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My sisters, the swallows
by Pierre-Marie Dumont
Elisha refusing gifts from Naaman (1637)
by Pieter de Grebber (c. 1600–c. 1652)
The editorial of the month
by Father Sebastian White, o.p.
Though I was raised by parents who were fine with having a television in the home—our earliest had a physical knob accessing a grand total of thirteen channels—they kept a close eye on both the amount of time it was on and which shows my sister Emily and I watched. In elementary school I eagerly awaited Friday evenings for each new episode of one that made the cut: Family Matters. In fact, my parents retain a supremely embarrassing video of me impersonating the nasally Steve Urkel. For reasons I would prefer not to explore, I seem to have had a remarkable aptitude for acting like an obnoxious nerd.
Over the years, I’m happy to say, my tastes matured. Nowadays I rarely watch TV or online shows, preferring to have a book in my lap. Occasionally I make allowances for documentaries, British mysteries, and period dramas: interests inherited from a well-read anglophile mother. About ten years ago, therefore, I caved to the hype over Downton Abbey, the Masterpiece Theatre series set in post-Edwardian England. Though I ended up bailing long before the series ended—the show having become a bit too much of a soap opera (albeit with lovely accents) for my taste—one episode has stayed with me.
In the second episode of season one, Matthew Crawley arrives at Downton Abbey for the first time. A distant relative of the present Earl of Grantham, Matthew is now heir to his estate due to the sinking of the Titanic. Having grown up middle-class, Matthew considers the aristocratic lifestyle self-indulgent, even “ridiculous,” and is initially tempted to refuse the inheritance (a temptation most of us, I suspect, would not find hard to resist). Determined to remain his normal self and not be waited on hand and foot, Matthew complains that Lord Grantham has made the “unwelcome discovery” his new heir is merely middle-class and wishes to “limit the damage by turning me into one of his own kind.”
What puts Matthew over the edge is the presence of Molesley, the personal butler, or valet, who is to help him dress and assist him in other sartorial and personal matters. Having declared he does not need such help, in one scene Matthew stubbornly refuses to allow Molesley to do his job. Viewers see the humiliation on Molesley’s face as he stands there feeling useless. “Surely you have better things to do,” Matthew says, to which the good man replies: “This is my job, sir.” “It seems a very silly occupation for a grown man,” Matthew quips, offending Molesley.
Strictly speaking, Matthew was right. He didn’t need a personal valet: his arms weren’t broken (as my mother often reminded me growing up, and still does when I am home); he was perfectly capable of tying his own bowtie and putting on his cufflinks. The point, though, is Molesley needed to work. Given his background, financial independence or another career were not options. “We’re servants, you and me,” Molesley says unresentfully to a colleague, “and they pay us to do as we’re told. That’s all.” Not to be able to work was a blow to his dignity and sense of purpose in life.
Julian Fellows, Downton’s creator, was not aiming for a show with theological undertones. But that episode comes to mind whenever I hear the Gospel that will be read at Mass on October 2, with its teaching on what is often labeled “the attitude of a servant.” Who among you, the Lord asks, would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’? Would he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished’? In the end, Jesus explains, the master isn’t grateful to the servant, as if he is in the servant’s debt. After all, the servant has simply done what he is employed to do. So should it be with you, Jesus concludes. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.”
The point, of course, is not that work relationships must be unfeelingly economic or that bosses should be imperious, never offering a word of appreciation. Jesus is not some ruthless Big Finance or Big Tech exec; he is teaching us something about our relationship to God, who did not create us because we “profit” him or provide something he lacks. Our very existence is an unmerited gift of his love, conferring on us the dignity of being in his employ, so to speak. Far from being an injustice, then, a life of untiring service to God is ennobling, the only true path to our own fulfillment.
Three of a kind
Predictably, by the episode’s end Matthew comes around to his new role—the very thing he feared—allowing a cheerful Molesley to do his job again and regain his sense of self-worth.
I conclude with a final spiritual twist: imagine, if you will, that Lord Grantham wished to make not only Matthew but Molesley, too, into one of his own kind. I say that because that is in fact what the Lord of lords desires for each of us, rich or poor, educated or unlettered. Heirs by grace to God’s own kingdom, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (1 Jn 3:2). Please God, may we all hear it said at the end of our lives: Well done, my good and faithful servant. Come, share your master’s joy.(Read More)