I went on a Cardinal Newman pilgrimage at the weekend. We took a coach from London and spent most of the day in Oxford.
The first stop, just outside Oxford itself, was the site of Newman’s reception into full communion with the Catholic Church. This is how Roderick Strange describes it in his John Henry Newman: A Mind Alive.
When people speak of Newman’s conversion, they are usually referring to the events of 8 and 9 October 1845, that windswept night when Father Dominic Barberi, drenched by rain from his journey exposed to the weather, arrived in Littlemore, the village where Newman had made his home after resigning as Vicar of the University Church and retiring to lay communion as an Anglican. He began to hear Newman’s confession that evening and it continued the following morning. Then he received him into the Roman Catholic Church.
You can see the room where he slept and thought and wrote so many letters; the chapel where he prayed; the library where he and his friends studied and talked.
But what moved me most? His stand-up desk! I’ve used one for the last year, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen someone else’s. I felt an immediate bond. Mine is an improvised affair, consisting of four metal waste paper baskets from Rymans placed on my normal office desk, with a piece of wood I found in the attic balanced on top. I put the computer on the raised table, and it is just the right height for me to type standing up. I get some funny looks when people walk into my office, but they are getting used to it.
Why do I risk the humiliation? I was getting some back-ache from sitting in the same position for so long; I went to an orthopedic furniture shop to get a fancy chair, and they suggested I try standing up to vary the posture. It has worked like a dream. You can move and stretch and relax without getting stuck in some awkward position for hours; then sit down for a change when you are tired. I highly recommend it to anyone. And the bins (£2.99 each) were cheaper than the chairs (which started at about £400). Apparently, you can get electric desks that go up and down, so you can move from sitting to standing at the flick of a switch; but I think they are out of my league.
Newman’s is a fine wooden desk: The top slopes down towards you so you get a nice angle. The height is adjustable. There is a length of wood at the bottom of the slope to stop the paper sliding off. What more could you want? I’m sure this was the secret of his success.
There is a nice religious note to add as well. When Fr Barberi wanted to celebrate Mass the next day there was no suitable altar (the chapel they used was simply an oratory, and the eucharist would not have been celebrated there). So they brought in this stand-up desk, flattened it and lowered the top as far as it would go, and used it for the altar. So it was from this extraordinary piece of Victorian furniture that he received his first Holy Communion as a Catholic. Out of reverence for this sacred moment, he never used it as a desk again.