Much has been made, and rightly so, in the days since the Conclave of the truly Franciscan qualities of the new Pope. Quite evidently, his gentle humor, his unpretentiousness, his simplicity of style are things which are commending him to the hearts and imaginations of many. The Wall Street Journal today has an important and insightful Opinion essay on Pope Francis. “The white vestments and the splendor of events in St Peter’s Basilica reflect abiding tradition but remain pomp.” That word “pomp” has attracted a negative connotation, perhaps because of its close association with the adjective “pompous”. But, in reality, pomp is nothing other than the solemn traditional display of ritual and music.
In fairly recent times, there has been a vogue for informality in worship — for balloons, clown ministries, folk, music, liturgical dancing, and so on. This surely is proving to be ephemeral; for the Catholic norm has always been solemn worship.
C. S. Lewis interprets this word “solemn” admirably for us:
“This quality will be understood by anyone who really understands the meaning of the Middle English word solempne. This means something different, but not radically different, from the 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 Crucifixus est. 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. In an age when everyone puts on his oldest clothes to be happy in, you must re-awaken 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, the fruit of a wide¬spread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connection with vanity or self-conceit. A celebrant approaching the altar, a princess led out by a king to dance a minuet, a general officer on a ceremonial parade, 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 that they are vain, but that they are obedient; they are obeying the atmosphere which must characterize a solemn occasion. 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. I should say rather that joy or exhilaration was what it produces — an overplus of robust and tranquil well-being in a total experience which contains both rapturous and painful elements. When we are caught up into the experience which a ‘grand’ style communicates, we are, in a sense, no longer conscious of the style. When our participation in a rite becomes perfect we think no more of ritual, but we are engrossed by that about which the rite is performed: and afterwards we recognize that ritual was the sole method by which this concentration could be achieved.”
Thus, we do not dress the priest in brilliant vestments, and station assistants about the sanctuary, and ring bells and burn incense, and chant parts of the liturgy, merely because we like it that way. We pull out all the stops, and try to make the Mass and the great public moments in the Church’s life as “solemn” (in the C. S. Lewis sense) as we possibly can, because it is our poor way of doing the very best we can to give glory to God.
But then someone will say: “Do you think God is impressed by all that fol-de-rol?” Of course not’ We do not go to all that trouble to make our worship gorgeous because we think God requires it, or needs it, or is in the least impressed by it. The God who created the Matterhorn is not likely to be impressed by one of the pyramids of Egypt, or by a Manhattan skyscraper. No, that is not the point. We go to all that trouble to impress ourselves with the solemnity of the occasion of our meeting with the Creator of the Matterhorn
In the reverberating silence of that encounter there is, for those with ears to hear, the heart-beat of eternity; and, with St Paul, we can only respond: “I live, yet not I but Christ lives in me.”
As Helene Dicken has written (in Full Face To God – her first book, which I encouraged her to write): “Life and liturgy must become one single response of love, in which ascetic preparation, sacramental grace, and persevering discipleship bring us into an increasingly profound relationship with God and with all men. Purity of intention will blend with purity of action, and love will have its perfect work.”
Totus non tarn orans quam oratio factus — not so much a man who prayed as a man who was totally turned into prayer: so it was said of St Francis of Assisi; so it should be said of every Christian; and so, we can already see, it will be said of his namesake. In the catacombs the image that recurs most frequently is the figure of a woman at prayer, the “Orans”. It represents the only true attitude of the human soul. It is not enough to possess prayer: we must become prayer, we must be prayer — prayer incarnate. It is not enough to have moments” of praise. Our whole life, every act and gesture, even a smile, must become a hymn of adoration, an offering of prayer. And it is the multi-faceted beauty, the pomp – if you will – and the solemnity of the liturgy which will thus form us. We must offer not what we have but what we are. So the struggle for perfection becomes an imperative – not, in itself, because we should like to become saints (which is, on the whole, a daunting prospect) but because we can do no other than to offer to God (in those magnificent Anglican words) for his purpose “ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice”.
“I lose myself, wondering at him” is the essence of the contemplative vision. “It is in fact,” says Dr Eric Mascall (in Corpus Christi) “in simply being itself and living its own supernatural life [of prayer and solemn worship] that the Church performs its greatest service to the world.”