“But, sir: Why do we have to wear socks?”
This was asked after I told a student that the next time he came to class without said foot covering he would have lunch detention. Being a veteran teacher, I sensed in the question the time-honored student ploy of diversionary tactics in place of study, so I simply answered, “Because the school says so” and left it at that.
He had a point, though; socks are, at least to teenage boys, useless things, the donning of which requires extra effort and seems a meaningless institutional and societal custom. (The two often go together in teenage minds.) This made me think of the funeral of Queen Elizabeth.
Eric Sammons has already written about the Queen herself and the place of the English monarchy to Catholics. I am thinking of the pageantry, pomp, and circumstance surrounding her funeral. Yes, she was a head of state who had ruled—albeit with little actual power—for seventy years. But why the bejeweled crown, scepter, and orb on the coffin? Why the stoic guards in bearskin hats and scarlet tunics? Why the elaborate ritual in an ancient cathedral? Surely this money should have been given to the poor?
Why, in our so seriously egalitarian and democratic age, do we still care so much about these things? As Americans, we profess our dislike for them; as men and women, we binge watch Downton Abbey. Why? Because for all our attempts to deny it, they mean something. They are the outward expression of things we know in our hearts to be true.
Benjamin Franklin, on seeing the rise of one of the first hot-air balloons, was asked, “What good is it?” He responded, “What good is a new-born baby?” (That was a rhetorical question at the time.) To value things on a purely utilitarian basis is the most useless of scales.
Monarchy and all that goes with it—the titles, the etiquette, the tradition—seems quaint to some, romantic to others, and foolish to many. And yet that idea was the ruling paradigm for most of human history. Might we at least consider what our ancestors saw in that idea?
We have to remember that, theologically and spiritually, monarchy—and all that goes with it—is the way things are. As C.S. Lewis said, the Real is that which says to us, “Your preferences have not been considered.” Job had more right than anyone to question God, and God’s response was pretty much, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” And He was right. God is God. The Truth is not a consensus; it is Jesus Christ. We can’t break His laws; we can only break ourselves against them.
Then, too, there is the formality of it all: the titles, the bowing, the saying “Yes, Your Majesty” or “No, Your Majesty” or “As you please, Your Majesty.” But here again, this is, or should be, our relationship with God. Yes, I know we are to have Christ as our friend, and, in the end, prayer should be a mystical embrace of love; but true love begins with reverence and awe and proceeds with courtship. Reverence begins with respect and is shown by our dress, our words, and our posture. Perhaps we have so little love for God because we have lost respect for Him. The sooner we return to respect, the sooner we can fall in love.
The one person in the Gospel that our Lord praises is a Roman centurion, and why? Because the man knew his place. We don’t like that. In a democracy, we like to say anyone can grow up to be president (and we’ve proved it). You can never say anyone can grow up to be king, but we keep trying to rule ourselves.
And posture means something. Getting down on your knees may be humiliating, but, as a convert said to me recently, “If you really believed the Eucharist was God, who wouldn’t get down on his knees to receive Him?”
Monarchy, whatever its faults, kept these ideas before our eyes and in our culture. The robes, the scepters, the crowns, all showed us that here was someone special, someone different, someone royal. The gold and silver and hushed silence in the presence of the ruler told us, “This is someone greater, mightier, than you.” Maybe it wasn’t that person you see, but the person he or she is supposed to represent—a visible sign, however imperfect, of an invisible reality.
Our imagination, when it works as it should, reveals God.
Probably the most successful evangelizing work of fiction in the twentieth century was C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. It wouldn’t have worked if Aslan had been a leopard, or a giraffe, or a squirrel. Aslan, the king, has to be a lion because a lion, whatever a naturalist or zoologist tells us, fits our idea of a king: the regal mane, the steady eye, the deliberate gait, the roar. And, as we are both terrified and delighted to know, he is not a tame lion. He is not elected. He rules. Period.
Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is also shot through with the proper order of things, from Sam Gamgee’s following “Master Frodo” to the coronation of Aragorn as “The Return of the King.” It is beloved by millions and hated by the elite.
