Something we need, but will never again experience?
I arrived in New Paltz, NY yesterday for a few weeks of work. The house in which I am staying was, by Four O’clock in the afternoon, in the shadow of a massive church. That it was a church that was blocking the Sun was brought to my attention when chimes sounded from it announcing that another half-hour of time had passed, followed by four deep, resonant tolls of an iron bell.
I had not heard that sound in a long, long time. The first thought that occurred to me was the audacity, in this day and age, of any body unilaterally imposing itself even that extent into the lives every being in an entire town.
It further occurred to me that announcing to everyone ’round about the passing of time was a way of letting people know that the church is the keeper — of time and souls. It harked back to the time in Europe between the fall of Rome and the rise of the nation-state: the Church routinely reminding all in its hearing of its place as the voice of authority regarding all things temporal.
I then realized how there could be something deeply reassuring about all that. There was a body at hand in which we could deposit the cares and worries and concerns for the whole of our lives, in this world and beyond.
The chimes and the tolling of the bell were telling us that there was at hand a seat of penultimate authority, the holder of the Absolute Truth, taking upon itself as the holder of that Truth responsibility for the lives of every last human being in this world. Such an expression of authority can only be convincingly conveyed through solemn dignity.
Solemn dignity can of itself impel people to accept as reality the awesomeness it is conveying, but within civilization these days there seems to be no place where solemn dignity can be found. The last real instance of it that I would say I witnessed was the funeral of President Kennedy in 1963.
Solemn dignity must be transmitted through rites of ritual. Ritual of that kind is dead, even in churches.
To greater or lesser extents, on significant occasions governing bodies do still try to capture a sense of solemn dignity. It is always clear, though, that all involved — performers and audience — are too aware that what is presented is only a show, a self-conscious portrayal of a representation, not the actual conveyance of anything approaching the significance of the Absolute Truth.
Nowadays we no longer ‘look to’ organizational institutions, sacral or secular. We only look at individuals. We know, as people have probably never known, that no individual as a person is worthy of the deference that solemn dignity confers — and no organizational institution is anything but a collection of inevitably flawed mere mortals.
I think solemn dignity is gone forever. Perhaps the obsequious deference it did engender was never a good thing. Even so, the sense of comfort it was capable of providing is something we might very well be missing, without recognizing the lack of it in our lives.