Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Addicted to Downton Abbey

I admit it: I'm a complete and utter devotee to period dramas. Give me Colin Firth in A&E's Pride and Prejudice or Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Grant in Sense and Sensibility. Speaking of Winslet, I'll even take Titanic if I'm desperate enough. There's simply nothing as decadent yet relaxing as the lovely costumes and journey back in time to a kinder, gentler time. (Although "kinder and gentler" may not truly apply to the reality of the past, but I'll take the linens and lace any day over technology and rush-rush busy-ness.)

So when I first heard of Britain's Downton Abbey, I was a fan before I even began to watch the first episode. Elizabeth, our almost 20-year-old daughter, and I frantically watched Season 1 during our Christmas Break so as to be prepared for PBS's showing of Season 2. And not only was our daughter, predictably, glued to the screen with baited breath, but our three boys, aged 12, 14, and 16, were mesmerized, too...and not only by the cool explosions that heralded The Great War, known to later generations as World War I. The characters are intriguing, the plot twists unexpected, and the kinder, gentler time is transformed by world events, namely The Great War.

Created and often written by Julian Fellowes (whom we remember well from another British import, Monarch of the Glen), writer and producer of Gosford Park, Downton Abbey follows Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, and his family who resides in the stately and lovely English country manor, Downton Abbey, as well as the staff who keep the manor house running smoothly behind the scenes.

WARNING: Spoilers Ahead! If you do not wish to know the plot of Downton Abbey, then do NOT read further.

Downton Abbey opens in Season 1 with the sinking of the Titanic which apparently kills the heir to Downtown as the Earl and Countess of Grantham (the latter an American) have only had female progeny. So a new heir is produced, Matthew Crawley, an attorney, who is then moved to the grounds of Downton as Lord Grantham grooms him to take over Downton after the present Lord Grantham's death. Along with Matthew comes his widowed mother who is a very take-charge kind of woman, a former nurse, in fact. Mrs. Crawley immediately finds herself with horns locked with "Cousin Violet," otherwise known as the Dowager Countess of Grantham (played brilliantly by Maggie Smith, below).

The idea is to marry the Earl and Countess of Grantham's eldest daughter, Mary, to the new heir as she had been engaged to Cousin Patrick, the heir seemingly killed in the sinking of the Titanic. But Mary and Matthew make very poor first impressions upon one another, and that plan for the safety of Lady Grantham's money, which has been invested into Downton and is "rightfully" due to Mary Crawley, is now at odds.

Yet Mary and Matthew are unaccountably attracted to one another, and the tension is incredible between the two. Mary ends up embroiled in a situation that could ruin her socially if known, and Lady Grantham, Anna Mary's maid, and Mary herself find themselves hiding the death of a guest who passed away in Mary's bed. If this situation were known, Mary's reputation would be utterly ruined.

Meanwhile drama also ensues belowstairs among the servants whose drama is just as stirring and poignant as the drama abovestairs. Carson the Butler reigns supreme, with his queen, Mrs. Hughes the housekeeper. Miss O'Brien, lady's maid to the Countess of Grantham, and Thomas the footman, are constantly plotting and scheming, especially when Lord Grantham's friend from the military, Mr. Bates, arrives to be Lord Grantham's valet, the place Thomas wanted for himself.

Mr. Bates and Anna, the head housemaid and maid to the three young ladies, especially Mary, fall in love, but their courtship is complicated by the horridly greedy Mrs. Bates who vows to reveal Lady Mary's indiscretion which she heard as a rumor yet is more than willing to spread in order to entrap her husband. While Bates seeks a divorce (quite the scandal, even among servants), other maids and servants come and go. A lot of attention is also devoted to Mrs. Pattmore, the cook, and Daisy, the scullery maid.

