Thursday, 6 December 2007

Protestants and Pagans

Who is the more Catholic: a witchdoctor or a Calvinist minister? It is a question I have often asked myself ever since I made friends with a very charming young man called Darren. Darren came from a typical lukewarm Protestant background. Old-style ‘public school’ (in the British sense) in pre-Mandela South Africa, with freemasonic Anglicanism and vicious bullying. Then national service in the Army (more bullying).

By the time I met him, he had found his way to Catholicism, ‘via paganism’, as he said. He was devouring Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and encouraged me to do the same.

At university there were plenty of nerdy mathematicians and scientists in the Christian Union. They broadcast their conviction that Catholics were no better than pagans. After I had made friends with Darren, I began to wonder whether in fact those geeks were on to something.

On the face of it, it is undeniably true that Catholics seem to worship statues, mutter incantations and generally do all sorts of things that pagans do, and even at exactly the same times of year.

I happened to be reading at that point the most celebrated anthropological study of magic and religion ever written in English, Sir James G Frazer’s The Golden Bough. It is hard work, but rewarding. Frazer is not at all a believer, but he tells a good tale.

We are all vaguely aware that most of our exciting and picturesque religious customs have pre-Christian antecedents. We also have a sense that more and more ancient folk traditions are becoming extinct every year. Frazer catalogues them with maniacal precision and thoroughness. Every possible ritual combination of fire, water, sacrifice, fancy dress, nakedness, singing, dancing, drinking, eating, praying and any other taboo or symbolic behaviour is evinced in a string of bizarre but compelling anecdotes from all ages and places.

Pagan parallels of every beloved Catholic devotion and belief are to be found within the pages of this book, for they are found truly in the pages of human history. None is more striking than the cult of the beautiful youth Adonis (from the semitic Adona├», ‘the Lord’). In the earlier Babylonian tradition he is called Tammuz.

The prophet Ezekiel saw the women of Jerusalem weeping for him at the north gate of the temple. It was an abomination, and yet the name of the god survives to this day as a month in the Jewish calendar.

It was something they did in Babylon every midsummer, weeping with Ishtar, the great mother-goddess, over the beautiful body of her young lover (and virginally conceived son, in some versions). He dies, and descends to the underworld while Ishtar mourns. But he is destined to rise again, bringing new life in the following year:

“A tamarisk that in the garden has drunk no water,
Whose crown in the field has brought forth no blossom.
A willow that rejoiced not by the watercourse,
A willow whose roots were torn up.
A herb that in the garden had drunk no water.”

His death appears to have been annually mourned, to the shrill music of flutes, by men and women about midsummer in the month named after him, the month of Tammuz. The dirges were seemingly chanted over an effigy of the dead god, which was washed with pure water, anointed with oil, and clad in a red robe, while the fumes of incense rose into the air, as if to stir his dormant senses by their pungent fragrance and wake him from the sleep of death. In one of these dirges, inscribed Lament of the Flutes for Tammuz, we seem still to hear the voices of the singers chanting the sad refrain and to catch, like far-away music, the wailing notes of the flutes:

“At his vanishing away she lifts up a lament,
‘Oh my child!’ at his vanishing away she lifts up a lament;
‘My Damu!’ at his vanishing away she lifts up a lament.
‘My enchanter and priest!’ at his vanishing away she lifts up a lament,
At the shining cedar, rooted in a spacious place,
In Eanna, above and below, she lifts up a lament.
Like the lament that a house lifts up for its master, lifts she up a lament,
Like the lament that a city lifts up for its lord, lifts she up a lament.
Her lament is the lament for a herb that grows not in the bed,
Her lament is the lament for the corn that grows not in the ear.
Her chamber is a possession that brings not forth a possession,
A weary woman, a weary child, forspent.
Her lament is for a great river, where no willows grow,
Her lament is for a field, where corn and herbs grow not.
Her lament is for a pool, where fishes grow not.
Her lament is for a thickest of reeds, where no reeds grow.
Her lament is for woods, where tamarisks grow not.
Her lament is for a wilderness where no cypresses (?) grow.
Her lament is for the depth of a garden of trees, where honey and wine grow not.
Her lament is for meadows, where no plants grow.
Her lament is for a palace, where length of life grows not.”

So what does a Catholic make of all this? Does it mean, as many Protestants (and rationalists) suppose, that Catholicism is simply the latest reincarnation of these ancient middle-eastern superstitions?

