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Showing posts from 2008

Wise men still seek Him ...

Merry Christmas to everyone. God bless you and your families in 2009.
(Photo: 3 wisemen from Chavagnes ...)

A Bishop for Boys

Today we celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the dedication of our chapel. We have a special devotion to the Immaculate Conception at Chavagnes, and invoke our Lady's protection particularly under that title.

But I'd like to tell you today about something we do each year on 6th December, St Nicholas' Day ...

The tradition of the boy bishop - elected each year on the 6th of December, from among the choristers of Cathedrals, Colleges and large parish churches - is an English custom dating back to the 12th century, abolished by Henry VII in 1542 as superstitious and vain, but briefly revived under Mary in time for her first Christmas on the throne in December 1553. Present also in Scotland, France and the Low Countries, it was in England that the custom was most universally and solemnly observed. Continental references tend to refer to abuses (such as servers throwing a bucket of water over the young prince of the church during the Magnificat instead of incensin…

Reformation undone ...

The readings and homily at today's Mass made me think a lot about justification by faith alone and the whole issue of the Reformation.

The odd thing is this:

At the time of Luther and Calvin, Protestants said that no amount of good works would save you; rather one is saved by believing what one must believe: in the person and saving power of Jesus Christ.

Ask an average modern German Lutheran (and certainly a modern Anglican!) and he will tell you that what counts is that someone strives to be a good person. This is salvation by works alone. A complete capitulation of the Reformation.

It is the Catholics who now are left insisting that one must believe in Christ.

So what keeps the churches of the Reformation going? Cultural attachment to the forms of Protestant worship and a fear of what they perceive as strict Catholic (sexual) morality. Another anomaly, because at the time of the Reformation, Calvin, for one, was as strict as they come on such issues.

This is why progress has been ma…

"Come and see" : a chance to experience Chavagnes for a week

"Can anything good come out of Galilee?" someone once asked (in John 1:46), and the reply came: "Come and see".

We are issuing the same invitation to boys between the ages of 9 and 17 who would like to experience Chavagnes for a week ...

We are calling it the Chavagnes Taster Week for potential pupils. From 16th-20th February 2009, we are inviting boys aged from 9 to 17 to come and spend a week here with us and experience the Chavagnes routine, join in some classes, meet the other boys in their age group, participate in some fun activities and discover something of our very special region of France, the Vendée. The cost for this week (from Monday 16th to Friday 20th) is just 75 pounds or 95 euros. It coincides with the half term holiday of many schools in the UK, so plenty of potentially interested young men should be free that week.

Please contact me at if you would like to book a place.

My saint for our All Saints Party

In case you are curious, I decided in the end to dress up as Saint Uncumber, or Wilgefortis. In fact her existence has been discredited, but the story is that she was a Portuguese princess who was promised in marriage to a pagan. She prayed to be made very ugly so as to escape her fate. Her prayers were answered (she even grew a beard) and so her father crucified her. There is a chapel in her honour in the Loreto Convent in Prague, which I saw a few years ago. It is rather eery ... My colleagues, and a few visitors thought it an odd choice. I think I will have to be more conservative next year. I already have an idea that I could go as Moses, with horns ... the way he is sometimes represented in art, because he came down from Mount Sinai and the 'horns of God' (an expression meaning 'glory') radiated from him.

Omnes sancti Dei: orate pro nobis!

Catholic Halloween? The Eve of All Saints

On Friday 31st October, while everyone else is either studiously avoiding Halloween or else honouring it by dressing up as a devil or a ghost, we at Chavagnes, for the 7th year running, will be disguising ourselves as historical saints.

Having previously attempted St Isidore of Seville, St Edmund Campion, St Anthony of the Desert and, I forget the others, I am quite lacking in inspiration this year ... any suggestions?

To be honest, I'd really quite like to dress up us a wizard or some other kind of spirit of evil, as we used to do when I was a child, but that would be against our rules.

The rationale behind our way of celebrating All Hallows Eve is this: the modern celebration of Halloween has got so far from its Christian roots as to end up glorifying witches and devils as an end in itself. So, by dressing up as saints, we remember the true meaning of the Feast and remind ourselves that we should imitate the saints in all that we do.

