My wife and I just finished watching the final episode of Downton Abbey, the “Masterpiece” TV drama about life in an English country manor circa 1920, which began in 2011 and aired in America on PBS. We watched on Netflix discs, for the subtitles. It’s a bit of a shock to know we’ve seen the last Downton Abbey there will ever be! However, the place and its people will live within us forever.
With such heart did Julian Fellowes and his formidable ensemble of cast and crew depict these lives from a century ago! Throughout the series, spirit moves equally among aristocrats, servants, and everyone in between. People, without exception, whatever their station, are subjected to difficult choices. Some of the featured characters succumb to one form of temptation or another. Some try “getting theirs” via low roads of revenge, while others deal bravely and patiently with even the most difficult ordeals. Most of the major figures mature considerably over the span of the series.
Downton Abbey, as such ambitious dramatic efforts invariably are, is an attempt to look deeply into the human heart. Character—tested by the changing circumstances initially brought about by the cataclysmic upheaval of the First World War—can be viewed as the primary theme of the series.
Film, drama, and spiritual values
In 1932 and again in 1934-5, Meher Baba, known even then as a Perfect Master, visited Los Angeles and Hollywood and worked extensively with the actors, directors, and writers in the film community. He visited four studios and was a guest of honour at a large gathering at Pickfair, the home of actress Mary Pickford and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
At this gathering, Baba gave a detailed “Message to the Film World.” More than 80 years later, I found Downton Abbey so compelling an example of how a drama can suggest a world of values behind the events being portrayed, that certain lines from Baba’s message came to mind:
Plays which inspire those who see them to greater understanding, truer feelings, better lives need not necessarily have anything to do with so-called religion. Creed, ritual, dogma, the conventional ideas of heaven and hell, and sin are perversions of the Truth, and confuse and bewilder, rather than clarify and inspire. Real spirituality is best portrayed in stories of pure love, of selfless service, of Truth realized and applied to the most humble circumstances of our daily lives, raying out into manifold expressions, through home and business, school and college, studio and laboratory—evoking everywhere the heights of joy, the purest love, the greatest power—producing everywhere a constant symphony of bliss.
This is the highest practicality. To portray such circumstances on the screen will make people realize that the spiritual life is something to be lived, not talked about, and that it—and it alone—will produce the peace and love and harmony which we seek to establish as the constant rule of our lives.
A second visit
During Baba’s second Hollywood visit, two and a half years after the first, he didn’t meet with the public, but rather, closeted himself with directors and screenwriters. He was determined to produce a feature film that explicitly revealed the spiritual secrets of the Divine Theme of existence, while a compelling story unfolded on the screen.
The apparent result of this project was disappointing. Even the God-Man was not able to find a studio willing to fund such a film, or a producer to take it on independently. However, he said that his spiritual film would be made one day. Furthermore, Baba often said that the work he appeared to be doing was only the surface of things. His activities, he explained, also involved doing “Universal Work” on the archetypes under the surface, in order to eventually raise human consciousness to the level of intuition, and to initiate what he called a “New Humanity.”
Downton Abbey and Baba’s work
Downton Abbey, of course, stops quite a ways short of explaining the metaphysics of Creation, which one of Meher Baba’s film projects involved. Yet, in many ways, the series will live forever in some Platonic world—one in which, don’t forget, many of the characters will face the Great Depression and The Second World War in coming years.
What we’ve seen, throughout six seasons of this drama, is the triumph of the human spirit. We have faith that our friends at Downton will persevere through the coming challenges, as they have through those past. We return to our own lives, reinforced in our understanding of the need to strive towards the values that Baba enumerates as the solution to the human dilemma.
Thank you Julian Fellowes, cast and crew.
Read more about the arts and spirituality in REDISCOVERING SACRED CREATIVITY: How artists help create a more healthy, inspired and connected world»