Season 2 opens with the beginning of The Great War as Matthew and several of the younger manservants leave Downton to fight in the bloody Fields of Flanders. Mary has realized she loves Matthew, yet Matthew has become engaged to Lavinia, a sweet but ineffectual young lady more of Matthew's class than that of grand Downton Abbey. Yet Mary, essentially a selfish being, treats Lavinia kindly for Matthew's sake. The two younger sisters take their turns at the freedoms the war brings, Edith learning to drive and then helping with farming, and Sybil becoming a trained nurse. Sybil, the youngest, ends up slowly falling in love with, of all people, the chauffeur who loves her for far longer and waits for Sybil to realize her love.

Matthew takes William, the underfootman, with him to battle as his "man," and on the battlefield during the "final push," and William manages to save Matthew's life while going home to Downton to die of his injuries. Matthew's life is spared, thanks to William, but he returns paralyzed and refuses to subject his beloved Lavinia to a life with only the farce of a marriage as consummation would be out of the question.

Engaged to an upstart newspaper mogul in order to quiet her secret, Mary nurses Matthew throughout his recovery, and he accepts her help because she is an engaged woman and thus is "safe"--i.e., can't fall in love with him. Miraculously, Matthew regains the use of his legs, and he and Lavinia renew their engagement. But mere days before the wedding, Downton Abbey is struck with the Spanish Influenza and while the Countess of Grantham nearly dies, Lavinia does so, giving up hope of marrying Matthew after seeing Matthew kiss Mary in secret.

Matthew decides that he and Mary are "cursed" and are responsible for Lavinia's death, so he refuses to push forward with their relationship. Mary's fiance is vastly jealous of Matthew, seeing Mary's uncommon regard for him and threatens Mary with the exposure of her shame. Mary tells Matthew of it when he questions her marriage to such a man. Matthew, however, does not hold Mary's indiscretion against her, and Season 2 ends with Matthew proposing to Mary in the Christmas snow.

Much more happens, of course, especially belowstairs, but I want to leave some surprises for you!!! Downton Abbey has truly become an addiction for me and Elizabeth, and for many, many more British and American fans. With such a stellar cast, headed by Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, and Maggie Smith, it is extremely difficult to wait for next January for the showing of Season 3 here in the States on PBS. It's quite amazing how a mere seventeen episodes can be sooooo mesmerizing and so addictive.

Waiting impatiently for Season 3,

Monday, February 20, 2012

Quotations of the Week and Lent

On Wednesday, Lent begins. Ash Wednesday marked the 40th day (not counting Sundays which are always a celebration of the Resurrection of Christ) before Easter.

Most evangelicals do not celebrate Lent, and in coming from a more liturgical background, mostly Presbyterian and Methodist, I have marked Lent in one way or another since my college days at Point Loma Nazarene University.

But about twelve years ago, I became quite passionate about celebrating the Church Year, including Advent and Lent. Partly from the wonderful book Celebrating the Christian Year by Martha Zimmerman (a pastor's wife) and partly from my interest in the Book of Common Prayer, I began celebrating Lent in great earnest.

I was thrilled when our evangelical church began to celebrate Advent, yet the pastors and elders would not mark Lent in any way. We celebrated Holy Week, but not Ash Wednesday or Lent as a whole.

A few years ago, my Bible study leader at our evangelical church asked me to share about Ash Wednesday and Lent in our inductive Bible study. The pastor allowed it, but would not grant permission for another Bible study to join us. Here is a summary of my talk on Ash Wednesday and Lent which may be found in the links under the Meditative Meanderings header: On Lent.

Last Ash Wednesday I spent at the beautiful Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, the largest of the California Missions, with my dear friend Carmen. Our day retreat concluded with the Imposition of Ashes, marking us as Christ's Own as crosses were drawn on our foreheads with ashes, a Biblical symbol of repentance.

This Ash Wednesday I plan to attend services at Victoria Chapel with Alpine Anglican Church of the Blessed Trinity.

I find Ash Wednesday among the most moving of all the services of the year. As I humble myself, marked by repentance as belonging to Christ, I feel more His than ever, and I invariably weep at the poignant sweetness of being branded (albeit temporarily) as His.