Turning the clocks back ...

'You're right that education is in a terrible state, Ferdi, but you can't just turn the clock back', someone (older than I am) once told me. 'Well, we do it every autumn ...'

Older clocks, like older people, don't like being moved back in time. Walking around an empty school this morning (it's half term break) I counted up all the clocks we are going to have to correct now that summer time is over. The old-fashioned ones are much more difficult to put back than the modern ones, because they don't like going backwards, and in order not to mess up the chimes, you have to listen to every quarter hour chime and pause a few seconds before moving on to the next. It's much easier in the spring, of course, when one is moving forwards.

The much discussed wave of conservatism (or even reaction) that is supposed to be afflicting/blessing the thrity-somethings of today is - I think - much more subtle. Like those modern clocks, we can move backwards and forwar…

Catholic boarding schools on Wikipedia

I have submitted a suggestion to Wikipedia for a page on Catholic boarding schools.

I am hoping to include in that page a general history of Catholic boarding schools (catechetical schools, medieval monastery schools, the new educational orders, lay-run schools, schools in the missions, etc), the situation today (decline in boarding; abandonment of single-sex education; the importance of competition between schools) ... should be interesting once it gets going, and would provide another good launchpad for redirecting people to find out more.

I have also created a UK-based joint site for Chavagnes and La Bonne Nouvelle, redirecting to both sites. It can be found at:

Mr McDermott's new enthusiasm

My new enthusiasm (sigh ...) is AQA's pick-n-mix A-level and GCSE syllabuses for Religious Studies. It is possible to design a very rewarding RE programme around these examinations which are essentially composed of an enormous list of options, from which one can choose a thoroughly Catholic selection. This is one of the joys of the British market-driven exam system, where quality is assured, but pedagogical and academic choices are left to schools and parents, rather than to the State or the exam boards.

I am building a site to house good Catholic resources for these excellent examinations:

We are doing Old Testament and New Testament as our options for the AS-level. For the A2 we have some great possibilities such as the Counter Reformation and Ethics, as well as more Scripture.

I am using Fr Lawrence Boadt's Reading the Old Testament (Paulist Press) and The Literary Guide to the Bible (Alter and Kermode, Fontana) and so far have found these a good ba…

Joint marketing

It is not good for man to be alone, says the Good Book. Following this spirit, Chavagnes has launched a joint marketing initiative with La Bonne Nouvelle, our like-minded girls' school. This most emphatically does NOT mean that we are thinking of goind 'co-ed', but it does mean that we will working together to make our schools better known, and to promote La Bonne Nouvelle/Chavagnes as a practical solution for families seeking the same kind of Catholic education for their daughters and their sons.

Both schools are real Christian communities where prayer and regular attendance at Mass are part of school life; both schools encourage fluency in French and English from within a basically British curriculum structure. And we also work together for various theatrical and musical efforts each year.

The first stage in our joint marketing strategy is the launch of a series of combined 'launchpad' sites that will direct enquirers to Chavagnes for their sons and to La Bonne Nou…

Shakespeare in Love ...

I have been thinking a lot recently about the personality of Shakespeare. This is because I am watching, together with our Sixth Form English Literature group, a fascinating documentary series from the BBC, called In Search of Shakespeare, with Michael Woods. I can heartily recommend it.

We are studying Twelfth Night together for the A-level syllabus, and we have been trying to find new critical angles for our reflection. Something that I came up with today was how the play sets out a vision of all the different kinds of love, making the point (not too distant from the Pope's in Deus Caritas Est) that they are all really very much closer than we think.

We looked at the relationships between

Viola/Cesario/Sebastian and Olivia, Orsino, Antonio

and also those between all the other characters ... and we found platonic love, the love of friends, sexual love, family love

and then we used the Sonnets as a kind of guide to the whole vexed, but interesting question of love between man and woman…

The cry of the babe in the womb

In a fascinating article about the importance of the human voice ('Human Voices - Haud Muto Factum: Nothing happens by being mute' in Education Today, vol 58, no. 3, College of Teachers, London, September 2008) Professor Rosemary Sage discusses the by now familiar observations about the way in which a child in the womb relates to his mother's voice. She develops this still further to relate the mother's voice and heartbeat to the very rhythms of language, song and poetry.

