No Room in the Oratory

Article excerpt

British reserve is legendary. One way to experience it is through travel in a first-class carriage of British Railways. On entering, one feels the penetrating glance of a pair of eyes briefly raised over a copy of The Times; one sees a slight flaring of the nostrils; one may hear a couple of all-but-in-audible sniffs, followed by retreat behind the paper. The brash American visitor who risks starting a conversation courts a snub.

During a visit to London some years ago my wife and I encountered a less typical instance of British conservatism. We decided to attend midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at Brompton Oratory, that great baroque fastness of English Catholicism, the forum and headquarters of Cardinal John Henry Newman. Despite its size the church was already jammed when we arrived, but we managed to squeeze into a crowded side chapel that offered no view of the main altar. We could hear the hymns of Handel, Bach, Brahms, and others, beautifully rendered by a small chamber orchestra and an accomplished choir; but we were, to speak Britishly, uncomfortable. Both of us were suffering from jet lag, made harder to bear by a rather overpowering condition known as "fug"--a quaint word meaning a combination of body heat and humid air creating an atmosphere reminiscent of a locker room.

Wanting to give up, we fidgeted our way from the center of the throng toward a wall where further progress toward the door was thwarted by the presence of a large confessional. While I leaned against it for support, my fingers began idly examining the carved woodwork around the edge of the half-door through which the priest entered; when my fingers reached the bolt, I absentmindedly slid it open and promptly stumbled into the priest's compartment of the confessional.

And what did I see there? I saw a seat, a perfectly functional seat. I glanced at it, then at my wife; she looked at me and then at the seat. Our thoughts were in accord. Gallantly I indicated that she should try the seat. She did so. I proceeded very gently to thrust my nether person alongside of hers, but the seat was too small to accommodate both posteriors; so, for some minutes, I occupied only the front edge of one side of the seat, until my good wife, with equal gallantry, shifted forward to permit the easing back of my entire hinder region while she sat on the edge. We continued to alternate in this fashion through an entire lengthy sermon delivered in a mellifluous Oxford accent by the unseen rector of the Oratory. …