The Coronation: A Lesson in the Value of Solemn Ceremonial
Modern Man needs the challenge and consolation of lofty, long, and elaborate celebrations, not dumbing down, abbreviation, and easy access
The big news internationally this past week was the coronation of King Charles III of the United Kingdom on Saturday, May 6. No one who watched the long series of ceremonies could have failed to be moved at the majesty and dignity of the proceedings. With a very few exceptions, all was done in the most becoming, resplendent, and, yes, regal, way.
Those who have been following the Catholic blogosphere are aware of the debate that has taken place ever since the death of Queen Elizabeth II between those who are in favor of monarchy as a continuing institution in the modern West (and thus, in favor of the British monarchy, in spite of its deplorable lapse from Catholic communion centuries ago), and those who think that, whatever the abstract value of monarchy might be, Catholics cannot in good conscience give their allegiance to the United Kingdom’s rulers from Henry VIII onward. This school of thought claims that recent royals have done little or nothing to stop the slide of the UK into unchristian and even anti-christian secularism.
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I have no intention of wading into this debate, but I do wish to say for the record that I am entirely on the side of my British friends who support the monarchy as an institution and who make a point of praying every Sunday at High Mass for their monarch. All political authority is from God, teaches the Catholic Church (see Leo XIII, Diuturnum Illud), and it is right and proper that there be a ceremony by which God’s blessing is asked upon the ruler, who thus acknowledges that he receives his rulership from above. His personal defects, though lamentable, do not undermine the transmission of authority. Would that we Americans had even a milligram of the good sense contained in this coronation ceremony! The swearing in of a president with a Bible is a rather sad substitute for it.
The veiling of the sacred
But the political philosophy and political theology embedded in the coronation, as important and fascinating as it is, is not the main thing I wish to focus on today. Rather, I would like to talk about something that almost no one saw at the ceremony, and that, by design. The Dominican Fr. Joseph Selinger described it thus:
I would like to call attention to the fact that King Charles’s anointing occurred behind screens. The ancient coronation liturgy adheres to the principle that what is most sacred is veiled. Notice also that ad orientem worship and the silent canon in the Catholic Mass also observed this principle.
We like to think that what is most sacred should be visible and that its visibility will allow people to better apprehend the sacred action. Phenomenologically, the situation is exactly the opposite. The sacred is most hidden in its sacrality when it is most visible, while it is most visible in its sacrality when it is most hidden. Worse, this insight was being rediscovered by secular continental philosophy at the same time as versus populum worship and the loud praying of the canon were being advocated by Catholic liturgists. It is often a dysfunction of the Catholic intellectual tradition that we get into trends centuries too late, after they have already become passé. Those who finally adopted these outdated trends then see themselves as sophisticated and progressive, when in fact profoundly regressive and should have spent more time reading contemporary literature than 17th century literature.
Somewhere along the line the Cartesian ideal of clear and distinct perception came to prominence—a certain “mathematical prejudice” (to use a Heideggerian turn of phrase)—which put an emphasis on the intelligibility of what is present to our gaze. Unfortunately, such attitudes influenced the academics who planned liturgical reforms. They would have been better off to learn the phenomenological insights contained in the liturgy itself instead of thinking themselves its teacher.
What exactly was done in this moment of the coronation ceremony? Writes Rob Picheta of CNN:
Behind a three-sided screen, the Dean of Westminster poured holy oil from the Ampulla, a gold eagle-shaped flask, on to the Coronation Spoon, and then the Archbishop of Canterbury anointed Charles on his head, breast and hands, according to the Church of England’s liturgy.
A Maronite priest, Fr. Michael Shami, made similar comments, as far as I can tell independently (I’m sure many liturgy-lovers out there were thinking along these lines):
I suppose this is the kind of observation one has when one studies liturgy, but I watched bits of the Coronation of Charles III—and, in particular, looked for the anointing. During the anointing, the act is veiled by a canopy (or, more descriptively, screens). Physical coverings are a common element of religion—a veil on the chalice, an icon screen in the sanctuary, the Kaaba over the black stone, the Holy of Holies of the Temple, etc. The retention of a canopy was really no surprise.
Stymied by silence
So far, so good. Then Fr. Michael noted how the media simply couldn’t handle this apophatic moment:
The panicked rotation of angles of the cameras was almost laughable, furiously panning about in a desperation to find something “going on,” whether peering through the seam of the canopy or mostly going up and down the choir. The disquiet with purposeful “absence” (or rather [with] being veiled) struck me more than the rite itself. In trying to fill the moment, the symbolism and, worse, the experience of the mystical veiling was lost. Woe to the delusion of perfect immanence of all things, which is a greater absence than can be caused by any veil or canopy.
It is part of the wisdom of tradition to hide that which is most divine or most precious behind barriers, be they curtains, a rood screen, an iconostasis, the bodies of ministers, or the sonic veil of a chanted sacred language alternating with silence. This ritualistic hiding intensifies attention toward what is hidden and the longing for its revelation or unveiling—and it does this not to be clericalistically distancing the faithful from the sacred, as a modern demythologizer might think, but precisely to convey the mystery of the omnipresent yet hidden God who remains veiled to us in this life and whom we long to see face-to-face, unveiled, in the life to come.
