What cherry trees are to Washington, DC, magnolia trees were to my last parish in London. The profligacy of their flowers lighting up the suburban streets like vast candelabra made spring the most beautiful and colourful time of year. For a few short weeks the urban landscape was transformed. In A Shropshire Lad, AE Housman (who really spent very little time in Shropshire) includes a poem about young man contemplating a cherry tree in spring. It has a lighter touch than many of his poems, but Housman’s reaction to beauty never quite escapes the depressing conviction that it’s born to die. The young man is so ravished by the blossoming of the cherry trees that this immediately becomes something fragile and he reflects that he probably has “only” another 50 years to look on such beauty and therefore he must come again and again to look while they last.
I am told that a magnolia tree can live for up to 120 years, and I had a quasi-Housman moment myself this week, when venturing on to the campus of what was, until last July, Heythrop College, I was confronted by the sight of a magnificent magnolia tree in riot. There is no one there to see it as Heythrop, located in a desirable part of London, has been sold to developers for tens of millions of pounds and now the building is officially mothballed. You can enter the silent corridors because these afford access to the garden and retreat centre behind, but it’s like boarding a ghost ship.
Everything is where it was, it’s just that there’s nobody there. In the beautiful garden behind, a kind of oasis in the middle of the city, the magnolia blooms as it has done for much of the life of the present building, which was first a convent school and then a Catholic teacher training college and then a Jesuit-run college of the University of London.
One cannot simply conflate a plant-rich Church with a healthy Church, but surely the life of evangelical poverty, chastity and obedience is one of the most perennial blossoms in the Church. Its beauty shines even more powerfully in contrast to its surroundings when modernity seeks to crowd it out of the landscape – but not if no one sees it. The closure of so many such places evidences the decline of consecrated religious in the Church’s life. “Fifty year’s a little room” to the Shropshire Lad, yet 50 years has seen apostolic religious life enter a near terminal stage.
Nowhere is this decline more evident than in the field of education. Now, if education is just a commodity to be “delivered”, as the jargon puts it, anyone can do it, but if education is writing on the hearts of another generation of believers and forming disciples for Christ, it is disaster of considerable proportions.
The reaction of most religious orders to their own demise seems to be the transference exercise of rushing to explain their efforts to save the planet. That this has the same prerequisite value as education for preaching the Gospel, I regret, to say is not immediately apparent to me, since many other secular agencies and organisations are committed to the former but quite hostile to the latter.
Selling our Catholic heritage to consortiums to build luxury developments seems to able to stifle the cry of Mother Earth in some cases. The magnolia in the garden of Heythrop makes me sad for what will not come again.