Democracy, because of original sin, may be a better way to govern ourselves; but it is not, and can never be, the way we relate to God. And because the Church should embody our relationship to God, to the extent that the Church has democratized herself she has impoverished herself. A Church should look like a court, and the Mass should be a ceremony because our King is present. The King should have His ministers, but they are just that—His ministers, there to carry out His will and not their own. I think it unfortunate that Pope Francis has discarded the papal title of “Vicar of Christ.”
The theological order should be reflected in our social order. Having Christ as King also tells us that we, too, are daughters and sons of a King and are called to act as such, both with respect to ourselves and to others. This is not a spiritual fantasy but a theological fact. It is not for nothing that in the good old days those gestures such as the bow of the head, the curtsy, the “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir,” and the standing in the presence of a lady or our elders were called “reverences.” It wasn’t so because that person may be worthy of our respect but because a person is. Manners are, or should be, outward expressions of inward dispositions. We don’t want the manners because we dislike the dispositions. I get it. It’s humility.
The same with dress. We are temples of the Holy Spirit, not billboards. Modesty is a silent sermon said St. Francis de Sales. Clothing should lead the eyes of others to our countenance, which most reveals our souls, and not to other parts of the body, over which, because of age, disease, or happenstance, we have least control. “Indecent clothing” doesn’t so much reveal the person as confuse our idea of it. What we wear shows our attitude toward an occasion and those we are with. Even Meghan Markle, the rage of the iconoclasts, wore black to the funeral.
Many people are embarrassed by these ideas. There is a modern disdain—so we say—for any kind of ritual, whether it be bowing to a king or following rubrics. They see spontaneity and informality as a sign of humility. Again, I quote C.S. Lewis: “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 every one else the proper pleasure of ritual.” This, in a nutshell, is one of the dividing lines between the Novus Ordo and the Latin Mass.
We moderns are so sensitive about our place. When we read the list of the apostles given in the Gospels, Judas Iscariot is always mentioned last, and we assume it is because he was the one who turned traitor. But maybe it was the other way around. Maybe he was just simply chosen last, and this rankled him. “I’ll show them,” he thought. And Satan entered his heart.
I wonder, too, if much of this isn’t what Samuel Johnson had in mind when he said that levelers always want to level down and never up. We don’t like the idea of “minding our betters” because we don’t want to think that someone else is better, or that we could be better. We want “casual” at work because we’re too lazy to dress professionally. We want to sit (or slouch) when we like because giving up our seat or standing requires self-renunciation.
The irony is that when we suppress the just and decent expression of things such as rituals, royalty, and courtesy, they come out in unjust and indecent ways. The woke culture has imposed a code of speech and behavior that would make the court at Versailles look like a cookout. Our entertainment elite—actors, actresses, and athletes—live in an opulence and are given deference that would be the envy of Napoleon III. A ten-year-old used to be taught “Don’t interrupt, and if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything”; now colleges and universities require “safe spaces.”
The Catholic view of the cosmos is that it is crammed with hierarchy, from lowly shepherds to nine choirs of angels. We go to the saints as intercessors because they have the ear of the King. We have patens and chalices of gold or silver because they hold His Body and Blood. We have incense and robes and candles because we are in the Holy of Holies. We address Him as the Almighty and Lord of Hosts. He is our ruler and we are His subjects.
All that should enter our daily lives. It should be “sacramentalized” and is when we do things such as grace before meals. But the other rituals, for those that observe them, point as well to this order: the shaking of hands, the opening of doors for others, the wearing of ties and doffing of hats. They are, in a sense, useless and undemocratic. They are also necessary.
Before we can have a Christian civilization, we must first have a civilization. We must have rituals and rules. We must have etiquette, a way things are done. In the funeral of Queen Elizabeth, whatever the faults or merits of this particular monarch or monarchy, we caught a glimpse of this, of something pointing to something higher than ourselves. Even the most left-winged co-ed was silent as she watched on her iPhone and wished she could be there.
So why does the student have to wear socks? Yes, because the school says so; and obedience is a virtue. But the school—or at least the school where I teach—does so because we are trying to teach more than academics. We are trying to show you your place in this world, and to be put in your place is not humiliation but cooperation. Manners, dress, and deportment are not social constructs of oppression. They are signs of respect for ourselves, for others, and for God. This is a good thing.