Above all, you must be rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespread 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 a 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. The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is not proof of humility, rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite. -C.S Lewis
Most of us have heard and marched to Edgar Elgar’s opus,Pomp and Circumstance. The phrase actually comes from the 3rd act of Shakespeare’s play Othello, and his use of it guaranteed the phrase an enduring place in our vernacular. When used today, the phrase retains its original meaning and still defines a formal, ritual ceremony like a coronation or state funeral. Certain weddings, inaugurations and other investitures are also demonstrations of pomp and circumstance. These are all celebrations or commemorations that require depth, dimension, and a bit of drama. The goal is to elevate the spirit and make the occasion memorable.
I feel a bit shallow admitting I’m moved by ritual and ceremony. The rational part of my brain knows these events are staged to trigger national or religious pride. And while that is true, I also know they help elevate our institutions and culture, providing a guy-wire from a past that holds lessons to a future with continuity. The British are marvels at this and their sense of fraternity and support for their institutions is inspiring. I fight the urge to chime in whenever I hear them sing, God Save the Queen. These days I’m not so moved when I hear Hail to the Chief.
I became addicted to pomp and circumstance as a 5 year old. My grandmother took me to St.Patrick’s Cathedral on Holy Thursday to hear a Solemn High Mass at which the Cardinal was to officiate. The procession was magical. It was led by at least 20 Knights of Columbus, resplendent with fuzzy hats, capes and swords, followed by, what to my young eyes, looked like an army of priests, all singing in a language(Latin) I did not yet understand. Better yet, some of them were swinging censors filled with incense. The incense made me cough, but my grandmother whispered the smoke coming from the censors was my prayers rising up to heaven. I would have felt better had I actually been praying but I was overwhelmed by spectacle and had trouble standing still, much less remembering my prayers. As the priests passed under the gauntlet created by the raised swords of the Knights I knew what I would do when I grew up. I wanted a red cape and fuzzy hat and I just knew my friend Jerome could teach me how to use the sword. He didn’t, but I prayed for a fuzzy hat and cape for weeks after that.
Earlier this year Bob and I were in France and, thanks to a forward thinking friend, got to hear the public speech given by the newest member of the Académie française. This group oversees all matters pertaining to the French language and its 40 members are called Immortals. Once installed the Immortals serve for life. The Academy was established in the 17th century and, save for a period of suppression during the French Revolution, they have been solely responsible for overseeing the purity of the French language, creating an approved French dictionary and awarding the country’s literary prizes. They do that with a certain elan. The group does not discuss its meeting, but when they appear publicly they wear these distinctive garments and adhere to a centuries old protocol.
Most of us come from families who cherish tradition and have rituals that mark the passage from one stage of life to another. We have become so familiar with them that they no longer seem to be ritualistic. We honor the places from which we came and we marry and bury our kin with the same ritual ceremonies that were used by our ancestors. We have ceremonies for children when they are born and others that celebrate their passage into adulthood. Perhaps not with the flash of the Knights or the Immortals, but we, too, mark these passages with pomp and circumstance because they are important and worthy of celebration. C.S. Lewis would be proud of us.