Watching Mrs. Patmore cook and then seeing the lavish feasts spread across the candlelit dining table at Downton Abbey is truly a delight. Lobster Rissoles with Mousseline Sauce. Strawberry Charlotte Russe. Six—that’s 6!—spoons needed for the partaking of these rich feasts. And who knows how many forks—all, of course, gleaming and polished under the careful scrutiny of the august Mr. Carson.
A world removed from our experience. An extravagant world, but not an unkind world. The Earl of Grantham and his family are quite generous and kind to their servants and to the folk who live and work on the larger estate. But kind as they are, they are nevertheless aloof, separated by a powerful, invisible barrier from those not born to their status and rank. No maid or valet would ever be invited to dine at their lush table, and woe to the maid or the valet who did not stand to attention if one of their masters or mistresses were to enter their humble “downstairs” dining room.
I love watching “Downton Abbey,” but I can’t help but think that the lives of Lord Grantham’s family are considerably impoverished in spite of, maybe even because of, all their wealth and aristocratic status. For it is indeed their wealth and titled status that create such a distance from all of those around them, including even those specially prized servants of whom they are really very fond.
Recently I’ve learned a bit about St. Brigid of Ireland, a woman of an earlier time who also loved feasts, but feasts of quite a different kind. As I’ve read about her life, I’ve had some fun trying to imagine this ancient feast-loving saint suddenly appearing in the Downton Abbey dining room in the middle of one of their bountiful spreads. An Irish abbess in the 5th-6th centuries, Brigid lived and worked alongside the nuns in her Kildare community, spinning, weaving, milking cows, all to provide for the poor and the destitute in her area. The poor—not a people she saw as “beneath” her, but rather a people she saw as God’s children who, at her kind of feast, would “sit with Jesus at the highest place.”
I like to imagine St. Brigid entering the magnificent dining hall at Downton Abbey, a train of indigents in her wake. I like to imagine her quietly drawing up chairs and seating them beside (heaven help us!) the Dowager Empress and Lord Grantham himself. In my mind’s eye, she works calmly but determinedly, not to make the Downton people feel horrified or even guilty, but rather to make their feast even richer! Richer by helping them to see, to really see, their oneness with these poor. Richer by helping them to sense a shattering of that invisible barrier that keeps them set apart from Daisy and Mrs. Patmore and dear Anna Bates. Richer by enlarging their souls to know their deep connectedness to all of God’s creatures, not just to those born with 6 silver spoons in their mouths!
Brigid once wrote this lovely poem about the feast she would like to give, and I can imagine her singing these words to the gathered Downton family:
I should like a great lake of finest ale
For the King of kings.
I should like a table of the choicest food
For the family of heaven.
Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith,
And the food be forgiving love.
I should welcome the poor to my feast,
For they are God’s children.
I should welcome the sick to my feast,
For they are God’s joy.
Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place,
And the sick dance with the angels.
God bless the poor,
God bless the sick,
And bless our human race.
God bless our food,
God bless our drink,
All homes, O God, embrace.
Such joy—contagious joy!—in her vision. I can almost see Lord and Lady Grantham, the eyes of their souls suddenly opened, rising to toast St. Brigid, to toast their ragged guests, and then calling down for all the downstairs folk to come up, too, to join in the feast-dance of the angels and of the Christ!
We don’t live in a Downton Abbey world any longer, but I think there’s often an invisible barrier between those of us who live in relative affluence and those who live in deep poverty. We sometimes ignore the poor. We sometimes feel pity for them. We sometimes generously give of our resources to help them. We sometimes even work for legislation that will help to improve their lot. But do we feel connected to them? Do we think of them as God’s special children who will sit with Jesus at the highest place? Not really, I think. And we are the more impoverished because of this.
St. Brigid’s ancient words call to us even as they called in my imagination to the gathered elite of Downton. Call to us to join in the joy of her feast, a feast where the poor are given the highest seats of honor, where the sick dance to the music of God’s angels. A feast where all barriers are torn down, and where all who eat know themselves to be deeply connected with every other guest, and deeply connected to the Lord of the Feast who always honors especially those who are in need.