But what really struck me was the phenomenon of the uterine scream. Many will know of Dr Bernard Nathanson and the film The Silent Scream. It is a difficult film to watch. I saw it for the first time when I was 14 or 15, together with 125 other boys in my year group, at King Edward VI School, Southampton, an independent grammar school for boys, where I was a pupil. I remember that during the showing, the 'hard man' of the year (later expelled) had to leave the room and vomit. I still remember h…

More fun and games with the French state

The French Minister of Culture has annonced a major climbdown over volunteer involvement in cultural and musical shows. The government wanted to bring in a law outlawing the presence of more than 15% voluntary involvement in popular festivals and shows.

This would have meant curtains for the popular Inter-Celtic festival in Lorient which annually includes 10,000 folk musicians, none of them paid. It would also have destroyed the Vendée's proudest cultural event, the Puy du Fou evening show, which tells France's story throughout the ages, including the civil war of 1793-96, and includes 3,200 volunteer actors.

Threatened with a demonstration of force from the feisty 'chouans' of Brittany and Vendee, the government has backed down.

The voluntary sector in France lives in constant threat of persecution from a State that is historically allergic to any kind of private philanthropy. For example, there are laws that prevent schools, religious orders and others from benefitting …

No more cakes and ale for Catholics

It seems that 'cakes' was the common nomenclature for the wafers used at Mass in renaissance England and 'ales' were the merry parties of Catholics on high-days and holydays before the Reformation. According to Clare Asquith's book Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, featuring the Count Orsino as Duke of Illyria, was performed for Queen Elizabeth herself only a few months after the visit of Duke Orsini, an envoy sent by the Pope to plead with the Queen to return to Rome.

Asquith maintains that the role played by Feste the clown , 'a licensed fool', was similar to that played by Shakespeare himself. Elizabeth by 1601 was wearing black every day, enslaved to the logic of her father's and brother's religious choices (as Olivia is: enslaved by mourning her father and brother). She herself preferred Latin, celibate clergy and ceremony, and hated the puritans; just as we get the impression that Olivia re…

And another thing (re French national curriculum changes)

One more thing has struck me after reading through the latest news from Le Monde - Education. It seems that whereas currently French children are asked to study France and the European Union in the 1st year, they will now study Africa in the 1st year and France/Europe in the 4th year. This seems to me almost as topsy-turvy as the proposed changes to the history syllabus.

Islamicising the curriculum

The French national curriculum (which - through the medium of English - we follow in some respects for Years 7 and 8, although we are not obliged to do so) is in many ways a thing of wonder. The vision of an enlightened, optimistic and purposeful humanism (secular rather than Christian, unfortunately) is rather impressive. Christians can, in fact, find much in it of great value and common sense. Even though, from a British point of view, it can sometimes seem terribly Cartesian and dry. Of course, the reality in French schools might bear little relation to the ministerial ideal, but on paper it looks good.

There is a fine idea of logical progression in the sciences, of grammatical content in the languages and - most impressively - of chronology in history. There is also a clear programme of transmitting a sense of national and European identity, through a knowledge of classical antiquity, classical literature and the European story generally.

French children in the first year of seconda…

French government interference

The French government is about to impose on private schools ('ECOLES HORS CONTRAT') a new set of terms and conditions for employment of staff. The main issues concerning us here are:
1. The right of staff to express their own opinions on religious and moral matters etc, a right which they may well already have had, but which we were never obliged to include in contracts; and 2. A scale of remuneration which obliges us to pay high salaries, commensurate with qualifications and experience, even if we cannot afford them and the teachers don't want them.

Let us look at a hard case. I am hypothetically faced with a teacher of history, religion or biology who denies the existence of God and the creation. Both facts, I know with unshakeable certainty, are truths known by natural reason. As such, these facts are an intrinsic part of all three of those disciplines. I suspect that on the teaching of religion we would find a way around the problems. But for history and biology, the Sta…

Someone has been reading my blog ...

It appears that some people have been reading my blog, because I recently received comments from three different readers. The counter had not been moving very quickly so I had imagined that all my visitors were in fact no more than google robots.