The best way I have been able to explain it to my pupils is through their knowledge of Tolkien. (Thank goodness for Hollywood …) I tell them that man’s prophetic soul is like the Palinteer; a sort of crystal ball, best not looked into if one can help it, which shows us glimpses of the past, the present and the future. The deep truths of our existence sometimes make themselves known through a dream or an instinct. Sometimes they can manifest themselves in a distorted way to those who seek them with evil intent through divination. Some of the truths have existed in half-remembered prophecies that have been passed down for thousands of years; others are the remnants of the knowledge of our first parents.

Viewed in this way, one would expect all of man’s religious search to have been pointing to the centre of the universe and human history: Jesus Christ. And, in fact, so it does. One would expect the ultimate revelation of the one true God to answer all those yearnings that have beset man from the dawn of time and which have prompted him to express himself in fumbling religious devotion. And so it does.

For the Catholic religion is about grace perfecting nature, not - as a good Protestant would hold - about grace supplanting nature. Man’s cup is already half-full. His history, his nature, his heart; these are all damaged, but not beyond repair. His prayers have been heard, and in Christ his fallen nature can be brought to holiness again.

And so, back to our original question about pagans and Protestants. Christ is man and God. And what He assumed, He redeemed. It seems to me that He assumed in His sacred humanity, all the good there was in man’s ancient sorrow for the Fall, all his longing for reconciliation with the Father. And that is why Catholics may rejoice to see in antiquity a foreshadowing of the events that have won, once for all, our salvation. I shall leave my question unanswered, as Frazer leaves his. This is how he ends his book, in the sacred grove portrayed in the famous painting of Turner.

The place has changed but little since Diana received the homage of her worshippers in the sacred grove. The temple of the sylvan goddess, indeed, has vanished and the King of the Wood no longer stands sentinel over the Golden Bough. But Nemi’s woods are still green, and as the sunset fades above them in the west, there comes to us, borne on the swell of the wind, the sound of the church bells of Aricia ringing the Angelus. Ave Maria! Sweet and solemn they chime out from the distant town and die lingeringly away across the wide Campagnan marshes. Le roi est mort, vive le roi! Ave Maria!

From my column in StAR ...

Being a sign of contradiction for Catholic education

THE SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL (in the Constitution Gravissmum Educationis, 28th October, 1965) taught that Catholic education should be characterised by four key elements. They make a good checklist for parents searching for the right school for their children: 1. Promotion of academic excellence; 2. Breadth (an all-round education); 3. Moral formation (teaching children to choose what it is right); 4. A formation in prayer, especially how to pray with the liturgy of the Church.

The Council Fathers are clear that every one of the four aspects is geared towards evangelisation: Catholic education should make a difference not just to the children at Catholic schools, but also to the world of work they will enter when they leave full-time education.

Catholic schools today are like a shop window for the Church: they should show Catholic life and witness at its most authentic, preparing the young to bear witness to the faith and to become the movers and shakers in every sphere of modern life. A good Catholic school, then, prepares it students “for service in the spread of the Kingdom of God, so that by leading an exemplary apostolic life they become, as it were, a saving leaven in the human community.” (GE. 25.)

In most modern schools, even in Catholic schools, attention is concentrated on the first of those four aspects, to the detriment of the other three. Good GCSE results ought to be part of a good Catholic education, but they are not the be-all and end-all.

Five years ago, with a group of Catholic friends, I started a Catholic school that self-consciously took Gravissimum Educationis as its blueprint. Before we started planning this great adventure, I sought the advice of an old hand in the field of Catholic boys’ schools, Eric Hester, well known to readers of this journal. Eric and I had been working together for a few years on MENTOR, a Catholic education magazine that lasted for seven years and did some important raising of awareness in our Catholic schools. I like Eric a lot and was delighted that he accepted my invitations to join a group of advisors for the school project.

I still remember the moment – after months of prayer, discussions and reflection – that it became obvious to Eric that I hadn’t been joking. He called me to say that if he was going to be in charge of this advisory group, then he had a piece of very important advice to give me that he hoped I would think about very seriously: “Forget all about it, Ferdi. It is too ambitious and will only end in tears. Think about this advice. It might be the best I ever give you.”

After a few moments silence, he then said that if I decided to ignore his first piece of important advice (something he rather expected!), he would still be delighted to help with the project, and to carry out the advisory role that I had asked of him.

Eric proved to be quite right. The project is too ambitious, and there have certainly been enough tears along the way. But I remain convinced that our work has been – and continues to be – blessed by Almighty God, and that he permits the trials that come our way precisely for our own purification and sanctification.

Because of the cultural background of our first pupils and staff and the specific aims that the College sets for itself, it places its educational programme in the tradition of the pre-reformation public schools of England, such as Eton and Winchester. Schools such as these, as well as the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, were founded on the basis of a community of Masters and students who lived, worked, ate and prayed together.

