Ritual, Power, and Spirituality

            I love spectacles.

            In 2017, I took $1,200 out of my savings to buy a ticket to the 7th game of the World Series at Dodger Stadium.  I’d been a fan all my life but had never been to a World Series game.  The mood of the crowd, the pregame ceremonies, and the singing of the national anthem were all thrilling.  The Dodgers were favored to win.  They lost.

            In January 2020, I flew to Vienna to begin a two-week pilgrimage focused on music, art, and history. A few hours after my plane landed, I entered the historic Vienna Opera House to see Richard Strauss’ Salome.  I had bought a seat in one of the side balconies so I could be close to the stage.  The music began and I thought, “I am at the opera in Vienna!”  As it turned out, there was a pillar on the side of the balcony that blocked my view of the right side of the stage where the climactic final scene took place.  Oh well.

            In September I joined over 4 billion people who watched the funeral of Queen Elizabeth.  The pageantry!  The precision!  The history! The crowds!  I was totally engaged.  I watched the coffin brought into Westminster Cathedral and was in awe.  But when the elaborately dressed archbishop began eloquently reciting a passage from the Gospel, I felt uneasy.  I wasn’t sure why.  And then it occurred to me: He’s reading the words of a Palestinian peasant and prophet who spurned any signs of status, constantly challenged authority, and identified with people at the margins of society. 

            Later in the day, the coffin was taken to the chapel at Windsor Castle.  On the coffin were the crown, an orb, and a scepter.  I was fascinated as I watched each item carefully transferred from the coffin to the altar, signifying the Queen’s time of authority and service was completed.  I looked for information about these items:

  • “The crown is made of gold and set with 2,868 diamonds, 269 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, and four rubies.”[i]
  • “…. the orb is a 30cm-wide hollow gold sphere, mounted with nine emeralds, 18 rubies, nine sapphires, 365 diamonds, 375 pearls, one amethyst and one glass stone.”[ii]
  • “The scepter is “comprised of three sections, with the magnificent Cullinan stone atop, supported in an enameled heart-shaped structure. This structure is surmounted by enameled brackets mounted with step-cut emeralds, and by a faceted amethyst monde…set with table and rose-cut diamonds, rubies, spinels and emeralds, with a cross above set with further diamonds, with a table-cut diamond on the front, and an emerald on the reverse.”[iii]

Historically, these items are reminders that the monarch is God’s chosen instrument on earth. I couldn’t help but think, “Is this the same God that chose to identify with the slaves of Egypt?  The same God who, Jesus taught, comes to us in the faces of people in need?”

            Don’t get me wrong.  I have complete respect for Queen Elizabeth.  She served her country for 70 years with grace, forbearance, and dignity. I remember well when the COVID pandemic was threatening us all.  While the American head-of-state was generating confusion and discord, she delivered a wonderful message encouraging all the people of the UK to come together in mutual support and caring.  An honorable person, an amazing Queen.

            And I know my history. I know that the “divine right of kings” has been a principle accepted by many societies throughout human history.   None of us are perfect, and to be in a position of great authority and responsibility, always in the public eye, is a formidable task.

            I’m still trying to figure this out.

            In 1982, we were living in Santa Paula and heard that Mother Theresa was coming to give the commencement address at nearby St. Thomas Aquinas College.  A friend got us tickets.  We were sitting on folding chairs when the opening procession came down the center aisle, 50 feet from where we were.  The first prominent person visible was a cardinal from somewhere, dressed to the hilt.  A bit behind him was the barely visible bobbing head of this small nun, dressed in a simple habit.  When it was his turn to speak, he invoked his status to encourage everyone to respect the authority of the church. When she spoke, she said what counts in life is love and prayer.

            I remember as a kid watching President Kennedy’s coffin being carried on a horse-drawn caisson down Pennsylvania avenue with nothing on it but an American flag:

Courtesy JFK Library

            A few years later, Dr. King’s coffin lay on a share-croppers wagon drawn by two mules:  

            I am a fan of spectacles and rituals and theater. The British do it well.  But the older I get, the less impressed I am by mansions, palaces, and jewels.

There was a remarkable priest here in Santa Barbara who served the local Mission and greater community for more than 50 years – Father Virgil Cordano.  He was “beloved by the community as a whole for his humanity, humor, erudition, and readiness to reach out his hand in friendship to all.”[iv]  When Queen Elizabeth visited Santa Barbara in 1983, it was Father Virgil who gave her a personal tour of the Mission.  I was privileged to serve alongside him on the boards of Hospice of Santa Barbara and La Casa de Maria Retreat Center, and we became friends.  At meetings, I’d often sit next to him so I could ask him what’s on his mind.  One time he answered, “I read something by a theologian that I keep thinking about.  When we see God, what will we be most amazed by?  God’s humility.”  And he smiled.

Lead image: BBC American


[i] https://inews.co.uk/news/orb-sceptre-what-meaning-queen-royal-jewels-what-happens-after-funeral-1866599

[ii] The Crown Chronicles

[iii] The Crown Chronicles

[iv] https://www.independent.com/2008/05/22/father-virgil-cordano-dead-89/