That Grave

Cardinal Newman’s Grave in Birmingham

As I set off for the Midlands and the city of Birmingham, I had one particular purpose in mind,— to take a look at the city’s celebrated City Hall and that for three reasons. Was it not from here that Lloyd George had escaped at the time of the South African War, in a policeman’s uniform, when the furious mob was out for his blood, and weren’t those the best days in Lloyd George’s exciting career when he took his life in his hand by putting the case for a small oppressed nation? And hadn’t it been built too on the model of the Parthenon, the most famous temple of ancient Greece and one of the most celebrated and perfect buildings on earth, and didn’t Paul argue with the Greeks about the resurrection of Christ in the shadow of that temple? And wouldn’t a Welsh heart grow warm when looking at it and recalling that it had been from a place worthy of the Parthenon that its stones had come, from the old quarry near the priory of Penmon* in Anglesey’s gentle land?

A friend happened to come along, a very Welsh Welshman who was a minister among the English. He had a wonderful talent for ferreting out anything unusual and strange. It was he who offered to go with me to see the grave. When I realised whose grave, I lost all interest in seeing it since I could visualise a pretentious, angelic memorial staring at me, but I have never ever been so thoroughly disabused. Instead of turning away from him in distaste I remembered that he was part of my life's happiness, a guide to that "peace, perfect peace, that the world does not know of."

We set off and my friend took me to the tram. He had an indefinable smile on his face which told that he had something lined up for me on the outing that would stun me. Instead of going into the city I noticed that the tram was heading out to the country. We went mile after mile till we reached the terminus, six miles out in the village of Rednal near the Lickey Hills, a favourite gathering place on sunny summer days with its lovely wooded hillocks. Rednal is a rural village but the city is beginning to make its mark on it.

When we got there we went straight across the road to a door leading to a pathway beyond and on the door in large letters were the words,— STRICTLY PRIVATE. On opening the door and passing through we suddenly found that we had completely shut out the world behind us. It was a narrow, muddy path with a heavy carpet of autumn leaves and some two feet of grass verge on each side between it and the base of the hedges. These hedges were high and wild and there were tall untidy branches sprouting from them and meeting to form a high ceiling above our heads. The path widened a little as we went along as trees replaced the hedges while the delicate carpet of leaves thickened. Walking on it was silent and lovely. After going some two or three hundred yards on this get‑away‑from‑it‑all pathway we turned to the left. On one side of the turn is an old shed and on the turn, on a small rise, there is a cross and inscribed on it are the following words:

LAUS DEO. In thankful remembrance of June 30th, 1866, when Divine Providence saved our schoolboys all collected round their father prefect under the adjacent shed, from a sudden thunderstorm when the lightning playing around them struck with death as many as ten sheep about the field and trees close by.
This cross shelters under the shade of a tree.

It would perhaps be somewhat uncharitable to suggest that as Providence had saved the boys and their spiritual father it might as well have thrown its shadow over the poor sheep as well, especially as the ruler of Providence is the author of the parable of the Lost Sheep. By praising Providence in this way does not this testimony also diminish it by making it seem rather miserly in its defensive operations? The line between superstition and faith is a narrow one and is quite characteristic of the faith that put up this stone.

After we had passed by the shed and the cross we walked on a bit under the shade of trees. The thick carpet of autumn leaves beneath our feet grew heavier as the tall hedge on our right became more ragged and gapped. We veered a little to the right and saw the front of a big mansion through the gaps in the hedge. Then we saw the mansion full face. As one familiar with the place my friend knew that this was where we had to ask permission to come through the door marked STRICTLY PRIVATE, as he had been here before, guiding pilgrims like me.

It is a beautiful mansion on an uncommonly lovely site. There are lawns in front of it, one below the other, and steps from one to the other, and gardens, and the grass of the lawns is cut right down and everything is a model of order and taste.

We go to the front door, knock and state our business, and a charming young lady gives us a cheerful permission. Beyond the open door is the hall and there you can see it is no ordinary place. The hall has been turned into a little chapel with a half dozen chairs and images of one or two saints. Facing you, inside on the right wall, is a splendid cross with a large figure of the Saviour hanging on it. And now we know where we are, in a cell or house of prayer for priests,—the retreat that is the Birmingham Oratory. I am reminded of something and a thrill goes through me because I am standing in a holy place, though we have not yet reached the spot. In front of us as we look out there is a valley with hills and woodlands that merge and stretch away as far as our eyes can see, and the solitude and the silence is as total as if there wasn't a large city within thousands of miles.

The lady comes out with us and points out a gap by the left gable of the house. And there is the patch of land, some fifteen yards long and fifteen wide. With tall hedges on three sides it is the quietest and most peaceful spot in the whole world. A lawn, no, a garden; a garden? no, a graveyard, no, a garden. We hesitate because we had never seen or imagined its like.

The plot is almost full of graves, but what graves! Four rows of five each, and another grave starting a further row, each one facing the same way, and two other graves facing them. When four more graves have been added to the one starting a row the place will be full. Over there is a grave apart, on its own, with a pathway between it and the others. We are quite literally afraid to go on lest we disturb the peace.