This is the model for Chavagnes: a real Catholic community dedicated to teaching and learning, and to the praise of Almighty God. Based in a nineteenth century former junior seminary, with a beautiful neo-gothic chapel, the College is proud to continue the ancient heritage of prayer and study that goes back to the medieval Benedictine priory that once stood on the site of the College. We all feel the holiness of the place and feel a genuine spiritual link with the priests and scholars who have lived and worked here before us.

There has also been a deliberate attempt to create a strong culture for the College, mainly rooted in traditions that staff experienced in their own schools a generation ago, or in revivals of medieval traditions, such as that of the boy-bishop (a boy rules the College for a day on the feast of St Nicholas.)

This has proved a source of amusement for some secular journalists (particularly in the recent Channel Four documentary) who can’t see past the boy bishops, boars’ heads and Morris dancing, to see the seeds of faith that are flourishing and putting down deep roots in this rich cultural soil that we have created for our pupils: a environment characterised by an authentic quest of the Good, the True and the Beautiful.

In keeping with its medieval inspiration (and indeed with Gravissimum Educationis) Chavagnes places the liturgical life – which is at the heart of the Church – at the very heart of its own life as a College. The liturgy is itself a school for the soul and an inexhaustible source of grace, and this is why we make it available on a daily basis. Although at first it takes a little getting used to, pupils soon learn to appreciate the strong religious emphasis of the College, and find it a source of inspiration and support in their studies and in their personal development.

Isolated from our countrymen, like the Irish monks of the early middle ages, we have discovered that exile can be spiritually fruitful. It has probably made us rather eccentric, but also more ready turn to God in our difficulties and triumphs. (Sometimes, if one has fallen out with one’s colleagues over something, God is the only one left around who speaks English!)

Chavagnes is not, and was never meant to be, a model for other Catholic schools. Except perhaps in one respect: a Catholic school, like a Catholic family, should have a strong enough character, identity and sense of purpose to be a real sign of contradiction. Then, and only then, can it be a place of preparation for mission and a worthy shop window for the Church, providing a glimpse of the values of the kingdom of God, intensified and ornamented with all the energy and enthusiasm of youth.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Exam results and looking ahead at the new year

I have just put together all the various exam results at GCSE level for our fifth form boys, and although there are one or two niggles (and disappointments for some individuals), the overall results are not at all bad.

One thing which has been on my mind for a while has been the concern of some parents that one either has to go for academic selection and high academic standards or inclusivity and low standards. I have maintained that as long as Chavagnes is a small school with small class sizes it can operate well with many different profiles of pupil, as long as they are of at least average intelligence and have a strong commitment to the College's ideals, notably to the Faith.

The Times today (24th August) ran an article on standards in state schools, and it would appear that our percentage of passes at A* and A (38.8%) would put us statistically among the top 150 state schools in the UK. Not a bad place to be. Private schools in the UK are often around the 50% mark for passes at A* and A, but for a non-selective school where only a minority of our pupils have been with us for their whole secondary schooling, this is good news.

Two boys who joined us right back in September 2002 when they were 11 have really made me proud. They both took their French GCSEs early and got A*s (one would rather expect that after going to school in France, I suppose). But one of them also took German and Spanish and got A*s in them too. And he managed a C in Latin, which is no pushover. He ended up with 12 GCSEs and a B at AS-level. Both of these young men are moving on to pursue Sixth Form studies elsewhere, but although I am sorry to see them go, I think they will be taking a bit of the old place away with them in their hearts.

One of the parents wrote to me:

"As you know I have not been uncritical of some aspects of the school and its teaching methods and have expressed my views fairly robustly on occasions, but there is no doubt in my mind that my son would not have achieved the results he did, if he had stayed within the State system here in London.

In large measure that is due to the commitment of you and your teaching staff.

As important, if not more so, X has developed a value system and a sensitivity that make him stand out as a really lovely person to be around, to the degree that it is regularly commented upon by people who meet him. This is a gift that will serve him far more than academic success alone as he goes through life."

Of course, gifts like these come from the parents in the first place. All the school can do is reinforce and nurture them.

At the end of one school year and the start of a new one, one always feels a special sense of privilege that these parents let us help them in the great work of bringing up the next generation. This year in Year 7 (the First Form in the older usage) we will have ten new boys. I hope and pray that they will thrive and be happy at Chavagnes.

It is going to be another difficult year, but I am full of hope and enthusiasm for it.
Prayers needed.

