August 28, 2007


Category: Theology - Liturgical :: Permalink

In the midst of a discussion of epic poetry, C. S. Lewis says something that our culture, not least our church culture, needs to hear.  It has to do with the Middle English word solempne:

This means something different, but not quite different, from 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 at 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.  Feast are, in this sense, more solemn than fasts.  Easter is solempne, Good Friday is not.

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 be rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connexion 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 hoc age which presides over every solemnity.  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. — C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost, p. 17 (paragraph breaks added).

This particular book was published in 1942.  Imagine what Lewis would say today if he saw the clothes that are worn, not just by congregants but by pastors.  We have embraced the casual and we have almost completely lost any sense of solempne.  Even the examples that Lewis provides probably sound archaic to many of us.

About the only time we experience solempne today at all, I suspect, is at a wedding.  For the most part, brides and grooms still want their weddings formal.  They want the bride to be glorious in white, the groom next to her in black, the wedding party, not in shorts and T-shirts but in more glorious clothing (except for those cruel brides who choose ugly dresses for their bridesmaids).  As well, we still expect to hear certain formal words during the service (“till death do us part” or “so long as you both shall live” or something like that), though even here we find the encroaching grubbiness of our obsession with casualness, as couples have started writing their own vows and generally doing a sloppy job of it.

Still, weddings give us a taste of solempne.  The wedding isn’t gloomy.  We’re rejoicing.  But a hush falls over the audience as the couple exchanges vows, and few people would think it an improvement if the pastor cracked a joke at precisely that moment.  During the couple’s first dance, no one would appreciate hilarious commentary from the DJ. Weddings may be the closest we come to solempne.

Church services used to be and certainly were in Lewis’s time, but they aren’t any longer.  There are churches that sing solemnly in the sense that they sing gloomily.  Songs about joy can be slowed down enough that the true joy comes when the song is finally over.  But such churches are rare and getting rarer all the time.  Today, it isn’t strange at all to see a minister in a Hawaiian shirt making jokes and telling stories in front of a congregation or to find that the service itself has little formal order and that every effort is made to make things seem informal and easy-going.

The older emphasis on solempne had to do with the specialness of the occasion and that had everything to do with who was present and what was being done on that occasion.  Today, it seems, we want special occasions without special language or special clothing or special behavior.  Lewis might conclude that that simply means that we don’t want any occasion, least of all a church service, to be truly special.

Yes, the special language would sound stilted over coffee at Starbucks.  Yes, the special clothing would be uncomfortable at the beach.  Yes, that sort of behavior would look strange at the mall.  But on this occasion we aren’t at those places; we’re here, now, doing this special thing at this special time and the only way it becomes special is through the activities and garments and diction that are associated with solempne.

Later, Lewis writes:

The desire for simplicity is a late and sophisticated one.  We moderns may like dances which are hardly distinguishable from walking and poetry which sounds as if it might be uttered ex tempore.  Our ancestors did not.  They liked a dance which was a dance, and fine clothes which no one could mistake for working clothes, and feasts that no one could mistake for ordinary dinners, and poetry that unblushingly proclaimed itself to be poetry (p. 21).

Will anyone claim that our lives are all the richer for having lost the solempne our forefathers rejoiced in?

Posted by John Barach @ 2:31 pm | Discuss (3)

3 Responses to “Solempne

  1. John Barach Says:

    I came across this quotation from Lewis as I was reading through A Preface to Paradise Lost recently, but I was first introduced to solempne by this article by Doug Wilson. Credit where credit is due and all that.

  2. Dan Glover Says:

    I too was first introduced to the word solempne when reading the article by Wilson, but then went and read it in its context in PPL. Lewis is dead on here as he is in his introduction to “Athanasias on the Incarnation” when he talks about the need to keep the clean sea breezes of the past blowing fresh through our modern minds as a corrective to the largely unrecognized errors of the day. In fact the reason (or one of them) that we don’t have a sense of solempne today is because we haven’t done enough reading and understanding of old books. We think that because they used quills and we laptops, they have nothing of relevance to say to us. The world is a different place, true, but often not in a good way. This is why Trina and I had (until the most recent silliness and heterodoxy-praxy of the Anglican Church of Canada) found a good fit in the solempne of the Book of Common Prayer liturgy in the Anglican church.

  3. Jeanne (At A Hen's Pace) Says:

    Thanks for this post; it was very timely for a series I’m writing…slowly…

    I linked to you in this post:

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