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Archive for November 12th, 2012

Lviv, Ukraine: Central Cemetary

Living with Pretension

I always knew that I’d return to Barchester Towers — to the book, that is. For lots of reasons Anthony Trollope’s portrait of a 19th-century Anglican cathedral town caught my imagination as a high school reader. Back then I devoured history — all of it — and even fictional history. I was also, and remain now, an unabashed Anglophile. But even at that tender age I sensed that there was more than social history in Trollope’s words. Clothes and food and customs may change drastically, but Trollope confirms the old saw that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In a nutshell, as much as we may shrink in horror at the thought, there’s something of each of us in his backwater English provincials.

Barchester was a town where neither big decisions were made nor momentous events happened. To the rest of England Barchester scarcely mattered, save as a dot on the map. Among the political class in London, it figured mainly as an aferthought. One guesses that for the prime minister the right to nominate its bishop was as much a nuisance as a privilege. And in ecclesiastical circles, the throne of Barchester was no great prize — unless of course you didn’t have one. Certainly it was nothing when compared to rich and influential sees like Canterbury or York or Salisbury. To the outside world, then, Barchester was an isolated stopover on the way to nowhere. Of this reality, however, the ciitizens of Barchester were blissfully ignorant.

Not surprisingly, the citizenry entertained a very different view of their town. If Barchester was not quite the epicenter of the universe, it was very nearly so. In such a world everything was important, and even the smallest of social nuances mattered. Theirs was a class-ridden yet competitive society; and if the bishop was undisputed king of the hill, even the lowliest position in the church had something to recommend it. It should come as no surprise, then, that ambition ran as deeply in Barchester as it did in the major capitals of Europe. And it’s very likely that the quest for the least scrap of power was as keen in Barchester as in the salons of London. After all, the lower the stakes, the more intensely rise the flames of ambition.

Given that scenario, people have commonly assumed that Trollope’s primary theme was clerical ambition. While you might conclude that, you might be wrong. Clerical ambition was as absent among 19th-century Anglicans as it has been among Catholic clergy. Sure, there have been a few exceptions, and a few critics, like Saint Peter Damian in the 11th century. That monastic reformer spoke of clerics whose ardor for promotion and honors was “hotter than the breath of Mount Etna.” But the 11th century might have been a minor aberration, never to be repeated. Certainly Trollope had bigger fish to fry than a few well-meaning clerics. No, Trollope is out to skewer us all.

You have to admire Trollope’s deft hand as he crafts one of the great scenes of the book. Mr. Proudie has finally come to Barchester as its bishop, and he and his wife invite the entire clerical establishment to the palace for a grand fete. Naturally, the bishop’s wife figures prominently, and she’s made no secret that she is the real force to be reckoned with in the diocese. A few clerics have acknowledged her, while a few daring souls have already figured how they will displace her as the bishop’s chief advisor. Virtually everyone else at the party has equally good reasons for being there.

The center of attention, however, was neither the bishop nor Mrs. Proudie — who chafed at the mere thought of female competition. The surprise of the evening was Signora Madeline Vicinironi, whose beauty was constrained only by the physical disability that kept her perpetually seated. She had asked for some inconspicuous place, but no bishop worth his salt would let a countess sit anywhere but in a place of honor — and near to him. And so, perched on her sofa, she charmed everyone in the room — everyone, that is, except for Mrs. Proudie.

A slow steam built in Mrs. Proudie, and when it was whispered into her ear that the young lady was no countess at all, it came to a head. Her furor reached a fever pitch when told that her rival was no less than the daughter of a local cleric, and she had married an Italian rake who later abandoned her and their daughter. She was no Vicinironi, nor mother of the last of the family of Tiberias. She was Madeline Vesey Neroni, and that was all. With this delicious bit Mrs. Proudie intended to demolish the reputation of her rival.

Meanwhile, pinched behind the sofa, the brother of Signora Vicinironi began to nudge the sofa out into the room, not realizing that a “fat immovable rector” stood leaning against it. With his little push, and with the momentum supplied by the rector, the sofa went flying across the room, scattering the guests like bowling pins. Worse still, one caster of the sofa clipped the skirt of Mrs. Proudie, leaving key parts of her finery shredded on the floor. In such a state of undress there was no choice but to storm from the room, frustrated and furious.

The story does not end there, but suffice it to say that no one wanted to be seen standing near the signora when Mrs. Proudie returned. As for the ending, you’ll have to read the book for yourself to learn how Trollope milks the scene for all it’s worth. As expected, the evening ends rather badly. All pretensions have evaporated, and no one looks especially good.

It would be nice to imagine that hypocrisy and pretension had died with the 19th century, but a quick glance around humanity suggests otherwise. If anything, personal hype has become more important than ever; and the management of public image has become a major industry.

What this also implies is that we spend an awful lot of energy trying to be who we are not. Sadly, we often ignore our own gifts and talents, preferring to play to the fickle crowd. In the hope of power or influence we sacrifice our sense of decency, and we toss aside our respect not only for others but for ourselves as well. To fit into some social mold, we become the person we never intended to be.

In his Rule Saint Benedict argued first and foremost that we be authentic. No job makes us more important than others. Neither age nor family connections nor power have anything to do with our intrinsic value. Rather, our worth springs from our creation by God. God made us and cherishes us, and it is that belief that should shape our pilgrimage in life. To put anything else before love of God and neighbor, then, is to live a life of pretense.

Personal Notes

+On November 8th I arrived in Sydney, Australia, after a flight that seemed to go on forever. This was the longest flight I’ve ever made, and it’s the furthest I’ve ever been from home. Still, Sydney is worth the trip. It has gorgeous geography, and the many nooks and crannies of the harbor make for a beautiful waterfront.

I am in Sydney and Melbourne to give a public lecture and three days of workshops at the Australia Catholic University. The University recently secured a Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible, and it is my privilege to walk the library staff through the entire project. While in Sydney I will also have the opportunity to meet alumni of Saint John’s University.

+In August, while with a group in Lviv, Ukraine, I had the opportunity to visit one of the most interesting cemeteries I’ve ever seen. In the Central Cemetery rest many generations of Poles and Russians and Ukrainians — both Catholic and Orthodox. Juxtaposed against the tombs of the Christians are those of prominent Communist party bosses, and the contrast in symbolism is stark. One wonders what went through the minds of Communist-era mourners as they passed the tombs of believers. And I found myself wondering about the tombs that proclaimed little except service to party and state. In so many ways the cemetery was an odd variation of Barchester Towers. The pictures in today’s post come from that most tranquil spot.

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