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Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Milton, Lewis, and the Liturgy

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Sep 21, 2003

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"Go in the Peace of Christ, and have a nice day!"

Among the greatest gifts of the abundantly gifted C. S. Lewis was the ability to revive long-dead aspects of the Western imagination and make them not only comprehensible but even attractive to modern men. My own intuitions about how a priest should conduct himself at Mass were formed not by Jungmann or Bouyer but by the following passage in Lewis's A Preface to Paradise Lost (Oxford, 1942, p. 17). He is trying to help readers of Milton overcome an obstacle to enjoyment by breathing new life into a quality of his epic they may find repellent:

The quality will be understood by any one who really understands the meaning of the Middle English word solempne. This means something different, but not quite 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 following paragraph should be read once a year by professional liturgists, as a reminder or a remonstrance:

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'. To recover it, you must think of a court ball, or a coronation, or a victory march, as these things appear to people who enjoy them; in an age when every one puts on his oldest clothes to be happy in, you must re-awake the simpler state of mind in which people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in. Above all, you must get rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespead inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connexion with vanity or self-conceit. A celebrant approaching the altar, a princess being 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 hoc age ["do this"] which presides over every solemnity.

And how often would you like to have passed on these words of Lewis to the Sunday celebrant?:

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, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual.

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