As Fr. Joseph indicates and as Fr. Michael intimates, the liturgical reformers of the twentieth century and their present-day votaries seem singularly colorblind or tone-deaf when it comes to how symbolism and ceremony actually function. Every aspect of the modern rite of Paul VI is beholden to Enlightenment rationalism (think: Synod of Pistoia): everything must be open, accessible, visible, audible, comprehensible, anthropocentric. This approach was already dated and done with before the ink was even dry on the Apostolic Constitution Missale Romanum of 1969. For exactly at that time, every discipline, from philosophy and theology to psychology, sociology, and anthropology, showed a mounting awareness of the ineffable, the indefinable, the incomprehensible, the shadowy, chthonic, and fearful, the paradox of dense ritual as theophany, the need for that which leaves us behind, draws us out of ourselves, even by frustrating our lower desires. Low-hanging fruit is not ultimately satisfying and men quickly grow bored of it. Many were beginning to look to the Far East to find Buddhist silence or Hindu meditative chanting when silence and chant were being driven from our churches.
Paul VI’s self-destructive mentality
In looking through the archives of the Latin Mass Society, Dr. Joseph Shaw discovered a note written in 1965 by Geoffrey Houghton-Brown and never before published. This note was written right at the time Paul VI was saying that the Church had to get rid of a lot of her pageantry, her “useless trappings,” in order to go with the flow of modern times, to chime in with stripped-down popular tastes. He somehow believed it was more evangelical and authentic to dress down, prune the ornaments, say goodbye to medieval and Baroque customs.
Houghton-Brown is speaking about John Carmel Heenan, Archbishop of Westminster, who was created a cardinal in 1965:
I do not imagine that the Cardinal refused the customary canopy in order to be better seen [as suggested by the report in The Times] but in order to comply with the Pope’s wish for “simplicity”. If these customary symbols of high office are abandoned the office itself, be it of Pope, King, Bishop, Judge, or Mayor, will lose its significance, its dignity, its solemnity. By the sight of these symbols we recognise that which they represent. High Office must be made visible in order to be recognised and it can only be made visible by such symbolic and customary signs as the canopy of state, the crown, the mitre, the Judge’s wig and robes, the Mayor’s chain etc. Remove symbols and you lessen, even destroy, all respect, for authority.
In connection with the canopy of state it should be noted that The Times (of February 26th) reported that “The public Consistory has, however, lost some of its pomp, just as it has lost the great cardinal’s hat beneath which the new princes of the Church used to swear their oath before the Pope—the great cardinal’s hat has now vanished altogether from the formalities of creating members of the Sacred College.”
In comparision with other reforms now taking place the suppression of the cardinal’s red hat may seem extremely trivial but nonetheless it is extremely significant, indicating as it does the loss of an emblem bound up with the history of the Roman Church. A generation that has no reverence for the past is doomed to become rootless, isolated, adrift. This is the sin condemned in the commandment of Moses,—if you do not hold your ancestors in honour you will not keep for long the inheritance that they handed down to you. The keeping of this commandment is the secret of the miraculous survival of the Jewish race. It is by the preservation of their ancient laws, festivals, fasts, and liturgical language that the Jews have kept their racial identity.
Pope Paul is advocating a policy of ecclesiastical suicide when he announces that the Church will “despoil herself of that old royal mantle in order to reclothe herself in more simple manner suitable to the taste of to-day.” The disappearance of the canopy of state and the red hat may be small matters but like certain small marks on the body they can indicate a deadly disease.
The Church cannot “despoil herself of that old royal mantle” without despoiling herself of the royalty of Jesus Christ, who both reveals and veils Himself in the symbols and solemnities of the Church, as they have organically developed down through the ages.
The good of pageantry and splendor
Let’s be honest about it: most people love a good exhibition of pageantry and splendor, if only they are given an opportunity to see it. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we are made for it, hard-wired to respond to it with a mixture of feelings—fascination, elation, rejoicing, humility as to one’s place, proper pride as to one’s tribe or nation. It’s part of our human nature as God intended it. Not only is there nothing wrong with this desire, but those who lack it, or who mock it—which would seem to include, tragically, a majority of the liturgical reformers of the twentieth century—show that they are psychologically imbalanced and spiritually deficient.
The same could be said, from the opposite side, of the rarer imbalance of those who value only external pomp and circumstance while paying little heed to the weightier matters of the law, which concern the heart. This right relationship between interior and exterior, between the realm of the spirit and the realm of the sensible and sacramental, is always delicate and in need of recalibration, as one of the traits of fallen man is a tendency to deviate toward one extreme or the other, as Aristotle pointed out in regard to virtues. The golden mean is neither easy to grasp nor easy to achieve, but we must try our best.
