Some time ago when I was reading A Preface to Paradise Lost by C.S. Lewis, I was struck by his comments on joyful solemnity. He referred to an old word in Middle English, solempne, when describing the quality of epic poetry. He calls it a joyful solemnity and compares it to “a princess led out by a king to dance a minuet, a general officer on a ceremonial parade…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 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 comes from the third chapter called “Primary Epic.”)

We moderns have trouble with solempne because we live in an egalitarian, slovenly culture where no one likes to “look up” to someone else. To really understand solempne, we need hierarchy. So the Christian has a better chance at understanding this because the most high God is our ultimate reference point.

Lewis again: “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 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 wide-spread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connexion with vanity or self-conceit.”

In our day, we still have a few occasions where solempne, or a glimmer of it, is still possible: at weddings, graduations, funerals, and worship services (where reverence in worship is still prized). A lofty tone without the joy is simply stuffy, and the joy without the lofty tone can be breezy.

We’ve probably all seen solemn events turned breezy, and it is often due to the embarrassment of the participants (not the spectators). They feel too self-conscious and conspicuous, so they act up, and it really can spoil it for everyone else. (Once I saw the father of the bride come down the aisle with a rose between his teeth.) We should look for real opportunities to enjoy ritual and ceremony without looking like a stuffed codfish or a helium balloon.

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10 thoughts on “Solempne

  1. Thank You so much for this wonderful post, I couldn’t agree more! I must admit that I sometimes struggle with the overtly sloppy way several of the men in our congregation dress…interestingly enough, it’s never an issue with the women, just the men. Some of the men are nicely dressed, but for a good number of them it’s T-shirts, jeans, dirty boots, messy hair. I sometimes find myself dwelling on it though, to a fault…how does one observe and disapprove of this behavior without becoming stuck on it? And is it my place to say anything to these men, or to merely observe and make a point to raise my children differently?

  2. A wonderful, wonderful post that gave a focused clarity to what was still a broad idea for me. Thank you so much! It has taken me so long to understand this, myself, but I’ve gained so much joy and beauty from the understanding. It’s kind of thrilling!!

  3. Garstabugg,
    I would encourage you to overlook this! Each of us in the congregation have plenty to keep us busy, managing our own hearts, etc. View it as a sign of immaturity and pray for maturity, but don’t point it out to them. In time, they will grow up, or maybe they won’t. Either way, don’t let it trouble you!

  4. Nancy, this is excellent. Slovenly culture indeed. This is a very difficult thing sometimes to communicate to others.

    There’s also this false notion that if you leave your house a mess when people come over then you’re somehow more authentic. Can you say anything about these types of false ideas where humility and authenticity is seen not in giving honor and respect by offering your best out of a heart of service but in being messy and “real.” Can you address that at all?

  5. Is it inaccurate for me to see this in connection with an understanding of liturgy? Within the last year our church has gone through quite a bit of change, and I am sad to say, a certain amount of conflict as we have moved forward in a more liturgical worship service. I find so much beauty in the ‘pomp’ that it never seems like a ritual in a bad sense. This was very interesting to read…I’m going to go ponder while I fold laundry :-)

  6. timely– i just finished writing my comments for a ladies event I am to emcee first thing tomorrow! i certainly will consider leaving the rose out of my teeth for this event (and future ones) as it is something i would do/have done. Thanks for helping me see what others will see, thanks for your advice!

    of course, if i don’t close down now, i’ll have to have toothpicks under my eyelids– is that the same thing? !)

  7. Boy, you’ve really hit the nail on the head with this post! Thank you! I saw a prime example of what you described as people not knowing how to behave at ceremonious occasions when I attended my son-in-law’s graduation from university in May. I hadn’t been to a university graduation in a number of years, and I was surprised by the casual dress of just about everyone, from most of the graduates to the people in the audience. Many of the graduates were visibly uncomfortable in that setting, and even a few professors looked uncomfortable in their caps and gowns. How far we have fallen!

    Marty, I was seeing a connection to liturgy as I was reading as well. My family attends a liturgical (Lutheran) church, and one of the things I love about it is the gravitas it brings to worship. I’ve spent too many years in easy-breezy, whatever-feels-comfortable worship services. There is so much to love about the liturgy! So many people, within Lutheranism and without, are veering away from formal liturgy and seem to think it’s outmoded, but I think it’s timeless and inspires reverence more than any evangelical service I’ve attended. I’m afraid I disagree with Nancy when she says reverence is still prized in worship services. In my experience it largely is not, and the church that does value it is more and more in the minority.

  8. Thank you for your gracious response Nancy! I hope I didn’t come off as “holier-than-thou”, it’s just somewhat distracting in worship because they are always sitting in front of us and that’s what we have to stare at all service. But it’s a little burr under my saddle that I have to ignore and not let bother me like you said. Thanks!

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