this through the Latin liturgy has helped me to incorporate it into my daily prayers. I am not alone in speaking to God; there are millions of people from all eras that join me.
Mass and Vespers at a Dominican Priory
Although all of these churches impacted my faith, Black Friars Priory is where I most long to return. Every Sunday evening, they celebrated Mass and vespers together. Thus, the brothers sang Psalms during certain parts of the Mass. Hearing this brought in the beautiful worship of God that I loved in Evensong. God’s glory, such as I admired in the Russian Orthodox liturgy, shone brightly as they all raised their hands and cried out Consecration together.
The brother’s history of their order brought me the same sense of agelessness that I found in the Latin Mass. Thus, I found a Catholic Church that gave me everything I had been searching for and more.
This priory also added to my faith the importance of unity. Every brother entered fully into the Mass. Together they offered themselves up to God and celebrated the liturgy. This helped me to do similarly. Never before did I have quite the same experience of our oneness in Christ. Hopefully, I can come to see that more in my church while I look forward to returning to Oxford and the Black Friars.
I believe that the Catholic Church holds the full truth. Yet, just as we can learn from other people, we can also learn if we open up to other denominations or even those who express Catholicism a bit different. The people at St. Aloysius and the Black Friars celebrated Mass differently. Although I was drawn more to one, I would not judge those who felt the glory of God in the other. Instead, I would like to learn from them and hear about their faith.