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Friday, 18 March 2011

Joyful Solemnity

I may have posted of this before, but a blog of Fr Z's recalled it to my mind, and it is a topic that bears repeating.
In his "Preface to Paradise Lost", C.S.Lewis discourses on that most useful Middle English word, solempne:
From its early association with the heroic court, there comes into Epic Poetry a quality ... which moderns find difficult to understand. It has been split up [now] so that we now have to represent it by piecing together what seem to us quite unconnected ideas, but are really fragments of that old unity.

This quality will be understood by anyone who really understands the meaning of 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 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 [lit. “do this”] 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.
Today, Fr Z, in deconstructing a collect*, has this to say:
Sollemniter is a very cool word. It is an adverb from sollemnis. Sollemnis has to do with the sun, sol. Thus, sollemnis points to an annual event, something appointed to take place, such as a festival or sacrifice or games in honor of the gods. Thus it also signifies usual or customary religious ceremonies. Sollemniter has a deep religious overtone to it in which one needs to hear an echo of the earth whirling around the sun.
Didn't know that connection with "sun." As he says, cool.

Oh, and in case you were confused, Awesome God? Not solempne.... and I hope I shan't have to suffer its annual hearing this year, (ah, the joys of unemployment!)

*Da, quaesumus, Domine, fidelibus tuis
observationi paschali convenienter aptari,
ut suscepta sollemniter castigatio corporalis
cunctis ad fructum proficiat animarum.

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