April 8, 2011

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

When duty calls, will we answer it in our lives?

Cynthia DewesLately, I’ve been reading the new official biography of Great Britain’s Queen Mother Elizabeth.

Since she lived to be a little over 100, and the biographer, William Shawcross, is obsessively conscientious, the book is more than 900 pages long. I’ve been reading and reading and reading, and have now learned more than I ever wanted to know about this lovely lady.

The Queen Mother was a commoner who gained royal status by marrying Prince Albert, the Duke of York, who was a son of King George V and Queen Mary.

Her status as a commoner doesn’t mean that she was what we think of as coming from a family of common people.

Her parents were a duke and duchess who owned a large estate in Scotland, and the young Elizabeth’s social circle included other aristocrats and members of the royal family.

Elizabeth was also a child of the generation which had one foot in Victorian attitudes and the other in the social change of the 20th century.

She was a devoted Christian, who was trained to believe that duty came before any other element of a person’s life. She knew that the privilege of her station made her responsible for others.

These ideas are partly the reason for the Queen Mother’s widespread popularity since she was truly interested in others, receptive to their advances and responsive to their feelings. Men and women, old and young, rich and poor, all believed that she saw them as the people they were or hoped to be, and they loved her for it.

Monarchy was thrust upon Elizabeth and “Bertie” unexpectedly in 1936 when his older brother, King Edward VIII, abdicated the throne to marry a divorced woman.

Since the monarch is also the head of the Church in England, the ruler was not permitted to marry a divorcee. This created an unexpected trial for Bertie, now King George VI, since he was a shy man with a debilitating stutter—as documented so well in the recent Academy Award-winning movie The King’s Speech.

The Queen Mother supported, soothed and encouraged her husband into becoming one of the most popular and successful heads of state in modern history.

Her gift for encouragement also extended to the couple’s two daughters, one of whom is now Queen Elizabeth II, and to the entire British Commonwealth.

Partly through Elizabeth’s efforts, the British monarchy survived as a strong symbol of national pride and moral authority through World War II, the nation’s governmental change into a welfare state, and the declarations of independence among much of the Commonwealth.

Duty called, and the Queen Mother answered.

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta also answered this call even through several years of experiencing a crisis of faith.

Here again, love and attention made people better and allowed them to live in joy despite whatever hardships they were enduring.

Firefighters called to respond to the disaster of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were doing their duty.

School children finishing their homework on time and teachers giving up extra time to help students are also doing their duty.

Duty is not a dirty word. There are many, many less dramatic examples of doing our duty—things like trudging to work at a so-so job every day to feed our families, swallowing our pain cheerfully so that others don’t have to worry, or caring for a crabby oldster or handicapped child with kindness and patience.

It is God who calls us to duty, and it is God’s great joy that we receive in return.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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