What is certain is that religion, as a social phenomenon, as a system of sacred rites and rules for life, cannot exist simply in the heart; it must express itself outwardly, and by its own native power will choose impressive ways of expressing itself, so that the meaning of that system may be impressed in the heart and take up residence there. It is not the least of the paradoxes of human life that our inner self is mostly constituted of what we receive from without; there is not some “pure center” that is totally lacking in image or word.
If we want devotees to internalize religion, we must “put them through the motions,” feed their senses on imagery, fill their minds with words, and all of this in a way likely to burrow deep into the psyche, where it will stay active even when the conscious mind is elsewhere. I found, for instance, that I began to dream a lot more about liturgy when I began attending more solemn forms of it. The panoply of vesture and gesture, the peculiar melodies and cadences of Gregorian chant, the regimented “dance” of the ministers, was like a special liquor that seeped into the roots of the soul and irrigated them.
This is everyday knowledge to professional anthropologists. Why have we forgotten what no part of the human race had ever forgotten before? Why are we sometimes impatient with ritual or embarrassed by solemnity, or tempted to write it off as snobbery or subjective taste—when these are the things that illiterate medieval peasants loved and looked forward to?
Speaking of the utilitarians of his day, the French author Théophile Gautier said: “I am aware that there are people in the world who prefer mills to churches, and the bread of the body to the bread of the soul. I have nothing to say to such people. They deserve to be economists in this world and in the next likewise.” Gautier was hardly a virtuous man, but he was capable of seeing where the loss of poetry, sentiment, loyalty, and piety would lead: to a gray and grim world not worth living in.1
An endangered habitat for a thriving species
Meanwhile, I can say, without exaggeration—on the basis of decades of experience in the United States and around the world—that one finds a heartfelt, unselfconscious, healthy love of solemn ceremonies in communities dedicated to the traditional Roman rite. It is almost taken for granted, as indeed it should be, for it is suited to both human nature and supernatural revelation. High Masses and Solemn Masses proliferate, as well as Adoration, Benediction, and processions for feasts of Our Lord, Our Lady, and patron saints. Tons of little children, when they’re not crying, bonking a sibling over the head, or dropping a hymnal, watch wide-eyed as the ministers do their work (and, in particular, the boys watch the altar boys, especially the ones who get to play with fire), learning by doing, watching, and growing in the maternal bosom of a living community.
I’m not saying—don’t mistake my meaning—that these communities are free of troubles, or that Novus Ordo communities are always scraping along at the lowest common denominator. When you bring fallen men together, problems will surely arise; and the grace of God can break through our cultural deficiencies and our shortsighted ecclesiastical policies. What I am saying, quite simply, is that a national and international spectacle like the British coronation ceremony, watched with appreciation and admiration by millions of people, has something to teach all of us about rightly ordered politics and rightly ordained solemnity—and that we should praise, rather than blame, those in our midst who are striving to recover and restore this godly sensibility. That includes integralists and traditionalists (who should, in my opinion, overlap exactly—but that is a topic for another time).
As a friend and I were discussing the grandeur of the coronation, he made the mordant remark: "The Anglicans do more for a pretend king than Catholics do for the real King." I had to demur somewhat, saying this remark wasn’t fair either to them (since Charles III is more than a pretend king) or to us (since it cannot be said that all Catholics are lazy and indifferent towards their Eucharistic King).
Yet the barbed comment struck its target all too well. Not that every Mass can or should be a grandiose affair; that is hardly the point. But it is not too much to ask that every Mass be done with a spirit of utmost reverence toward the King, with moral and material beauty, with an abundance of bows, breast-beatings, and genuflections—and with the whispered awe of the mysterium fidei.
This week I officially launched my “composer website”: CantaboDomino. Please head over and have a look! You’ll find recordings and downloadable scores as well as links to my articles on chant, sacred music, classical music, and so forth. This has been long in the works and I hope you’ll like what you see (and hear) there.
My Monday article this week at New Liturgical Movement was “The Mass Is the Faith and the Faith Is the Mass” (May 8). My Wednesday article at OnePeterFive this week was “Objections and Replies on Pastor Aeternus” (May 10).
A Spanish video describing the content of my book El Rito Romano de ayer y del futuro was published on my YouTube page.
Sohrab Ahmari observes: “Modern Britons may well ask: why do we find ourselves locked into a ritual—a religious ritual, to be precise—inherited from the ancient past? Even if some share the Christian faith that underpins rituals like the coronation, can’t they practise that faith privately, without the need for a solemn, state-sanctioned ceremony involving bishops, priests, crowns, sceptres, and holy oils? Why do we need public ritual at all? All this [questioning] is a tragedy, because old rituals like the coronation can play a deeply salutary—and even progressive—role in societies otherwise wracked by modern capitalism’s cruel, arbitrary hierarchies. We human beings do all sorts of things that have no functional value in themselves but that help us communicate symbolically. We shake hands. We exchange rings. We are wired, it seems, for ritual: a pattern of words and actions characterised by formality, rigidity, and repetition.”
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