For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.
That’s a passage from Christian scripture, but it’s a precept that I’ve read, heard and seen in the texts and teachings of other religions, and it’s commonly enough reflected in social policy and proposals for humane and ethical action in all sorts of places that it deserves more general notice and attention, I think. There seems to be an underlying assumption amongst many people of all kinds and cultures that if one of us has more than another and that other is in need, one ought to take some responsibility for her neighbor’s well-being and share the resources. It’s arguably a foundational principle of civility and hospitality everywhere.
Yet it’s practiced so much less often than is possible. For all of my love of time with friends and family, I also crave quiet and reclusive time, shutting out the world and curling into my own self, and that applies to all parts of my life. And I think that’s probably more common than not. Who does not prefer the company of her own self or her very small circle of kin and kind, especially when the workaday world has seemed particularly demanding and rest and retreat as hard to come by as clear water in the swamp? Who doesn’t covet the privileges she feels she’s chosen and earned for herself?
I was reminded of this particularly when we were in Hungary this summer and I had the privilege of going with a number of the touring choir members and my husband to visit the ancestral home of a hereditary Count and his wife the Countess. The Count himself made only a brief appearance at the end of our visit, his wife having participated with staff and supporters in the greeting of our group, speechmaking about their work with orphans and special needs children in the family-sponsored home on the grounds of the residence, and a small but lovely reception in the main public-room of the place, a large parlor filled with art and artifacts passed down through the lineage. The Count was charming and rather cheery when he did appear, but I sensed that he preferred his privacy as well.
The Countess, on the other hand, had a rather regal bearing and while she was generous in hosting us and very willing to share her home and thoughts with the group, I heard some quiet comments aside that she seemed a touch condescending or even a bit put out by our visit. I had been at the back of the room during her parlor commentary about the family history and the work of the orphanage, not able to see her over the number of people in the room, and her tone was very subdued, so I got the gist of the story, but didn’t see any of the expressions that might have influenced the commenters.
What I did hear was probably a fairly common tale among the nobility in Europe during the previous centuries: a privileged kinship, whether by their own efforts or honors conferred upon them by royalty, this family had done as they were both able and expected to do with their wealth, which was to live quite elegantly and surround themselves with art and beautiful landscaping and magnificent homes. At the same time, they saw themselves very much as caretakers of the larger community, responsible for the well-being not only of the people who staffed their private holdings but those living in proximity as well. This is of course the story of noblesse oblige, a practice of good that may have been at its core a defensive move but served the purpose in any event. Like many noble families, the one we visited had essentially founded a town around themselves over the generations, supporting educational or healthcare or other needed resources and, in this instance, building a magnificent basilica where the town could worship and where, not coincidentally, the touring choir were performing on the evening of our visit in a benefit concert for the children’s home.
Also like so many other noble families, this one had gradually seen its fortunes decline in the years between the World Wars, and on advent of German action in the region in World War II, was ousted from their land and holdings and fled for safer places. Their palatial home first became military headquarters during that war (in which the Hungarians quickly and brutally learned that their alliance with Germany was a general pretext for annexation and Nazi rule), and then was used for Communist offices in the years after. It wasn’t until just a few decades ago that the Count and Countess were able to return to his family property and renew their residence in the place. The good news was that there had been no interest on the occupying military’s part in redesigning the buildings, nor any money for the Communists to do so, so the architecture remained for the most part intact. The bad news was born of the same circumstances, though: the military’s disinterest in redesign and the Communists’ lack of funds extended to any concern for maintenance. Naturally, the park in which the palace stood, the palace and outbuildings all fell into a state that even in their heyday the real owners could probably have scarce afforded to mend, and it all added to the sorrow that the art and fabulous book collections had been heavily looted.
This is a long way of saying so, but on the day we visited there, I stayed after the others had left that once-elegant parlor, pausing to thank the Countess and to ask her a couple of questions about what I understood were the Count’s and her attempts to resurrect some of the property, if only for the appreciation of the locals and the young wards and their caregivers now living in closer quarters with these two owners. Her tone, perhaps because she was no longer addressing a whole roomful of people, or maybe because she felt she didn’t have to represent her husband’s whole heritage anymore, not acting in any official capacity at the moment, softened greatly, and I sensed mostly melancholy. There was sorrow for what had been lost, yes, but after we spoke about that and the enormity of the restoration needs for a moment or two, I simply asked her in the middle of that once-glamorous hall if she had a personal favorite artwork in there.
It was almost as if she became for a moment the young bride who had come there with the Count before the war, a little in awe of his family and the wealth that surrounded them, the power and the weight of the name upon her shoulders seeming rather immense even in the midst of her happiness. I can’t say she became suddenly shy, though it seemed to me that there was the slightest hint of it as she walked across the room and, instead of choosing one of the showy ancestral treasures or superb museum-quality portraits but this moderate-sized, unrestored and slightly bleary, painting of peasant girls dancing around in an Impressionistic meadow, and said simply, “This one.” I asked her what made it so, and she did little more than offer a soft comment that it was pretty and it made her happy.
This is my digitally painted version of the Countess’s beloved artwork, which besides being in great need of restoration was under glass and hard to see without much maneuvering. But even in its retouched state here, I think you can catch a glimpse of what filled her with such longing: a sense of sweetly carefree innocence that must seem now like a distant, faded dream.
And I thought that perhaps what had been asked of her, she who had had quite a lot at one time and might even be seen in town nowadays as a bit of a remnant of things past, was her innocence. It must have been a long, sorrowful journey from being a young lady inducted into the nobility by marriage and impressed, if not overwhelmed, by the lavish life and the heavy weight of what was expected of her in her new role, to the life she knows now. However she and her husband might work to regain a place in the community through their labor and largesse, the world has changed, and they with it.
What must it have been like, as she moved through the war and later years in exile, knowing that everything tangible she had known at home might well be gone? On returning long after, though she saw that it wasn’t demolished, her happy ease was clearly broken and irretrievably changed. Finally, settling into her new role as figurehead of a still somewhat nebulous but ambitious attempt to find a way to make all that was left have real meaning again, looking into that painting must have become rather like looking into a mirror at her past self, not as a dancing peasant girl but as a naïf who thought the world was simple and clean and kindly and that all she had to do was make the best of what had been given to her in order to be happy in it.