God calling?

Adam Wogan recounts challenging and at times moving experiences of settling in to study at St Stephen’s House, Oxford

I am going to get found out at any minute! A lecturer or a student is going to unmask me, out me as a fraud, realize I never came top of my class in anything; they will discover that I am distinctly average, unremarkable, typical, and yet somehow, I have managed to infiltrate Oxford University. When I came to faith six years ago, after spending my life on the fringes of the church, I could not have hoped to guess what God had planned for me. I was working as a barristers’ clerk in Leeds, when after the traditional Wogan family Christmas Eve pilgrimage to the crib service, I decided to return to Selby Abbey for Midnight Mass.

A permanent change

The experience was awesome, in the true sense of the word. God had been revealed in his sacrament in beautiful and powerful glory; his Church was proclaiming his faith with all due honour and his people were singing of their love for him. As the Blessed Sacrament was elevated and the choir and congregation rang out the final verse of the hymn, ‘Yea, Lord we greet thee, Born this happy morning, Jesus! To thee be glory given. Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing; O come let us adore Him!’, I knew my life had changed forever.

My initial feelings of nervousness were quickly replaced with a feeling of familiarity. I had visited St Stephen’s House many times before on vocations weekends, and everyone was welcoming and helpful. After unpacking my car, with the help of some (now very good) friends, we prepared for our first formal dinner. The first week continued in much the same sort of thread. Dinners were coupled with drinks in the common room, the offices and Mass were conducted every day and we all settled into some sort of order.

Learning Greek

Later in the week, however, my original fears had come back to haunt me. As part of the BA, ordinands must complete an intensive Greek course. I found it incredibly difficult. The tutor suggested that we all work for 10 hours a week on Greek, and since my first disastrous test on Monday morning, I had done more than double that, and yet, I was still far from par. Hours and hours sat in my room, reading and writing out squiggles and half-remembered characters was driving me mad. The tutor, in a line worthy of The History Boys, remarked to the class, ‘Learn these conjugations, and the Greek language with fall at your feet and beg for mercy’. In a delirium of badinage that can only come from environments of extreme desperation and hopelessness, my friend remarked, ‘The Greek language would not fall at my feet, even if I had been born in ancient Greece’.

Sense of importance

I knew that I could not maintain that sort of work for three years, something had to be done, and so, after a discussion with the senior tutor at Staggers, it was decided that I change back to my original plan of studying for the BTh. During the first week, my feeling of inferiority diminished, and I found myself falling into the being I had been wary of in the first place. The sort of red-trouser-wearing, rah-rah Harry that is, rightly or wrongly, associated with Oxford. Sherry before dinner, two black tie socials, gown buying at Ede and Ravenscroft and even a set time for tea and cake were all contributing to an inflated sense of my own importance.

God, however, was quick to nip this in the bud. The great Staggers takeaway was a roaring success. Fish and chips in the common room! However, as with all takeaways, there was far too much left over, almost an entire box. We decided to go around East Oxford and give it away to the homeless. The rain was pouring down, and in our eagerness to get the food out before it went cold, we all forgot our coats. The rain soaked us to the skin, and the wind whipped us. I was just starting to feel sorry for myself when we found a homeless man and woman, huddled together under a sodden, filthy blanket, in a hopeless attempt to keep dry. The joy and disbelief in their faces when we gave them the food was remarkable.

Guided by God

My life in comparison to these people shamed me. I had allowed myself to get caught up in Oxford. I had succumbed to ‘All the vain things that charm me most’ and had started to slip from my purpose here; to be formed into one of God’s priests. We were doing the work of the Gospel that night, and I thank God for his wisdom. He can speak to us and rebuke us, with love, like no other.

As I walked home, I was glad of the rain; it masked my tears. When we arrived back in the common room, music filled the House. Some ordinands had gathered around the piano and were singing hymns. It was a beautiful way to end a powerful evening. The Holy Spirit had filled the House. Looking around me, I was moved by the 30 or so people that had decided to devote themselves to God, and do his works. I have made some excellent friends here, and look forward to the next three years, guided by God’s loving hand. ND

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