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

We are planning a retreat and conference at Chavagnes for Catholic teachers and others involved in education (governors, etc). It will be during the Easter hols of 2008. Check out the preliminary information here:

Hope to see you there!

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Dangerous documentary for boys ... continued

Another point my colleagues have asked me to mention is that our choir is usually pretty good (despite the unforunate trumpet mistake - hilarious though it was - at the beginning of the documentary). See : to see and hear the CD we made a couple of years ago.

Best wishes,
Ferdi McDermott

Friday, 22 June 2007

Dangerous School for Boys

The comments below relate to the documentary on Channel Four.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

The recent documentary

A few comments would seem to be in order regarding the recent documentary about Chavagnes, shown on UK television.

The documentary seems to have concentrated on what makes Chavagnes different from other schools, rather than what makes it similar to them. In fact, most of the time boys at Chavagnes are engaged in exactly the same kind of academic work, sports and cultural activities as boys at other boarding schools.

Here are some examples:


There is a high level of literary culture in the College which was not at all represented in the documentary, although it was extensively filmed.

This academic year we have organized three plays at the school: Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, a Medieval Passion Play sequence and a dramatization of Oliver Twist.

Boys participate in regular debating and learn poetry off-by-heart for public recitation in inter-house competitions.

Boys from Chavagnes have won prizes in national writing competitions and had their work and letters published in international cultural journals.

There is a regular literary club that meets for readings and discussions, hosted by Mr and Mrs Asch.

Many boys have regular instrumental lessons.


The College has a modern computer suite (10 machines) with internet access. This is available to pupils under supervision.


Boys at Chavagnes participate regularly in rowing, swimming, football, cricket, cross country running and other mainstream sports. Four players from the College recently participated in a six-a-side competition for Cricket and won a trophy on behalf the Vendee Cricket Club. They have also participated in other winning matches for the Club. This coming weekend 11 players from the College play (for the third year running) a match against Les Moulins Cricket Club.

At a recent county 10-km event, three boys from the College gained 1st, 2nd and 3rd places at under 18 level. At the 2-km distance the boys also collected several prizes in the younger age-groups.

About ten boys undergo weekly riding lessons with an experienced teacher and former cavalry colonel.

These various activities were filmed but not included in the documentary.


There are weekly cookery classes at the College, hosted by our French chef, Fabrice.

This activity was filmed but not included in the documentary.


Several boys have become fluent in 4 modern languages at Chavagnes as well as gaining a good grasp of Latin. Many boys sit language GCSEs early.

This aspect of life at Chavagnes was filmed but not included in the documentary.


The College has a science laboratory and study sciences for GCSE and A-level. Some boys take all three sciences at GCSE level.

This aspect of life at Chavagnes was filmed but not included in the documentary.


Each year some boys take Mathematics GCSE one or two years’ early. This year, the younger boys (in Year 7) took the Year 8 UK Maths challenge. Among Year 7 boys, there were 3 silver medals and a bronze medal.

Some other misconceptions:

Unfortunately a misconception has arisen that we have a problem with teacher qualifications. Most staff teaching at Chavagnes have undergone formal teacher training. Those who have not, are all graduates, mostly with Masters or Doctorate level degrees.

Morris dancing and rabbit-killing, it is suggested, are a regular part of the curriculum. The dance is something that happens a few times per year, mainly for the youngsters. It is great fun.

The rabbits have only featured in our College life on one single occasion in five years (about a year ago), and that was largely for the benefit of the cameras; given the importance it was given in the documentary and the problems around it, it is perhaps regrettable that it happened at all. In any case, it is not representative of regular activities at Chavagnes.

Fishing, an activity that has featured quite often over the years at Chavagnes, was filmed, but not included in the documentary.

We are grateful for the opportunity to appear on the television, but unfortunately it would appear that there has been a lack of balance in the presentation, and certainly in people’s perceptions, based on the presentation which they saw on the screen.

It is particularly regrettable that in drawing attention mainly to the College’s perceived eccentricities, the coverage failed to represent the varied cultural and academic formation on offer at Chavagnes.

It is true that as a young institution, we have had our ups and downs. But we still have pupils and staff who have been here since our first academic year (2002-2003), and others who have joined us since then and continue to enjoy living and working here.

We commend all our efforts to the intercession of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Mother of Jesus, confident in her loving protection.

For a friendlier, more balanced take on Chavagnes (though still not immune from a little hype) - from the same journalists as the recent documentary, please visit ...

Saturday, 5 May 2007

May Day Morris dancing at Chavagnes ...