God has impressed upon me which habits to surrender to Him this Lent. It is going to be extremely difficult in fasting from these things, but that is the nature of Lent: to remove what may be impeding our relationship with Christ and allow better habits to take their place--habits which glorify Him. It's a time of spiritual housecleaning, and it takes much prayer, effort, and discipline to exchange one habit for another.

"A nail is driven out by another nail; habit is overcome by habit."

A few other quotations I unearthed today and added to my almost-filled Quotation Journal are also helping me to develop the workshops I will be leading in a couple of weeks at the Spring Women's Conference at Pine Valley Bible Conference Center.

"The observance of Lent is the very badge of Christian warfare.... By it we gain strength against the prince of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help."
--Pope Benedict XVI, from Non Ambigimus

I respect this idea of Lent being a tool of spiritual warfare, allowing us, through the power of Christ, to vanquish our enemy.

"Renounce yourselves in order to follow Christ; discipline your body; do not pamper yourself, but love fasting."
--Saint Benedict, from Chapter Four of The Rule

This giving up of self is at the heart of Lent, allowing us the opportunity to change our hearts' perspectives, letting go of that which binds us to the world and grasping that which pulls us closer to the heart of Christ our Lord.

So as I pray for myself in offering up some very pleasant diversions in order to focus more on Jesus, I pray for us all who celebrate the Christian Year to have a Holy Lent, one set apart for the glory of our Lord.

Walking the pilgrim pathway with you,

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Love Poem to a Wren

This week one of my favorite sites, Abbey of the Arts, is hosting its 55th Poem Party. With Saint Valentine's Day this week, the theme of this Poem Party is to write a love poem/letter to something ordinary.

And, for the first time in seven months, I composed a poem.

I've been writing like crazy for the past fourteen months, but my writing has consisted almost entirely of fiction, not poetry. So it felt lovely and comfortable to slip into the poetic mindset and let the words flow, the images come alive under the brass nib of my fountain pen.

There's no thrill for me like that of words birthing themselves across the page, almost beyond conscious thought. I ride the undulating waves of thought, following my mind with each letter pinned to the page in green ink.

I wrote this poem on Valentine's Day and shared it at our Writers' Workshop meeting that night. It was well-received, but because it was the last work shared that evening, we didn't have much time for feedback. The other writers took the poem home with them to ponder what works well and what doesn't, and we'll pick it up next month when we meet again.

So please keep in mind that this poem is only a second draft and needs much more work.

A Love Poem to a Wren
in memory of Gerard Manley Hopkins

oh, to have wings delicate,
untethering my existence from
this kidnapped planet—

to flutter beyond mere feather,
eschewing gravity
ever so briefly.

to skim the reverent waters,
to see all anew—
the vantage unfolding

the fragility of dappled branches,
pardoned, scrubby fields,
plausible seas toppling over
parchment edges.

to be unpinned from the page,
struggling forward toward
that singular moment
before the letting go—

then ah, bright wings
flex angelic,
and at last I—
somehow, I understand.

Copyright 2012 by Susanne Barrett
All Rights Reserved.

If you aren't familiar with Gerard Manley Hopkins, here's a link for you from Hopkins. A couple of words and phrases in my poem are borrowed from his amazing poetry which you can access in the right sidebar of the above link.

So may we all see the intrinsic beauty in ordinary objects in our daily world, and may we give thanks to our Creator for imagining and then bringing into reality this lovely world we live in. May we love the ordinary as well as the extraordinary, this day and always.

Loving the ordinary with you,

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy Saint Valentine's Day!!

Mosaic of Saint Valentine

Keith and I enjoyed our Saint Valentine's Day celebration a day early. Last night we enjoyed seafood at Red Lobster then kicked around the Fashion Valley mall for an hour or so, playing with iPad 2's at the Apple Store, enjoying freshly-steeped tea samples at a tea shop, and exploring Williams-Sonoma from stem to stern (and laughing at the prices!).