Just to keep you, and the robots, posted then, about what I am thinking about: I had an interesting conversation today with an American academic about a number of things. One thing that sticks with me is what he said about the corpus colossum and communication between left and right brain.

What I know on the subject is a kind of hotch-potch of information from my PGCE (right brain, left brain, 'brain gym', etc) and magazine articles about how men and women are different.

Today, however, we were speculating about whether there are fewer people (and specifically men) around these days who can exploit the full potential of both sides of their brains; or rather whether they can think effectively with both sides at once ... It struck me that …

Educating Catholic heroes

Here are some snippets from the 12-minute first section of a talk, which, as an experiment, I am uploading as a recording (see below) - I'd welcome comments from anyone who finds this helpful, (or unhelpful). ...

When one looks at the world today, with all its many problems and challenges, and worst of all its lack of hope about solving these problems, one can be tempted to despair, or one can be – which is no doubt better – tempted to rush around madly trying to fix our broken culture.

We are in a sandstorm at this time in history. Massive winds of cultural change have made the landscape unrecognisable, and shifting the sand around to try and put things back the way they were, or the way we think they were, is just too difficult for us. We won't fix things that way, by political and social schemes.

But we can plant solid young trees every few hundred yards, with miraculously deep roots. Once they are established, with God's grace they might help things settle down, becaus…

Rare pillow fight at Chavagnes ...

This doesn't happen very often at Chavagnes ... thank goodness.

Change at the Chalkface: some reflections

A leading labour politician (Ed Balls) was recently quoted as saying that teachers “should not teach subjects, but children”. This was in the context of a debate about the content of the curriculum in our schools, and whether it ought to be adapted to contain material more interesting to modern, urban children. The suggestion was that if children were failing to succeed in the study of traditional academic subjects, then we should simply teach them something else. The aim of education, it is suggested, should be to open the children’s minds, to teach them thinking skills, to teach them how to learn; but not necessarily to teach them any specific and important data.

One of the reasons why I took the trouble to begin my own school was that I profoundly disagree with this approach to education. It seems to me that education exists to hand on a tradition, and to initiate the young into their intellectual and cultural heritage. It is an inherently conservative activity because it conserves …

An old speech I found while tidying up my files ...

Mr McDermott’s End-of-Year Speech: June 2004

This year has been almost biblical in its epic sweep.

The plagues of Chavagnes have been legion. Plagues of serpents. Well, we thought it was a viper, but Mr Baudouin managed to identify it as an ‘orvet’a legless lizard. It had teeth but no venom. And it fell under the thud of my sledge hammer; although I admit to quaking in my boots as I struck.

Plagues of bats; well, many of you had fun hunting them in the dorms, with your towels. The Chavagnes bat hunt might yet become an ancient institution.

Plagues of spiders: they are very picturesque, those spider bites, aren’t they? I’ve never seen anything like it in England. We asked Doctor Chyl what to do about all of your coming out in bumps from the blighters. With typically dry wit, she prescribed a vacuum cleaner. So, next year, we must be careful to hoover more carefully: even the corners of the ceiling and the gaps between the floorboards.

Plagues of mosquitoes: well, they are still with us, and…

Modern man: doubly deracinated

Modern man is thoroughly marooned, and Christ is the only lifeline that can help him find a way back on to the ship.

Because man needs roots, many revolutionaries [Voltaire, Hitler, to name two] have attempted to make a shortcircuit back to a forgotten pagan age, despising the Christian legacy of which they themselves were a product. It is also the commonplace of much new age thinking.

But C.S. Lewis has an neat answer for those who think that Europe can come out of Christianity " 'by the same door as in she went' and find herself back where she was. It is not what happens. A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past." - in De Descriptione Temporum, a lecture delivered on 29th November 1954. CUP, 1955.

Shaken and Taken

Teaching the Trivium (in the guise of English, plus a little History and Latin) to boys at Chavagnes International College.

Every aspect of the learning and teaching experience in a school is -or ought to be - about growth and development. Newman observed that even the mere fact of being in a vibrant and intense atmosphere of intellectual work can itself be an agent for the intellectual, social and cultural development of the young. (He claims not to speak of the religious and the moral in the same terms, but this is only because he is writing about Protestants for a Catholic audience. It is clear that these kinds of development cannot be separated from the rest.)

