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Posts Tagged ‘Downton Abbey’

IMG_1258I Am the Way

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.

IMG_1260His 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.”

IMG_1261It’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.

IMG_1263The 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.

IMG_1272Notes

+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.

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Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx Abbey

Downton Abbey Revisited

I’m not surprised that a title like “Downton Abbey” caught my attention. After all, anything with “abbey” in it piques my curiosity. But I cannot imagine that everyone shares my interest; and so I (like not a few) have been mightily surprised by the ratings success of this series. Who could have imagined? Certainly not the major networks on commercial television.

At first glance Downton Abbey has little that should stir up such wide-spread fascination. After all, what could be more tedious than a show about a multi-generational household, and one in which people are constrained by the manners and customs of a bygone era? Leaving other things aside, just consider the constant changing of clothes, and the resulting mountain of laundry and dry cleaning. Who could possibly find that sort of thing at all interesting? But on that score Downton Abbey is stranger than fiction — or at least stranger than the fiction to which we have become accustomed.

Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx Abbey

I think that part of the public fascination with Downton Abbey has to do with its portrait of an age of privilege that scarcely any of our ancestors knew. Aside from those few of us who were pharoahs and empresses in a previous incarnation, most of us didn’t have ancestors that ranked even among the minor nobility. As for the ordinary people, the vast majority knew neither the security nor the relative luxury of working in a great house. And while we can point out the restrictions that constrained the servants, most of them would never have traded “life in service” for life on a peasant farm.

Fountains Abbey

Fountains Abbey

But don’t envy the lords and ladies entirely, because their lot in life was not a constant round of peaches and cream, morning, noon and night. They were certainly in charge of things, but they did not enjoy the run of the place. They too lived by a code that regulated their behavior, even if it was a code with wider latitude. For nobles, too, there were things that people “simply did not do.”

In some respects Downton Abbey presents a way of life that we cannot begin to fathom for ourselves today. The thought of a hundred people living as an extended family under one roof is simply inconceivable. The thought that night after night a score of them would seat themselves together at meals, in formal dress, dining on a carefully scripted menu, is hard to believe. And the thought that scores of finely attired human beings served others with ballet-like precision strikes many of us as highly undemocratic, to say the least.

Fountains Abbey

Fountains Abbey

But perhaps what we moderns find most difficult to accept is the whole business of community living that Downton Abbey parades before our eyes. Today we shrink back in horror from the thought that several generations of a family might live together, under the authority of a paterfamilias. Not only does it sound stuffy, but it places stifling restrictions on individual liberty and on our hopes to become whatever kind of person we might choose.

A second bit that puts us off is the intricate social structure that makes it all work. Whether members of the household liked it or not, they all showed up for meals together and on time. (Recall the scolding meted out to the Prince of Wales for being tardy for dinner in “The King’s Speech.”) Neither the Prince of Wales nor the lord of the manor came bounding down at all hours to order dinner a la carte. Both lords and ladies on one side, and servants on the other, sat down to dinner together, ate it together, and finished the meal together. Anything less simply was not done, and it would render the house chaotic. After all, it was a home, not a hotel or resort. All had to be aware of the mutual respect necessary to make it work, and good manners were the key ingredient for a successful, if not entirely happy, household.

Bylands Abbey

Bylands Abbey

Though most families no longer sit down to dinner together, it would be a mistake to assume that the old ways are dead and gone. In fact, there are pockets where such a communal way of life survives, and monasteries are among their number. No monastery provides the level of luxury that Downton Abbey provides; but the monastic regimen roughly parallels the sort that made the great houses of Europe well-oiled machines. For one thing, both monasteries and great houses are multi-generational households. It’s safe to say that in both cases youngsters and seniors can enjoy drastically different perspectives. Similarly, neither in a monastery nor at Downton can one treat the place like a boarding house or a residential hotel. Respect is due to one’s fellows, and appreciation is expected for those whose labors make daily life possible for all.

Bylands Abbey

Bylands Abbey

In short, life together demands the sacrifice of some personal liberties, as well as the adoption of a certain etiquette. And if these are skills that we may lack when we are clothed as a novice, they must become part of our skill set if we are to persevere to final vows. There really is no room for those who put themselves first, above everything and everybody else.

In a society in which increasing numbers live alone, the assumption is common that big households like Downton Abbey and monasteries are doomed to become fossils, and that community life will become extinct with them. But before we consign them to the boneyard, take a look at real estate trends in any major city, or even in small towns, for that matter. One feature of the construction landscape is a boom in retirement and assisted-living facilities. Some try to preserve a modicum of independent living, but anyone who moves in must adapt to a way of life that harks back to the great households that once bound generations and classes into one. In these modern “great houses” no one can be the lone wolf around whom the entire building revolves. Instead, one becomes very much a part of a community, and in that community respect and mutual deference are prized skills. You had better bring them with you, if you intend to flourish in such an environment. So while some of us enjoy the third season of Downton Abbey, it might be wise to glean a few tips on successful community living as we watch. Who knows — they just might come in handy someday when we have to move into our own great house!

Tintern Abbey

Tintern Abbey

Notes

+On February 1st I visited over dinner with members of the American Associaton of the Order of Malta, gathered in Naples, FL, for their winter retreat.

+The very name “Downton Abbey” is a reminder of the earlier history of such homes. Obviously a fictional abbey once stood at the center of this fictional estate; and it, like many a real abbey, got recycled into country homes and cottages across England. Even today you can see the fireplaces, stained glass windows and stonework of abbeys and priories incorporated into buildings of all sorts. Nothing went to waste, though sadly little remains of many monastic sites.

Tintern Abbey

Tintern Abbey

Still, not every monastery vanished entirely. While nearly all were pillaged and looted in the sixteenth century and beyond, a few survived in ruined form and have become hugely popular tourist attractions. Today many ruins stand as the centerpiece of gardens and parks, where they give testimony to spiritual values that some mistakenly assume have vanished. Those hauntingly beautiful skeletons still inspire, in ways that words can scarcely match.

In late January we celebrated the feast of the late eleventh-century founders of the Cistercian Order. They were reformed Benedictines and fore-runners of the seventeenth-century Trappists — the Cistercians of the Strict Observance. In today’s post I’ve included pictures of three of my favorite Cistercian monasteries, each of which I’ve had the chance to visit. Rievaulx and Fountains are in Yorkshire, and Tintern Abbey stands near the Welsh border. Tintern is only a few miles from the scriptorium in which scribe Donald Jackson created The Saint John’s Bible.

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