There is no suggestion here of dark death, simply a lovely place of rest at the end of the day. All of the grave stones, with the exception of the one on its own at the far end, are identical and strikingly simple, — a completely round circle with a cross in its centre over its length and breadth. Every gravestone has a foot to set it in the ground, each one being about a yard high and made of grey sandstone. The names of the interred are given together with the date of death and sometimes the date of birth and that’s all.

These graves are really not like graves at all. They are more like the humps on beds where the forms of those who sleep show through the bedclothes. There is a little gap between them but no definite boundary and the short grass lies like a smooth coverlet over them all, a green coverlet without stitching. Peace and rest but not death, and the brethren sleep here together in peace, far removed from the noise and pain of the world.

That grave there on its own in the distance is a woman's. The gravestone is of a different design and is inscribed thus:
Frances, widow of John Wootten, Esq. M.D. Died January 9, 1876.
Why a woman’s grave in a place like this of all places in the world, what seer would know?
That is the only surprise here, the only thing out of place, only just, mind you, but still a surprise, — a woman lying here, as well as her being kept definitely and obviously apart.

The two graves facing the others are the graves of lay people. But why facing and why feet to feet? My friend, the untiring ferreter, explained it thus: that it was the custom that the laity and the priests should face each other so that when the dead rose on the last day the priests and their congregations would be facing each other as they rose from their graves.

There is something hellish in the Catholic Church and there is something heavenly too. It was she who created Catherine de Medici and her followers whose likes not even Gehenna could have imagined. And it was also she who created Francis of Assisi and his ‘friars’, and not even Paradise could have devised more lovely lives than theirs. And this is a garden of Paradise in which weary men may rest. O to be here in spring to hear the birds sing, for these wild and lovely hedges are sure to be a paradise for them.

We move from grave to grave in awe as if in a thunderstorm, reading the inscriptions on them. The whole thing lies heavily on me. Each name is completely unknown. But what is this — the second gravestone on the right, in the furthest row but one, has two names on it, the only one with two? On the top half of the circle, — "Ambrose St. John, Died May 24th, 1875." And what is this, over the cross, — "John Henry Cardinal Newman," and on the lower part of the circle, — "Born Feb. 21, 1801. Died August 11th 1890." We just stand there, not uttering a word, and we stare for a long time, spellbound, and the eloquent simplicity is the most spellbinding thing of all.

So here, in this divine silence, along with his brethren, is his resting place. The great soul, the great saint, the great preacher, whose spiritual struggles had shaken and split his Church, — he is here in the stillness, after the struggle and the long searching and after accepting the light that had wandered so long, seeking him in anguish of soul. Here he is, in accordance with his own wishes, with the friends of his struggles and research. And what about this grave, the nearest to him? Another old friend who had known his anguish, —"Edward Caswall**, Died January 2, 1878."

We look at him, among his old friends, waiting now for that day:

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

Of all the things that completely take away the fear of death, that remarkable grave and that remarkable graveyard will be what stays with me as long as I live, part of the richest inheritance of my life. I wonder if I will be able to come here in the spring to hear the birds singing above his head? This is the right place for birds to sing.

******************

: Reverend E. Tegla Davies (1880 – 1967). The son of a quarryman, he was born in Denbighshire and became a minister with the Wesleyans. He was a prolific writer in Welsh of fiction and non-fiction for both children and adults. The above is taken from his book of essays, Gyda’r Hwyr (‘At Dusk’), published in Liverpool in 1957 by the former publishing house, ‘Gwasg y Brython’. We are very grateful to the present copyright holders, Gwasg Gomer, Llandysul, for permission to translate and reproduce it in this slightly shortened version.

Translation: The Wales Famine Forum, 1999.

*The priory at Penmon, near Beaumaris, was a sixth century foundation by St. Seiriol. In the thirteenth century the monks adopted the rule of the Augustinian Canons. It was dissolved around 1537. The surviving structure dates largely from the twelfth century when Idwal, son of Gruffydd ap Cynan (1055–1137), was Prior. Gruffydd's mother was the daughter of the Viking king of Dublin. As the Norman conquest of Wales gathered strength, Gruffydd himself spent a number of years in enforced exile in his mother's city before returning with a large retinue, including Irish soldiers, bards and musicians, to become one of the last and most distinguished of the kings of Gwynedd. The old priory is the subject of Penmon, one of the best‑known poems in Welsh by the celebrated T.Gwynn Jones (1871 – 1949).

**Edward Caswall, born in 1814, was ordained an Anglican priest in 1838 but was greatly influenced by the Catholic cardinal, John Henry Newman. In 1847 he resigned as curate of Stratford-sub-Castle, Wiltshire and both he and his wife joined the Roman Catholic Church. After his wife died from cholera in 1849, Caswall was re‑ordained as a Catholic priest in 1852 and spent the remainder of his life ministering to the sick and the poor as he served at the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, Birmingham. That is where he wrote his hymns and translations.

From the book, Gyda’r Hwyr (‘At Dusk’), published in Liverpool in 1957, a collection of thoughtful and inspirational essays in Welsh by the Wesleyan minister and famous writer of stirring tales for young and old, E.Tegla Davies (1880 – 1967). The text in the original Welsh: Cymraeg

Published in Green Dragon No 11, Summer 2002

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