When a multitude of young men, keen, open-hearted, sympathetic, and observant, as young men are, come together and freely mix with each other, they are sure to learn one from another, even if there be no one to teach them; the conversation of all is a series of lectures to each, and they gain for themselves new ideas and vie…

Keeping tabs on me

If you want to keep tabs on me, you'll have to check my other blog

It is a diary in which I record a new experience every single day. Quite a challenge. But I am discovering that it is more a question of perception than of changing one's plans in favour of novelty. In fact, life is always new and exciting if we stay alert.

This blog remains, for more serious thoughts, and for sharing articles, poems, etc.

Chavagnes during World War II

The slogan of the village of Chavagnes is 'UNE VOLONTE D'ACCUEIL', which means, roughly, 'a will to welcome'. These words are plastered across one or two garish signs that mark the entrance to the commune's territory. As you enter the 'Mairie', there's another clue: the Latin motto under the Commune's coat of arms, taken from the 133rd Psalm, "habitare fratres in unum". The full quote is : 'this is what is good and pleasant: for brothers to live as one.'

What a wonderful context for an international College, and indeed a beautiful sentiment for us men and boys who live in it, striving, in the midst of all our pride and other imperfections, to live like brothers, in unity.

But the story goes back a long way. There was, of course, the medieval priory on the site of the College, back in the 13th century. Then Father Baudouin's tiny school in his Presbytery, beginning with two pupils.

Another important and inspiring detail in the …

Mr McDermott diminishes ...

Since taking over the day-to-day running of the College in October 2007, I have lost 4 kilos. (for the metric martyrs among you, that is about 10 pounds). I am on a diet, but I have the impression that this is not the reason. It is doing me good to rush around, to do more teaching, and to spend less time in front of my computer.

However, if the College is ever going to accommodate 60 or 70 boys, which it needs to do, in order - I would suggest - to really come into its own, I need a dynamic helper to implement, while the College is still relatively small, the systems and structures that will be necessary when (note, I don't say if) it grows to 60, 70 or even 100 pupils. And, if I keep losing 4 kilos every 6 months, my mathematics tells me that it will not be too long before I waste away, or at least come closer to a normal size and shape, which would play havoc with my expensive wardrobe.
That's why we have started advertising for a new Head Master for September or January. We a…
Here is some footage of the Chavagnes senior boys' first ever Rugby 7s match, 13th March, 2008. Not bad for beginners, eh? (We are in blue).

My Year 7/8 English class wrote a gothic horror story

Yes, what fun it was. We each wrote a chapter, including me. I got the last one, so you'll have to guess what went before. The boys' contributions were great.

Chapter Nine

Jakob looked to left and right as he emerged from his cottage. He pulled his greatcoat around him, noticing the biting cold and a strange stillness that seemed to pervade not just the house and the garden, but even the birds, that at this time of the evening were usually making their evening calls to each other among the fruit trees. Not just from the fruit trees that Jakob tended, but also from the tall firs beyond the wall. On any other evening, these firs formed not only a wall that mysteriously sheltered the house from the world without, but also a wall of sound, of all kinds of different whistles and warbles. As a young man, Jakob had spent many an evening listening to them, at the end of a day’s work, drinking in all the weight of communication between these hundreds of small creatures, hidden in the bra…

Does the state destroy true education?

Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) was one of the leading conservative intellectuals in the English-speaking world during the post-war period. Born into a Fabian socialist milieu, his own conservatism seems to have arisen from the political crucible of the 1930s, in reaction to the dual horrors of Nazism and communism. According to Oakeshott `modern governments are not interested in education, they are concerned to impose `socialization' of one kind or another upon the surviving fragments of a once considerable educational engagement."

He saw the job of the state as simply to stay afloat, rather than heading off in some idealistic and utopian direction; and of education, to engage the young, and not so young, in a conversation with our heritage, and a conversation between certain different modes of thinking and being that would give them a life of freedom and even of adventure:

"men sail a boundless and bottomless sea, there is neither
harbor for shelter nor floor for anchorage,…