The Unicorn Triumphant


Consecrated Life and the Artistic Vocation

Last academic year, I was a member of a vocations discernment program here in the U.K. (Compass, which I highly recommend.) Three of us Catholic young adults interested in religious life met with two group leaders from apostolic religious congregations (a Missionaries of the Sacred Heart priest and Faithful Companions of Jesus sister) one weekend a month for nine months, to learn more about religious life. This year-long discernment solidified my sense of call to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

In addition, I have also continued to discern how my sense of calling to an artistic and academic vocation fits into my sense of calling to the consecrated life. You may have noticed that the theme of a community that blends religious life with the practice of theatre has been a common thread on this blog:

Towards a Christian Theatre Tribe

Offending the Audience

Theatre Company Brain Dump

More on a Christian Theatre

What Should a Professional Christian Theatre Look Like?

On a Benedictine Theatre Company

Thoughts on a Religious Theatre Community

New Ways of Making Theatre

And on my PhD program’s blog Transpositions:

Towards a Eucharistic Theatre

Thoughts on Consecrated Life for Artists


Pelican altarpiece by Fr Marko Rupnik SJ, Chapel of the Holy Spirit, Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, CT, USA

I am ready to explore the next phase of how these two vocations – the vocation to the consecrated life and the vocation to art-making – go together. Stay tuned.

Some Thoughts on Art from John the Baptist

When all the people asked John, ‘What must we do?’ he answered, ‘If anyone has two tunics he must share with the man who has none, and the one with something to eat must do the same.’ There were tax collectors too who came for baptism, and these said to him, ‘Master, what must we do?’ He said to them, ‘Exact no more than your rate.’ Some soldiers asked him in their turn, ‘What about us? What must we do?’ He said to them, ‘No intimidation! No extortion! Be content with your pay!’ – Luke 3:10-14

I was praying over today’s Gospel, and focused on the part written above. I was using Ignatian contemplation, in which you enter into the scene, and become part of it, possibly having conversations with the other characters in the scene.

After listening to John the Baptist tell the people that those who have extra clothing and food must share with those who have none, I listened to both the tax collectors and the soldiers in turn ask John what specifically they must do.

It struck me that both of these groups could be considered collaborators with the Roman occupation. The tax collectors certainly were – they took taxes from their fellow Jews for Rome, and the only way they made a living was by taking more than they were told to take. They worked on commission, as it were – ‘Rome must have its tax, but take an extra 10% for your troubles’. In telling the tax collectors to take no more than their rate – that is, to take no more than Rome’s tax – he is effectively asking them to work for zero salary, and become penniless.

However, he has just told the Jewish crowd as a whole that they are to provide for those without means. So therefore, in a way, he is saying to the non-tax-collectors in the crowd, ‘I am asking the tax collectors to become penniless, so that they may walk justly with their God as your brothers in the nation of Israel. Therefore, you must take care of them. If Rome requires that you give her men to take her taxes, then you must take care of these men so that they do not fall into unrighteousness. It is your fault if these men feel pressured to cheat in order to survive, and are tempted to cut themselves off from the community. You must make an effort to keep them still your brothers’.

He’s easier on the soldiers. He allows them to keep their jobs – and I’m assuming here that these are soldiers who work for Rome, not temple guards – but it’s also about money. He tells them not to rob or accuse others unjustly (so they can either blackmail them or take their property once they are unjustly convicted), and to be content with the pay they receive for a job that does do a service for the community, in terms of keeping the peace in the nation. They are allowed to be soldiers, but they must be satisfied with the small reward they receive for this service.

So if one thinks about the Roman context of this conversation, it is all about the community’s duty to help their brothers and sisters stay righteous, to stay in relationship with God and the community. To ease the pressures to fall into sin, and help each other on the road to salvation.

Keeping this Roman context in mind, I turned to the original question I had wanted to ask the Baptist at the beginning of the exercise: ‘What about us artists? What must we do?’

Here was the answer I got back: ‘You may make anything for which you are commissioned, except idols. [Idols here representing anything that violates God’s Law.] Let your honouring of God be showing in the excellence of your work. As for that which you make without any commission, of your own volition – let it be your praise. Let your art be a praise to God, your sacrifice of praise. Let it be your prayer of praise.

‘And for every piece of gold that is melted down to be beaten into a beautiful image to praise God – whether for a vessel or sculpture for the Temple, or for any other thing – that piece of gold must feed more people as a sculpture, by raising their minds, hearts, and spirits to God, than it would have fed if it were spent to buy food for people’s bodies. Only if it feeds more people as a sculpture than as bread is that piece of gold justified to be used for art.’

I offer these brief reflections for whatever value they may have. I’m not a historian, and these thoughts may have no grounding in actual history, but I hope they may still have some value in spiritual understanding, of how we should live as the community of Christians, and especially as Christian artists.

The Parable of the Wheat & Tares

Today’s reading in the lectionary is the parable of the wheat and tares (Matthew 13:24-30). From the Jerusalem Bible:

Jesus put a parable before the crowds, ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everybody was asleep his enemy came, sowed darnel all among the wheat, and made off. When the new wheat sprouted and ripened, the darnel appeared as well. The owner’s servants went to him and said, “Sir, was it not good seed that you sowed in your field? If so, where does the darnel come from?” “Some enemy has done this” he answered. And the servants said, “Do you want us to go and weed it out?” But he said, “No, because when you weed out the darnel you might pull up the wheat with it. Let them both grow till the harvest; and at harvest time I shall say to the reapers: First collect the darnel and tie it in bundles to be burnt, then gather the wheat into my barn.”’

You’ll notice that the Jerusalem Bible, which is used at Mass here in the U.K., uses the word ‘darnel’ instead of ‘tares’. I had never heard that word before, so I looked it up on Wikipedia, and here is what I found:

Darnel [Lolium temulentum, a.k.a., poison darnel or cockle] usually grows in the same production zones as wheat and is considered a weed. The similarity between these two plants is so extensive that in some regions, cockle is referred to as “false wheat”. It bears a close resemblance to wheat until the ear appears. The ears on the real wheat are so heavy it makes the entire plant droop downward, but L. temulentum, whose ears are light, stands up straight. The wheat will also appear brown when ripe, whereas the darnel is black. When the Lolium matures, the spikelets turn edgeways to the rachis, where the wheat spikelets remain as they grew previously.

And wheat and darnel look almost exactly alike:

wheat (left) and darnel (right)

Jesus’ parable had more layers than I ever realised before. Instead of just being a parable about bad people being inextricably intertwined with the good people in the Church until the Judgement Day (the way this parable is usually explicated), the use of the word ‘darnel’ to translate ζιζάνια indicates that those who are destined for judgement, as the darnel is collected and burned, are almost indistinguishable in exterior appearance from those who are destined to be saved and gathered into the Father’s barn. Not only that, but the darnel looks nourishing, but is actually poisonous, and can cause death. Therefore, it is destined for death.

Here are some extra layers of understanding which I think the translation of ζιζάνια as ‘darnel’ brings out:

The similarity between these two plants is so extensive that in some regions, cockle is referred to as “false wheat”.

In the parable, wheat represents true followers of Christ, and darnel represents the false followers, who look almost exactly alike. (Note that it is both the farmhands – i.e., the angels – and the farmer – i.e., the Father – who are able to tell the difference in the parable. We might not be able.)

It bears a close resemblance to wheat until the ear appears.

False discipleship and true discipleship may appear to be the same, but ‘you will know them by their fruits’ (Matthew 7:16, from the Sermon on the Mount).

The ears on the real wheat are so heavy it makes the entire plant droop downward, but L. temulentum, whose ears are light, stands up straight.

True fruitfulness comes with the heaviness of the Cross. False fruitfulness is unbent by suffering and sacrifice, because it is not united with Christ on His Cross.

The wheat will also appear brown when ripe, whereas the darnel is black. 

I don’t want to make too much of this, other than to say look at this beautiful ripe wheat:

versus this forbidding-looking darnel:

One can probably stretch by making some point about true discipleship only being darkened by the lesser dark of venial sin, whereas false discipleship is corrupted by the utter darkness of mortal sin, but I think I’d rather just use the two images to show the contrast – since wheat isn’t really brown, but gold. It’s the colour of the Sun (of Justice, the Royal Son of the Father) and the Kingdom (gold), versus the colour of corruption and death (black).

When the Lolium matures, the spikelets turn edgeways to the rachis, where the wheat spikelets remain as they grew previously.

True discipleship stays on the straight path, whereas false discipleship causes a person to grow sideways, to become bent.

So it’s a parable not just about the Church not being able to separate herself from false followers of Christ, but also not being able for certain exactly who they are, until the final Judgement when all people’s fruits will become clear.

And finally, a last point from Wikipedia: ‘The French word for darnel is ivraie (from Latin ebriacus, intoxicated), which expresses that weed’s characteristic of making one feel poisoned with drunkenness, and can cause death.’

The healthy fruits lead to life, the poisonous fruits to death – not only in terms of the righteous receiving life, and the damned receiving death, as in the harvest of the parable, but also in terms of those who eat those people’s fruits. In Communion, we eat the Body and Blood of Christ, and become one with each other through the eating. If we commune with Christ in sincerity, we eat unto life. If we commune falsely, we eat unto death. And if we are united to death, we bring death to those who are joined with us. Whereas if we are united to life, we bring life to those who are joined with us. Thanks be to God for His Son Jesus Christ, who brings life out of our death.

Oxford vs US: An Undergrad Degree Comparison Chart (& Glossary)


Radcliffe Camera (Oxford)

A young student, who I believe is an American, recently asked a question on one of my Facebook groups:

Anyone from Oxford University- what is it like? I have heard that there are no general education classes, and that you work strictly on your major. Is that true?

When I responded saying that I could give him some comparisons between Oxford and a US liberal arts degree, since I have been an undergraduate at both Oxford (BA in Theology) and in the US (BFA in Drama/Psychology at NYU), he wrote back, saying:

Thanks, I would like the comparison chart. I would also imagine your knowledge is much-more in-depth with a BA from Oxford than with one from America.

So, for Ian, and for any readers and seekers on the Internet who come across this page, here is my comparison chart between reading for a BA at Oxford versus studying for a liberal arts degree in the US. (For “reading” vs. “studying”, and other Oxford vs. U.S. terminology, see the glossary at the end of the post.) All opinions are my own, based on my own experience doing a humanities degree, and I’m happy to incorporate comments/suggestions/corrections into this post, especially from students who can comment on science degrees.

I can’t compare the experiences within the same subject, since my US degree was in a completely different field than my UK degree, but I would say a BA from Oxford, in Theology at least, is more equivalent to a US MA in Theology than to a US BA. The primary difference is Oxford is focused more on teaching you how to think and how to communicate, using the subject as the battlefield upon which you’re learning intellectual sword-work. A US liberal arts degree might have this same ideal, but in practice the large lectures and frequent examinations mean you really spend your time cramming for exams and being constantly evaluated by multiple-choice, computer-scored questions, rather than by soaking in the subject, doing extensive reading, and being evaluated through the more demanding essay format. However, you may have more facts drilled into you in an American program, and you will also have more freedom to explore different subjects as part of your degree. While I think the Oxford tutorial should be (re-?)introduced into American higher education, the choice of overall program really depends on each individual student’s needs, capabilities, and desires.

Here’s a short piece on my experience that I wrote for my senior subject tutor at my Oxford college (with bonus contribution from my good friend and fellow C.S. Lewis expert Ryan Pemberton):

American Theology Students at Harris Manchester

Structure-wise, here’s a brief comparison chart between the typical US undergrad degree and an Oxford one:

Years 1-2: Completion of liberal arts core requirements in the humanities and sciences (often with a required general essay-writing/composition course); choice of major and beginning on introductory classes within that major by end of 2nd year

Year 3-4: Completion of major requirements, w/ some electives related and/or unrelated to the major (often adding a second major or a minor)

Instruction is primarily in large (~200 person) lectures at beginning of degree, with some seminars/recitations. Later in degree, instruction is primarily in seminars/smaller classes (~20-30 people or fewer).

Evaluation is generally through regular quizzes and exams (midterm and final), which are often multiple-choice with some essay questions. Many classes also assign 1-2 term papers a semester, along with regular weekly problem sets/reading responses (1-2 pages each). GPA is calculated every semester, and the final outcome of your degree (GPA) is the average of all semester GPAs.

Year 1: Completion of required preliminary papers in your course. These examinations (“prelims” or “honour mods” [for “honour moderations”]) must be passed in order to move on to the “Final Honours School” (FHS), i.e., the last two years of the degree. Written examination on these papers at the end of the second or third term. (Oxbridge has three 8-week terms in an academic year.) 

(There are no “general education” requirements at Oxford. When you apply to Oxford, you apply both for a specific course and to a specific college. Your application may be “pooled”, or transferred, to another college, depending on fit and the number of openings, but you will generally be accepted – or not – for that course. You may also be accepted onto a Single Honours School [like a single major] instead of a Joint Honours School [like a double major] if you have applied to a Joint School but the college believes you will be a better fit for the Single School. For example, I applied for Philosophy and Theology, but was accepted only for Theology, which ended up being a good decision. See this post for more about my experience applying to Oxford and choosing a college. Applying for a certain course at a certain college means that there is no way to apply “to Oxford”, and then decide what to major in later. You know your major going in, and apply to colleges which offer that subject [or make an “open application”, in which you apply for a certain subject, but let an algorithm place you with a college, which does not affect your overall chances of admission]. See here for a list of which Oxford colleges offer which undergraduate subjects.) 

Years 2-3 (+ 3rd term of Year 1 for courses that give prelims at the end of the 2nd term of Year 1): Completion of required FHS papers, plus completion of elective papers within subject. (For example, in Theology I had four required core FHS papers, and then my choice of a history paper, a theologian paper, an elective paper, and either a second elective or an extended essay, for four total papers beyond the core papers.) Examination on these FHS papers at the end of the third year. During final exams, students will sit 1-2 exams a day, each of which is 2-3 hours long, over a 1-2 week period, for a total of about 6-10 exams (depending on their course). (We also take exams in full academic dress – dark suit, white bow tie, and academic gown, often with a carnation in the lapel indicating progress: white for first exam, pink for middle exams, and red for final exam.)

That means there are NO examinations during the second year. However, students generally take “collections” at the beginning of every term. Collections are practice exams – usually copies of past exam papers – that are given under exam conditions to test you on the material you learned last term. They are scored, but the scores don’t “count” (i.e., they don’t apply to your degree) – they’re just to give you an idea of how you would have scored if this was your final exam, and to help you with revision.

Instruction is primarily in 1-2 person tutorials with a tutor. The tutor assigns you a reading list for each week (with about a dozen books and articles on it), along with a related essay question. You do the reading, and then write an essay to answer the question (usually about 2,000-3,000 words, or about 6-10 pages). Next week, you bring in the essay to your hour-long tutorial (or you send it to your tutor the day before). Then, you read the essay aloud (or skip this, if your tutor has already received and read it), and spend the rest of the time discussing the ideas in your essay. Your tutor will generally present objections to your argument, which you will have to answer, or ask you questions to encourage you to think more deeply. At the end, he’ll give you a new reading list and essay question, and the process begins again.

There are also departmental lectures every week, and at the beginning of term your tutor will generally recommend a few which you should attend. These are not technically required, and there is no attendance taken. However, since the faculty members who write the exams are aware of the content of these lectures, they may write exam questions based on them, so it’s in your best interest to attend at least the listed core lectures. There may be some instruction given in seminars/classes (especially language instruction) – your senior tutor will let you know if you need to take these, and how to sign up for them.

Examination is by written examination at or near the end of the first year (prelims/mods), and at the end of the third year (finals). Exams are in the form of essay questions, with some gobbets (i.e., written commentary on a written passage), translations, and/or problem sets included, depending on the course and the paper. There is also the option of a thesis for some subjects (and a few papers are examined by written coursework [i.e., a lengthy essay like a term paper], as well as exam). If there are questions about your written exam, or if the examiners feel they need more information in order to assess your ability, you may be asked to undergo a viva voce, or oral exam. (These exams are standard for postgraduate degrees.)

The result of your final degree is not cumulative. Your final result depends entirely on your final examinations at the end of your degree (including a written thesis/coursework if applicable). Exams are marked on a scale of 0-100, and results are roughly equivalent to the following marks (which may differ depending on the degree course):

70-100: First-Class
60-69: Upper Second (2:1)
50-59: Lower Second (2:2)
40-49: Third
30-39: Pass (w/o Honours)
Below 30: Fail

Your final result is based on the average of your marks on your final papers, with a couple qualifying criteria: You will generally have to have an average of a certain mark or above, plus at least 2-3 marks over a certain number, as well as no mark below a certain number. So, for example, in Theology, in order to get a 2:1 as your final result, you need to have:

An average of 59 or above
At least two marks of 60 or above
No mark below 40

Whereas to get a First, you need to have:

(i) Average of 68.5 or above
At least two marks of 70 or above
No mark below 50
(ii) Average of 65 or above
At least three marks of 75 or above
No mark below 50

In Theology at least, and I think in the humanities generally, about 10% of students receive a First, roughly 65-75% receive a 2:1, and about 15-25% receive a 2:2. It is uncommon for a person to receive a Third or below, though it happens. You need a high 2:1 (avg 66+) or above to be accepted into graduate study generally, and some employers will also require a 2:1 or above. (Though for graduate study at Oxbridge – Oxford or Cambridge – you should aim for a First.)


Oxford “paper” = US “course”/”class”
(Oxford “paper” also means an examination, so “sitting a paper” means taking an exam. “Classes”, meaning instruction on a certain topic being given to a small group of students who attend weekly and receive regular homework, are rare at Oxford, since most instruction is delivered in other formats. Instead of saying, for example, that you’re taking a class on the Old Testament, you’d say that you’re doing the Old Testament paper, or, if you’re taking the exam, that you’re sitting the Old Testament paper. However, some papers at Oxford are given through a class, such as the special theologian papers within the Theology degree – although my class was 3 people, so it’s not the same thing as an American 20-30 student class. It’s more like a large tutorial.)

Oxford “course” = US “degree program”
(e.g., my course, i.e., my course of studies, was the Theology BA)

Oxford “subject” = US “major”
(e.g., “My subject is Theology” = “My major is Theology”)

Oxford “to read” = US “to major in” or “to study”)
(e.g., “I’m reading Theology” = “I’m majoring in Theology” or “I’m studying Theology”. A person who is reading Theology is a theologian, just as a person who is reading for a science degree is a scientist – no need to wait for the PhD to apply the appellation relevant to your field! One benefit of Oxford is that you’re treated as a colleague-in-training.)

Oxford “essay” = US “paper”
(instead of saying “I’m writing a paper on irony in the Gospel of John”, you’d say, “My essay this week is on irony in the Gospel of John”)

Oxford “revision” = US “studying”
(i.e., “I’m revising for my exams” instead of “I’m studying for my exams”)

Oxford “tutor” = US “professor”
(In the US, we generally tend to call all our faculty instructors “professors”, e.g., “my Intro Psych professor” to refer to the newly-minted PhD who’s working as an adjunct. At Oxford, a professor is a specific title for someone who has been awarded a chair in a faculty – so, for example, the Chair of Old Testament can be called Prof Bloggs, whereas another faculty member, who may have lectured and taught for 20 years as a member of the faculty but who is not a chair, is only Dr Bloggs. It is a faux pas to called a professor “Dr”, or a non-professor faculty member “Prof”. Oxford faculty members have other titles, such as “Lecturer” – which means that the person gives lectures in the department – or “Tutor” – which means that the person teaches tutorials, *not* that the person gives extra help to struggling students [though they may do that, too, out of the kindness of their hearts – Oxford tutors generally care a lot about the progress of their students]. However, you wouldn’t address someone as Lecturer Bloggs or Tutor Bloggs.)

Oxford “finalist” = US “senior”
(A finalist is a student who is about to sit finals, i.e., a student in the last year of his course. [During your last term, you no longer attend tutorials or receive essay assignments, as you are expected to spend all your time revising and attending revision classes.] Therefore, “finalist” is roughly equivalent to the U.S. term “senior”. English universities do not use the terms freshman/sophomore/junior/senior, not least because undergraduate degrees are often three years, not four. They do, however, use the term “fresher” for a new first-year student.)

Oxford “postgraduate” = US “graduate”
(Postgrad:undergrad as graduate student:undergraduate student)

And there you are! Feel free to write me if you have any questions about Oxford or study in the UK (or study in the US, if you are not American). Feel free also to share this document with others – I ask only that you don’t modify it without permission, and do credit me and link back to this blog.


