29 September 2022

On Charles III and the Value and Power of Ritual

Elizabeth Scalia wonders how the young, deprived of ritual all their lives, will react to the rituals of the Monarchy, the Queen's Funeral, and the coming Coronation.

From The Anchoress

By Elizabeth Scalia

Most people now living have never seen the level of pageantry that will be coming out of England over the next two weeks, and again when Charles III is crowned in a year. It surpasses, by far, even the pomp and ceremony of a papal election or pope’s funeral. I’m curious as to whether it will inspire or repulse the young.

Images have power, as do words, and while most of the world lives daily in a bath of distraction (social media and otherwise) just now people are paying attention. They’re taking in unusual images. They’re listening to the words. They are being subjected to rhetoric, and not the sort of bombastic, spittle-flecked, politically-motivated and agenda-driven ranting that has become part of our daily dyspeptic fare but a rhetoric of reassurance, offered in calm tones by well-modulated voices — the rhetoric of continuance that is uniquely British in character and pronouncement. Emotion, the cheap and inefficient fuel that drives so much in the 21st Century, is here capped and tucked away. The trumpeters breathe out a fanfare; the Lord Mayor makes a pronouncement; the Prime Minister signs a form in silence. The new King speaks clearly, directly and with a gravity few have expected from him. While his speech is widely praised as being “note-perfect”, its greatest eloquence comes from his blue, narrow-set eyes, which lower at times with a touching humility that catches us off-guard, exposing a controlled yet naked grief each time they are raised. We are reminded that this new-yet-elderly king (who once referred to himself as an anachronism), is after all a man, and one with faults like all of us. He is a man who had a mother and a father who very likely failed him in many ways (as all parents do), giving him acquaintance with the ache and confusion of a love that comes with lessons, and even with expectations.

It is the love that trips all of us up, whether we are parents or children — the love that gives all of us a soft underbelly of vulnerability to each other and (if we are lucky) keeps us human, and humane. One needn’t be a monarchist in order to be moved by the recognizable signs of grief that are common to all of us. In fact, one shouldn’t be.

But let’s keep thinking about what we are watching. Ritual has power; it is transformative and is meant to be. But it is also restorative. It permits time for deep breath and important reorientation — for people to say, “we have lived one way for a long time, considered things from this long-view, this perspective so ingrained that we no longer really notice or appreciate it. It may be time, now, to consider other things; let us think about it all, but calmly, respectfully and with openness to wisdom as we go about the duties before us. They are only duties, but let us give an example that even when one’s private world has been turned upside down, duty matters.”

Keep calm and carry on, indeed.

Watching these early moments in what will be an ongoing grand spectacle out of this small island of ambitious (sometimes ruinous) rulers only emphasizes for me the sagacity of maintaining our rituals, even as generations raised on deconstruction wonder why they are not dismantled.

One thought consistently intrudes: how is this playing to the younger generations, whose lives have been bereft of formal customs and observances beyond sports championships and presidential elections?

Because what we are seeing is so deeply rare and so fraught with grave intention, beyond anything. Is the drama of death and life and civil concerns, all wrapped within this strange, unemotive silence, touching something within them that has until now untapped? Is it making them feel curious about history, or attracted to a rhetoric of smaller feelings and larger words? Will any of it inspire them toward beauty, or feed an instinct for reliable sameness amid necessary change? Will they be struck by the strange reality we are witnessing, where the actions and affairs of a ruling class family with its own share of dislikeable miscreants are somehow deeply felt and shared by ordinary people (who, in regular circumstances, might not think much of them beyond their entertainment value)? Will they want to see more ritual — prescribed and followed rather than fiddled with and “fixed” to conform to passing times and trends — or will they decide there is no value, here, and thus no worth, no need for it?

There is a moment in Rumer Godden’s fine novel, In this House of Brede where a new Abbess is elected and installed within her Benedictine monastery and afterward discusses how moments of deep emotion (especially when they confer a world’s weight of responsibility upon someone’s heart and soul) are greatly helped by attending to the old rites and forms — how, in the midst of all that is changing, one need not be burdened with thought about what to do next: it’s in the Rule; it’s in the Ritual; it’s in the Liturgy. For the Abbess, submitting to her community’s traditions,  from the death of her predecessor until her own ascension, became a kind of resting place. Everyone had their role to play within the protocols, their responsibilities to meet to keep things going in the every day, but no one had to decide on much of anything, which permitted their own thoughts and feelings to come forth without bubbles or froth and thus without creating turmoil.

“That is the blessing of the liturgy,” her wise second agrees, “it wipes out self.” Yes. And in doing so it, quite paradoxically, permits the self some refuge from the inevitable fear, some freedom from fretful flailing as you simply do the thing that is before you, and then the next thing, and in so doing come to realize that each moment is its own, as is each day, and that it is only the singular and dire urgencies that demand so much of us that we dare not breathe, lest we fall apart.

And perhaps that is why even those of us disinclined toward monarchies are watching and will continue to watch this extraordinary unfolding of processions and gatherings, pronouncements and gallantry that has only happened sixty-one times in history, as one sovereign of a constitutional monarchy buries another and then assumes an ancient throne, for as long as it lasts.

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