Royalty and Ritual

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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).


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  1. Fully agree.

    By the bye, you see the same attitude at work in those going to Mass in shorts and flip flops.

    The pervasive love of “informality” of our times is nothing more than a poor excuse for a sloppy and lazy attitude.


  2. I’m watching the ceremony live right now (Abp. Williams just pronounced them man and wife) and I have to admit, the classic Anglican marriage service has a degree of dignity and, well, class that unfortunately, seems to be lacking in the post-Vatican II Catholic ritual.

    The bride looks beautiful, of course, and I’m hoping her dress also sets a trend back toward more modest wedding attire 🙂

  3. Chris Hitchens, as mean as ever, wrote a nasty piece about poor Kate marrying into a dysfunctional royal family. Here’s a taste:

    “The usually contemptuous words fairy tale were certainly coldly accurate about the romance quotient of the last two major royal couplings, which brought the vapid disco-princesses Diana and Sarah (I decline to call her “Fergie”) within range of demolishing the entire mystique. And, even if the current match looks a lot more wholesome and genuine, its principal function is still to restore a patina of glamour that has been all but irretrievably lost.”

    The rest can be read hereL

  4. I remember a passage in the book Why Catholics Can’t Sing, describing the beginning of Mass. A solemn procession, in robes, accompanied by song and ceremony. The the priest says “Good morning, everyone” and the image is shattered. Everything they just did to set the occasion apart from daily life is thrown out the window with a smile and a banal greeting. The first thing the priest should say, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”, is the most solemn thing a person will ever say – but before that, the priest throws in a “hiya everybody”.

  5. I was impressed that the Anglican Bishop of London gave props to St. Catherine of Siena, whose feast day is today: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”

  6. Pinky,

    There is another book called “Sing Like a Catholic” by Jeffrey Tucker in which he makes the case that the banal song often chosen at the beginning could be what prompts the informal greeting. When the Gregorian Introits are used, the liturgy moves flawlessly from the Introit through the Penitential Rite, as the same solemnity is retained throughout. However, when an “opening hymn” is used that often highlights how great man is, there is something that just doesn’t “seem right” in moving straight through to the penitential rite, in which we confess our shortcomings. Thus, the priest, perhaps subconsciously, feels the need to fill that gap with some transition words (“Good morning …”). Part of this is probably due to the “climactic” nature in the structure of modern hymnody, something that simply doesn’t exist in Gregorian pieces.

    That being said, this is not meant as a defense of such trite greetings, but rather to suggest that the solution might be a recovery of the opening music that the Church has given us for hundreds of years … the Gregorian Propers.

  7. I once went to a church and the pastor or priest, don’t remember which, began his sermon by saying: “How ya’ll doin’ today?”

    Think that was the last time I went to church : )

  8. I spent some time in England recently, and visited some of the castles and ruins. It helped be get a better understanding of set-apartness. A bloodline, a crown, a coat of arms, a title…it appeals to a strong human instinct. I’m not rejecting the merits of democracy, and as always the strongest argument against monarchy is the individual monarch, but let’s just say that I’m sympathetic to Jake’s point.

    On a slightly related note, I was reading some article about modern men and women recently, and it got me to thinking about courtesy. Men invented courtesy to get women. Now that women are gettable without the man being courteous, we’ve seen courtesy all but disappear.

    Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to drink my milk of magnesia and yell at the neighborhood kids to get off my lawn.

  9. Well, if my late mother were still alive, I believe she would have watched every last second of the marriage. My reaction however, other than one of raging indifference, is summed up in this scene from the John Adams miniseries:

  10. Men invented courtesy to get women. Now that women are gettable without the man being courteous, we’ve seen courtesy all but disappear

    So, why was my grandmother so courteous?

  11. The extravaganza was on the telly before I left for work this AM.

    I noted to my bride that the prince wore spurs. She responded, “My son won his spurs in Afghanistan.”

    The younger prince served “over there.” Not sure about the elder.

    If nothing else, Princess Kate will improve the breed (God willing).

  12. My wife just advised me that if she were not working today she would be watching more of the coverage!

    Of course. Pageantry is something agreeable to watch. The difficulty you get with this sort of thing is anticipatory embarrassment. Three of the Queens’ four children ended up in the divorce courts and her sister, her brother-in-law, her daughter, and two of her daughters-in-law have (doing what comes naturally) acted to trash the institution (with some peripheral assistance from Prince Charles and his current wife). You just have to hope the next generation will be more dignified and honorable, and it is hard to believe they will be.

  13. Joe, the current dynasty has occupied the throne not for 1,000 years, but since 1714. A number of these Hanoverians have been good sorts. The grossness was in abeyance between the death of Edward Vii and the advent of Lord Snowden (and his rancid ACDC clique). Edward Viii was told to hit the road and take his ho’ with him, which bought the family another 25 years or so of dignified living. They might have had another 25 years if Snowden had been trampled by one of Princess Anne’s horses. As for Sarah Ferguson, OFF WITH HER HEAD.

  14. Kate Middleton, aware of the demise of Princess Di in the eyes of the Queen, asked of Her Majesty how she could have a successful and long association with the royals after her marriage to William.

    The Queen responded, ” Wear a seat belt when you’re in the back seat of a car, and don’t piss me off!! ” 😆

    Watched a little of the ceremony during the ads on American Idol merely to humour my better half, then got a serious attack of restfulness and went to bed. It was 10.30 pm. over here when they said “I do”.

  15. Of course there is an added sentimentality factor involved, in that the last time most Americans (myself included) saw Princes William and Harry on TV they were grieving teenagers filing into Westminster Abbey behind their mother’s casket.

  16. On another happy though unrelated note, courtesy of Mark Shea’s blog and of Women of Grace:

    “America’s most beloved Catholic communications network was spared the devastation caused by a massive tornado outbreak that roared through several states yesterday, leaving at least 202 people dead.

    “According to Michelle Johnson, director of communications for the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), said the network was spared any damage other than some felled trees. While she expects that the storm affected the lives of many of the network’s employees, the facility survived the storm intact.

    “It was like a passover,” she said, referring to the widespread devastation left behind after one of the worst tornado outbreaks in U.S. history struck Birmingham yesterday and left an estimated 30 people dead.”

  17. The bride looks beautiful, of course, and I’m hoping her dress also sets a trend back toward more modest wedding attire

    Agreed, Elaine! It was refreshing to see a wedding dress that did not look like it was held up in defiance of the force of gravity. I spent the day in the hospital getting tested ( and passed with flying colors, thank you, Lord!) and while waiting around in my room managed to see most of the ceremony – and I was enchanted by the whole thing. (Admittedly, sedatives also had something to do with that:-) I also agree with Elaine about the majesty of the Anglican rite.

    I enjoyed the pomp and ritual and, since I am a US citizen, I don’t have to pay a dime for it. If the Brits feel it is worth it to preserve their cultural heritage, I certainly will not argue with them.

    BTW, I also caught a bit of a TV special about Kate Middleton’s family. She has both working class and middle class roots – a great-grandfather was a coal miner. Far more than Diana (who was a member of an old aristocratic family), Kate is truly “the people’s princess.”

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