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

From my column in StAR magazine

The Ball and the Cross:
Easter anachronisms

Why is this regular feature called The Ball and Cross? It is a question that I am asked from time to time by various people, and now seems as good a time as any to tell you.

Several of the original StAR columns back in 2001 adopted recycled titles borrowed from Chesterton and Belloc for, partly ‘for luck’, partly (at least in my case) to attempt to misappropriate thereby the latitude accorded to the Chesterbelloc in matters of style; in other words to extend the scope of their poetic licence.

Chesterton’s The Ball and the Cross is a novel about how terrible the modern world is, or perhaps how terrible it looked set to become, almost an hundred years ago when Chesterton wrote it.

So I resurrected the evocative name of a zany, futuristic novel for a column that would tackle the modern world in what some might call a self-consciously anachronistic way.

Chesterton’s novel begins in an UFO, captained by a crazy scientist called Professor Lucifer. Like most devils in western literature, he is urbane and charming. He is accompanied by "an exceedingly holy man, almost entirely covered with white hair", by the name of Michael.

Michael and Lucifer then crash their flying machine into the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, and so begins a discussion of the ‘ball and the cross’, the former symbolising the smoothe, round world, and its worldliness, and the latter standing for the angular, difficult and painful road to spiritual wholeness.

Well, in the wake of 2000, when we were all still reeling from the shock of not living in a space station or wearing shiny bolier-suits (as had been promised us back at primary school in the seventies), it seemed like a good idea.

And now, something else to think about, especially if you are a flat earth believer, or belong to that group of people who like to belittle the Popes for allegedly backing the theory that the Earth is a giant pancake rather than a giant ball.

There is a very widespread, but mistaken belief that medievals thought the Earth was flat, and that Christopher Columbus and Galileo had an exceedingly difficult job updating our idea of the universe.

In fact, the notion that the earth is round is older than Christianity and was promoted by Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) and Pythagoras (560 - 480 BC). Most interestingly, Eratosthenes of Cyrene (276 - 194 BC) made a very creditable calculation of the circumference of the earth.

In the Egyptian town of Aswan, then known as Syene, 500 miles southeast of Alexandria, the Sun's rays at noon fall vertically at the summer solstice (the longest day of the year: 21st June in the northern hemisphere). Eratosthenes knew this not because he had been to Syene, but because he had read – in the great library of Alexandria - of a well in Syene that was completely lit up by the sun at noon on this day.

Eratosthenes observed that at Alexandria, at the same date and time, the light of the sun fell at an angle of just over 7° from the vertical. (Or in his terms, 1/50 of a circle). He measured this by planting a stick in the ground and measuring the angle made by the shadow.

Presuming, as Eratosthenes did, that the sun was very far away, its rays would be practically parallel on reaching the Earth. Not only does the difference of angle between the two cities reassure us that the Earth is not flat; it also enabled our Greek friend to calculate the circumference of the Earth. He did this simply by multiplying the distance of 5,000 stadia (the distance between Syene and Alexandria) by 50 (the difference of angle between Syene and Alexandria being 1/50th of a circle, and the world, as we know, being a sphere.) The answer – 250,000 stadia, or about 25,000 miles – is very close to what modern scientists reckon: 24,901.55 miles.

By the early Middle Ages all the West accepted the theory of a round earth. The story that Christopher Columbus persuaded Europe that the Earth was round by sailing ‘over the edge of it’ is a fable created by the writer Washington Irving and has no basis in fact at all, especially given that Columbus never circumnavigated the globe. He only sailed from Spain to the Amercias, which is something the Vikings, and probably the Irish had done centuries before.

And so, back to the ball and the cross. Remember all those medieval representations of Christ as sovereign, often seated in his mother’s lap, carrying the orb, that symbol of the round world, surmounted, governed and protected by the trophy of our salvation.

It is one of those beautiful and felicitous coincidences that the man who first measured the globe, Eratosthenes of Cyrene, came from the same town in modern-day Libya as the man picked from the crowd, centuries later, to carry the Cross of our Redeemer.

A blessed Easter to you all.

Sunday, 25 March 2007

Treading on egoshells

Men's egos like eggshells
crunch easy underfoot.
And we for holy charity
Pick up the sharp shards
to eek new eggs,
though thereby
they and we
are changed.

Changed, not ended,
Never quite mended;
The bigness of our boots
A bumbling humbling
Every time we take
a step forward
and two steps back.

And even in reverse gear
More egos are broken
In the making of the great omelette.

So I'll tread more softly
next time ...

Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Here is a little glimpse of life at Chavagnes International College, where I work. It was put together by one of our parents. Something to cheer you through the cold of February: