By now fans of Downton Abbey have pretty much survived withdrawal and wandered off in search of other stately palaces. Still, for many the aura lingers, because it’s tough to part with old friends, especially when they are imaginary.
As the series settled into its final weeks, aficionados enjoyed a bonus in the form of a few interviews from several of the actors. For good measure the producer also threw in a conversation with the historical consultant, whose job was to make sure that the stray iPad or cell phone didn’t show up in a 1920’s drawing room. My sentiments tended toward him, but the one who piqued my curiosity the most was the guy who played Lord Grantham, the patriarch of the series. I expected him to be in life what he was in fiction, but he wasn’t. When asked whether he resented the gradual expansion of the story line to include some of the servants, his response took me by surprise. I assumed he must have resented the intrusion of lower class people into his exclusive realm. But he hadn’t. In fact, he noted, some 75 people lived in that house, and there were 75 individual stories. Why? Because all were the centers of their unique universes. All of them, whether noble or common, thought that the sun rose and set on them individually. So it only made sense that the writers had begun to make room in the script for everybody.
His comment left me puzzled, until I finally decided that this betrayed both maturity and great self-awareness. What child doesn’t come into the world with the conviction that everybody is there to serve him or her? Who isn’t at the absolute ground zero of their own little universe? Who can’t recall the moment when they first began to realize that there were others out there who had similar or even superior talents? Who wasn’t shocked to discover that they were not the acme of human evolution?
If people fear the possibility of life on some alien planet, it’s likely because they’ve also had a hard time coming to terms with the existence of their next-door-neighbors. For most of us it’s tough to share top-billing on the world’s marquee. But share we must, or we’ll never move beyond the narcissism into which we were born. Only when we make peace with our neighbors in a much larger world do we begin to discover how truly exciting the world can be.
In the Great Hall at Saint John’s is an expansive image borrowed from the Byzantine tradition. From the apse Jesus Christ Pantocrator rules everything under his gaze. He dominates the space, and he pulls into his embrace all who enter. And in his left hand he displays the gospel text that reads “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
It’s a breathtaking scene, because this Jesus draws us out of ourselves and into something much bigger. It’s as though he reminds us that if we are ever going to make any difference in the world, then we must come to terms with the reality that we are not the only elephants in the world’s living room.
Our culture esteems rugged individualism and prizes self-fulfillment; and not surprisingly some say Christianity is rather oppressive. For them Christianity appears to ask too much of people, because it demands a complete surrender of self. Worse still, some contend that Christianity requires that people check their brains at the door of the church, because once inside there’s no room for imagination or freedom. Once inside there’s only room for a narrow and stifling doctrine.
I’ll grant that Christianity does at times threaten the conventional notion of self. I will also accept that Jesus places rather exclusive demands on us when he claims to be the way, the truth and the life. But to be fair, Jesus has never asked that people turn off their brains in order to become his followers. Instead, Jesus invites all to live in a world that is far bigger than anything they ever imagined. For that we need all the brainpower we can muster.
The fact of the matter is, the small worlds in which we choose to live are the small worlds we have created for ourselves. This was not what Jesus had in mind for us, and for that reason he urges each one of us to break free to see ourselves as part of something much larger than ourselves.
In idealistic terms Jesus invites us to participate in the fulness of his way, his truth, and his life. More specifically, he gives us two great commandments: to love God and to love our neighbor. On the practical level, we tease this out in the relationships we have with one another. What we do for the least of people, we do for Christ. It’s why St. Benedict asks his monks to see Christ in the guest, in the young monks and the abbot, and in virtually everyone.
God did not create the little worlds that hem us in. We did that all by ourselves. On the other hand, Jesus invites us to emerge from our shells to embrace the expansive world that awaits us. For that we will need all the talents and wits that God has put at our disposal. We’re going to need them most as we get to know all the other elephants in God’s wonderful living room.
Perhaps it’s helpful to frame this challenge in the language of the actor. It’s a mistake to assume that all of our neighbors are there to be our supporting cast. In reality, we only begin to grow when we discover that they are our co-stars. Alone we wither, but together we flourish. Only then do we discover what Jesus means when he says that he is the way, the truth and the life.
+This was a rather quiet week for me, spent almost entirely at Saint John’s. At the same time my thoughts were with members of the Order of Malta who went this week to Lourdes on the Order’s annual pilgrimage. To say the least, I miss them. On the other hand I don’t really miss the rain and cold that has beset them on this pilgrimage. There was even hail one afternoon. Who could imagine such a thing in Lourdes!
+On April 30th I was in St. Paul and took the opportunity to attend Mass at the massive cathedral. In a few days they will welcome Archbishop Bernard Hebda as the new ordinary of St. Paul. It should be a grand and happy occasion.
+The photos in today’s post come from the Great Hall at Saint John’s. The structure dates from the 1880s, while Brother Clement Frischauf executed the decorative elements in the 1930s.