Radcliffe Quadrangle (Harvard)

Dominus Illuminatio Mea!

Cole Matson

BA (Hons) – Theology – University of Oxford, 2011

BFA (w/ Honors) – Drama/Psychology – New York University, 2006

PhD candidate – Divinity – University of St Andrews, 2011-present

Dorothy L. Sayers on the Contemplative Vocation of the Artist

Now up here at Transpositions.

This blog will be going on hiatus for a while. As you can see, most of my recent posting has been at Transpositions, where I am now a regular contributor. I’m also now attempting to work 40 hours/week on my PhD, am producing two shows and acting in a third, and am still doing other writing/editing work, as well as attending a monthly vocations discernment group.

If you’d like to continue to follow my writing on theology and the arts, please follow Transpositions.

I will also be continuing my Theatre R&D research tour, which I only got to complete half of, sometime in the next year. When I do, I will post more information. I will also post notes from the sections I have completed when I have time, probably starting over Christmas break. Don’t worry, all my donors will still receive a trip report (and you can still donate towards the completion of the trip by clicking the PayPal button on the top-right of my homepage, or here)!

Thanks for reading!

‘He Who Loses His Life will Find It’: How Narrative Gives Life

My follow-up post to Wednesday’s post at Transpositions on the morality of narrative is now up, with a couple of very good comments already added:

‘He Who Loses His Life will Find It’: How Narrative Gives Life

‘Drinking the Kool-Aid’: Does Narrative Kill?

Today’s post is part one of a two-part post on the morality of narrative. It’s now up at Transpositions:

‘Drinking the Kool-Aid’: Does Narrative Kill? [Part One]

Towards a Eucharistic Theatre

My proposed dissertation title is ‘Towards a Eucharistic Theatre: Communion and the Moral Responsibility of the Theatre Artist’. I explain the phrase ‘Eucharistic theatre’ in my recent post at Transpositions.

(Posted from the family ranch in Gove, KS – I went on my first cattle round-up today!)

To Share the Fruits of Contemplation

I recently listened to a wonderful 25-minute podcast on In Otherhood, a blog which explores secular, interfaith, and art monasticisms. It is written by Nathan Rosquist, one of the artmonks of the Art Monastery in Italy, who is starting his own Art Monastery in San Francisco. The podcast was an interview with Christine Valters Paintner, Abbess of the Abbey of the Arts, an online community of artists interested in living and creating contemplatively. She herself is a Benedictine oblate, and recently wrote a book called The Artist’s Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom. I recommend checking out both Nathan‘s and Christine‘s websites, if you’re interested in art and monasticism. (And if you’re within travelling distance of St Andrews, Scotland, and interested in joining a monthly discussion group about art and monasticism, please contact me.)

As a response to that podcast, I thought I would share with you some of the fruits of my recent contemplation. A few months ago, I went on a silent retreat at an Ignatian retreat centre in England, shortly after having finished my BA module on Christian Spirituality at Oxford. One of the mottoes of the Dominican Order is Contemplare et Contemplata aliis Tradere – ‘to contemplate and to share with others the fruits of contemplation’. In that spirit, here are two of the fruits of my Ignatian contemplation, which I share with you as I listen to Maurice Duruflé’s ‘Ubi Caritas‘, one of the most beautiful choral pieces I have ever heard.


‘For John of the Cross’

Lord, let me love You
with the flame of ten thousand fires.

Let me love You
with a flame that dries and crackles,

burns and blackens the crust of my soul,
hides deep down in the heart of things,

to warm and beat,
flickering forth with tongues of fire

to burst through the shell of my cindered soul,
and leap to dance as love again.

Lord, make me all flame.


‘For Lady Julian’

Lord, teach me to love my weaknesses
as Lady Julian loved hers,
seeing that the soiled, torn stain of our sins
blackening the white cloth of our humanity
was such a little nothing
because that cloth was worn by Christ,
who picked us up out of the Pit
and sat us next to Him at table,
with His Father and His Spirit,
all of us dazzling white,
with the wounds we ripped into our flesh
shining scars praising God’s glory,
His merciful meaning: ‘Love’.

Received like Christ: Benedictine Hospitality in the Theatre

Today’s post on Benedictine hospitality in the theatre now up at Transpositions.