My parents, as always, watch the kids for us. It's been a tradition since my mom's father died on Saint Valentine's Day 1996. Mom didn't want to be sad, so she took on the grandkids, fed them pizza, and laid out craft items for the creation of Valentine cards. They then finish the evening with ice cream sundaes, and we'd take home tired, sugared children after enjoying a rare night out.

And sixteen years later, the scene hasn't changed much except that the kids are bigger and eat more pizza.

Because of school tests, my brother's kids could only make it on Monday evening, so we stole away a night early, enjoying the relative quiet of deserted restaurant and excellent service, unlike the crowds of a mere 24 hours hence.

We came back to pick up the kids and were greeted with the happiest of news: my brother Tom proposed to Ari, and they're now engaged!!!

Then as we drove home, the first snow flurries struck our windshield on Pine Summit; we awoke to two beautiful inches of snow this morning. I gave the boys a "snow-morning" since the school district was out for the day, but they caught up with their work in the afternoon, doing algebra and history in front of the fire.

Elizabeth had to work at the camp at 8:00 AM, so I drove her there with only Old Highway 80 plowed. Yes, it's only two inches, but this is Southern California where drivers can't handle rain, much less the white stuff.

So we had a lovely Saint Valentine's Day today. Elizabeth will make a favorite meal, Parmesan Chicken, while I attend my monthly writers' workshop meeting.

So as we celebrate February 14th, have you ever wondered about the man whose name brings thoughts of love, roses, chocolates, and Hallmark cards?

From the archives....

Valentine's Day is about much more than candy hearts, roses, and chocolates. The root of this romantic holyday is all about martyrs to the Christian faith. The stories have faded over the centuries, much now classed in the realm of legend rather than fact. However, the archaeological discovery of a church in the Roman catacombs dedicated to Saint Valentine demonstrates that indeed a Saint Valentine existed in third century and was well-known enough to have a church dedicated to his memory.

Wikipedia tells us: "The name 'Valentine' (Priest Valentio) does not occur in the earliest list of Roman martyrs, compiled by the Chronographer of 354. The feast of St. Valentine was first established in 496 by Pope Gelasius I, who included Valentine among those '... whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.' As Gelasius implied, nothing was known, even then, about the lives of any of these martyrs. The Saint Valentine that appears in various martyrologies in connection with February 14 is described either as:

A priest in Rome,

A bishop of Interamna (modern Terni), or

A martyr in the Roman province of Africa.

The first representation of Saint Valentine appeared in the Nuremberg Chronicle, (1493); alongside the woodcut portrait of Valentine the text states that he was a Roman priest martyred during the reign of Claudius II, known as Claudius Gothicus. He was arrested and imprisoned upon being caught marrying Christian couples and otherwise aiding Christians who were at the time being persecuted by Claudius in Rome. Helping Christians at this time was considered a crime. Claudius took a liking to this prisoner -- until Valentinus tried to convert the Emperor -- whereupon this priest was condemned to death. He was beaten with clubs and stoned; when that didn't finish him, he was beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate. Various dates are given for the martyrdom or martyrdoms: 269, 270, or 273.

Another source relates, "But there is no doubt that one St. Valentine really did exist because archaeologists have extricated from the forgotten ruins, a Roman catacomb and a church dedicated to this saint."

So I wish you all a blessed memory of Saint Valentine on this coming day dedicated to romance and love, remembering that Christ indeed is the true Lover of Our Souls and loves us with an eternal, unchanging love that we can no nothing to increase or decrease. God loves us just the way we are, but, as Pastor Stephen reminds us often, He loves us too much to let us stay that way. The pilgrim pathway we travel has been trod hard by the footsteps of the saints who have preceded us, and their histories can encourage us along the way.

Happy Saint Valentine's Day, all!


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