Thursday, April 28, AD 2011
Early tomorrow morning, the world will be watching the royal wedding of Prince William to Miss Catherine Middleton. While there are bound to be a wide range of critiques that describe a misplaced prioritization of fanfare over marriage, I for one think there is something about the pomp and circumstance that surrounds royal customs from which modern man can take a lesson. Some time ago, I wrote about how our culture has lost a sense of formality, and along with it an appreciation for ritual and solemnity:
At the heart of liturgy is the concept of ritual. Instead of fitting the Liturgy into our lives, it is in the liturgy that we are taken up into something much bigger, the cosmic worship of God. The liturgy is a great drama that is being played out on a cosmic scale, and simply by being there, we are taken up into this drama. This is exactly why having specific rituals in the liturgy is so important. When there are “lines” that need recited, “actions” or “stage directions” that need followed, the structure of the liturgy itself teaches that the liturgy is bigger than us; we are taught that it is not something that we can create, but something that must be received. This is all a very complicated way of saying that the liturgy is an objective reality.
In contrast, when the liturgy becomes the result of the creative efforts of a “liturgy committee,” the congregation is given the impression that the main focus of the action is not on God but on the people, that we are the creators, not God. How the liturgy is presented and the way in which it includes us affects how we come to think of the essence of the liturgy and of ourselves as human agents. This is the basic principle of sacramentality in its most general form. The principle states that “we are how we act.” In other words, the way in which we act forms the views we hold and even the type of person we become. If the Mass is presented as a ritual, people are given the correct impression that it is something bigger than themselves, a sacred action into which they are taken up. They then come to realize that they are not the center of reality. If it is presented as self-created, then people come to see themselves as self-creators.
I was struck by the objections people raised to the fact that Miss Middleton will be arriving to the wedding by car instead of by carriage. Whether it was done on purpose, I cannot say, but it strikes me that Miss Middleton, before the wedding, is not in fact royalty, but rather a commoner. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that the newly married couple will depart from the church by carriage (the same one used by Princess Diana at her wedding), for at that time Miss Middleton will be Princess Kate. I would hate to concentrate solely on the carriage example, for it is but one of what will undoubtedly be a series of rituals that make the wedding not just any wedding, but a royal wedding. And I certainly don’t wish to get into the debate over the suitableness of this particular action, but rather to point out the implicit ritual and significance it carries. It is a nice reminder that actions, in particular rituals, do in fact matter. And it is ritual that gives an event solemnity. And solemnity is not necessarily somber, but in fact can be joyful. In the words of C.S. Lewis:
This quality will be understood by anyone who really understands the Middle English word solempne. This means something different, but not quite different, from modern English solemn. Like solemn it implies the opposite of what is familiar, free and easy, or ordinary. But unlike solemn it does not suggest gloom, oppression or austerity. The ball in the first act of Romeo and Juliet was a ‘solemnity.’ The feast at the beginning of Gawain and the Green Knight is very much a solemnity. A great mass by Mozart or Beethoven is as much a solemnity in its hilarious gloria as in its poignant crucifixes est. Feasts are, in this sense, more solemn than fasts. Easter is solempne, Good Friday is not. The Solempne is the festal which is also the stately and the ceremonial, the proper occasion for pomp — and the very fact that pompous is now used only in a bad sense measures the degree to which we have lost the old idea of ‘solemnity.’ To recover it you must think of a court ball, or a coronation, or a victory march, as these things appear to people who enjoy them; in an age when every one puts on his oldest clothes to be happy in, you must re-awake the simpler state of mind in which people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in. Above all, you must be rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connexion with vanity or self-conceit. A celebrant approaching the altar, a princess led out by a king to dance a minuet, a major-domo preceding the boar’s head at a Christmas feast — all these wear unusual clothes and move with calculated dignity. This does not mean they are vain, but that they are obedient; they are obeying the hoc age which presides over every solemnity. The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for everyone else the proper pleasure of ritual (A Preface to Paradise Lost, emphasis added).