What Downton Abbey Can Teach Us About Beauty and Tradition

Sometime last year, a friend of mine flew into town for a conference she had, and I offered to pick her up from the airport. Our archdiocese’s beautiful cathedral was on the way to her hotel, so she and I stopped in to pray. When we got back into the car, she asked, “I hope this isn’t too personal a question, but why is it that you’ve stayed so strong in your faith? It seems like some of your generation do and some don’t. Why are you so strong in yours?”

She was commenting on a well-recognized phenomenon, noticed by any who have been following the John Paul II generation closely. Those who do remain in the Church are drawn to it in a radical way, and in ever increasing numbers. To understand why this is, let’s consider what I’ll call the “Downton Abbey” effect.

This latest manifestation of the British Invasion (now in its sixth season) follows the life of a British aristocratic family in the early part of the twentieth century. The Crawley family resides in a large manor, complete with lords, ladies, butlers, maids, and a whole array of customs and traditions unique to aristocracy at the time. While there are any number of reasons to be drawn to the series, many are drawn to it for its grandeur.

The show is a peek into a different time, and a different world, one very different than our own. There were, of course, social injustices at the time, but there was also a sort of ritual and grace to the lifestyle of the landed families. A particular orderliness was expected, as well as a certain degree of beauty. Dinners were served in a state of finery, men bowed and women curtsied and all carried themselves with composure.

Although the opulence of the great home of Lord Grantham undergoes some social critique throughout the series, it is that very splendor that makes viewers tune in. Downton is a beautiful estate and simply stunning home, complete with gold candlesticks, silver platters, and crystal chandeliers. In fact, there is something liturgical about it all.

This is precisely the draw. In a world or mega-churches and modern churches, many are starved for real beauty. It is innate to our nature to be drawn to something greater. The carpeted altars and cushy pews of today do little to satisfy that desire. The feel good preaching and the sloppy liturgies hardly fill the natural human desire for ritual.

In a state of well-meaning desire to be close to God, the previous generation tried to make God’s home look like our own. The modern church design is not altogether different than the modern house design. It is large, it is spacious, and it is beautiful in all the wrong ways. It aims to be a place of comfort, a place where the congregation can find solace. It neglects the fact that the solace they seek is one that can only be found by looking heavenward.

This reality stands in stark contrast with the world before our present day. The average person lived in a humble, simple home. Life had a plainness to it. Homes were beautiful, certainly, but beautiful in a very simple way. To enter even the humblest of Catholic churches was to encounter a striking contrast to ordinary life. Even the simplest of log cabin chapels, hewn together on the outer bounds of the American frontier, used satin vestments, sacred vessels made of gold, and age old ritual in their liturgies.

It is striking when one drives through the inner city streets of a major American city and finds one Catholic church after another – each one grander than the last. These churches weren’t built by wealthy folk, but by poor, working class families, who sacrificed every penny they could to erect such edifices. For these people, worshipping at these grand churches each week afforded them more beauty than any other aspect of their lives. An immigrant family in poverty might never own their own home, let alone have stained glass windows and chalices of gold therein. But for at least one hour a week, they were a part of a home that did. Immersed in that beauty, in that ritual, they looked to God and found rest.

Thankfully, the Church prevails despite the worst of architectural choices, and even in the least aesthetically pleasing of churches, the ritual is retained. It is a ritual reminiscent of courtly life – the bowing, the kneeling, the genuflecting, the solemnity, and, most importantly, the beauty. In the presence of the Lord of Lords, called to be his servants as well as his children and heirs to his throne, souls find the satisfaction they long for.

It is for this reason that so many millennials, especially those who have remained in the Church, are drawn to the Extraordinary Form, or to pastors who are dedicated to offering the Ordinary Form with an attention to the beauty of the liturgical ritual. A generation raised on the meager offerings of liturgy in the 1980s and 90s has begun to discover the richness of its Catholic heritage, and they can’t be persuaded away from the feast.

There is still, very much, a tone of rebellion (which is also attractive to young people) to this traditionalism. As is the case with many good rebellions, it is a reclaiming of what was lost. People gasp and stare at the sight of a priest in a cassock, but the young flock to him for a blessing and a “selfie.” Older choir directors roll out the Latin responses for Lent and other penitential seasons, but the young clamor for the use of Gregorian chant and traditional hymns in their churches year round. These young men and women line up for regular Confession, and search for perpetual adoration chapels as if it were their job. Although many were taught to embrace liturgical dance and holding hands around the altar, they have now discovered the inner peace brought from a reverent genuflection and a cloud of incense and refuse to go back.

In the meantime, there are many of the same generation who never encounter this side of Catholicism. It is not a rule, but many of those in this latter category are at risk to fall away from the practice of the faith, or – at the very least – to view it with a sort of half-heartedness.

It is the desire for beauty, rooted in their very bones, that makes young people fall in love with the Catholic Church. It is the encounter with that beauty that makes them stay.

All the arguments in the world can’t change the simple evidence of the Downton Abbey phenomenon. Although liturgical practices may have temporarily strayed from the beauty of their tradition, the human heart has not changed. It is a heart that burns for beauty. To draw these hearts in requires a return to the beauty of the Church: a return to reverent liturgy, rich catechesis, and meaningful tradition and ritual.

image: Dutourdumonde Photography / Shutterstock.com

By

Michele Chronister is a wife, and mother to two little girls. She is received her BA and MA in theology from the University of Notre Dame (’09 and ’11). She is the author of Handbook for Adaptive Catechesis, the co-author of Faith Beginnings – Family Nurturing from Birth Through Preschool, and editor of the book Rosaries Aren't Just for Teething. She has contributed articles to Catholic Digest, Catechetical Leader, and is a regular columnist for Ignitum Today. She is also the co-chair of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability’s Council on Intellectual and Development Disabilities. When her oldest was a baby, she realized that their family life had taken on a sort of monastic rhythm – eat, pray, play, sleep. Prompted by this, she started the blog My Domestic Monastery (www.mydomesticmonastery.com), where she shares inspiration for families wanting to grow in holiness.

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