Monday, January 24


On Kissing Bishops' Rings and Women's Hands

O how strong is Man's side,
from which God pulled forth Woman,
whom He made the the mirror of all His beauty
and the embrace of all His creation.

And so the organs of heaven do play,
And all the earth wonders at Thee,
O Mary most prais'd,
whom God has loved so deeply.

--St. Hildegard, O virga ac diadema purpurae Regis

Our age suffers, I believe, from a surfeit of misplaced humility. This comes as no surprise--I believe it was Chesterton who said that in the end most vices are merely virtues run riot, divorced from the intricate web of checks and balances which governs Christian morality. The modern vestment industry banks on it as a clear-cut fact. Priests are too timid to wear the gorgeous pomp of their office. They end up grab the closest Star Trek-looking polyester chausuble within reach rather than make a fuss over mere clothes. Or risk looking like a clerical fancy-pants in the gleaming purple garb of monsignori and canons. They're just regular guys, and want us to feel comfy around them. The fact that they put their pants on one leg at a time seems to automatically disbar the cassock. Most bishops think you're going to bite them when you go for the pontifical ring, and probably they'd prefer the bite. It's understandable, but unfortunate.

I appreciate their pursuit of modesty, but I'm reminded of the jokey saying, "Don't be so humble; you're not that great." You can pick your jaw off the floor now: I'm kidding--but the essence of the statement points to a little bit of truth about the way ceremonial works. The beauty of vesture, of ceremonial and ritual, of hierarchy and splendor, isn't really about the folks at the top, whether it's deacon or bishop, exarch or archpriest. It's about us, and it's for us, to remind us there's more out there in the great universe God created than being just a regular guy in polyester. God doesn't get any holier when I sing magnificat anima mea Dominum, but maybe I do. Or I've got a shot at it, anyway, if God comes through with the grace.

People tend to assume that it's more fun for the priest than the people when a priest processes down the aisle in gold and scarlet--but it's more a millstone than a halo. I've seen cloth-of-gold copes from the Bad Old Days that weighed upwards of forty pounds. Talk about bearing your cross. The alter Christus going to the altar is not bejeweled like a king--or a monstrance--just to show how he's going to lord it over you from the pulpit. Or he ought not, anyway. Sometimes theory and praxis diverge, of course, but that doesn't make it any less true.

Part of it is America never had much for monarchs and gems: maybe we'd be more comfortable with the Solemnity of Christ the President than Christ the King, but however bad earthly kings were, it doesn't tarnish God's absolute heavenly monarchy. The truth is, despite the stereotype of the little cue-balled Monopoly millionaire in his top-hat and silken cravat, the stereotyped plutocratic and aristocratic targets of such plebeian hatred don't exist today. We don't see Bill Gates going around in a coach-and-six with a crown on his head, or President Bush in the gilded robes of the Most Serene Doge. Maybe their power and wealth might be more bearable to the little people if they did. Maybe.

St. Thomas a Becket would say mass with a hair shirt on the inside and silk on the outside: he had the benefit of the hair shirt, and the rude faithful had the benefit of the silk. While kings and dukes might not have worn the hair shirt, at least had the gleam of satin to give back to their subjects.

With today's American aristocracy, we have the hair shirt (or the Ralph Lauren polo) on the outside and the hard plastic gleam of electronic toys on the inside that nobody will ever see. The aristocracy, for all its decadence, at least had the charity to enact their splendid private lives in public in the grand national drama of coronations and parliaments and even such wonderful absurdities as Louis XIV putting on his pants in the morning with twenty courtiers looking on. Somehow I find it somewhat easier to forgive him for Versailles knowing he allowed himself to become a public symbol, a peripatetic work of art. The overweening vanity of the Medicis gave us San Marco, and even pig-faced Henry the Eighth bequeathed the future a monstrous yet remarkable Holbein of himself. Will Steve Jobs be hanging in a portrait gallery some day? Somehow I doubt it.

Once in the depths of high school, I had a little crush on a pale girl with green-grey eyes, and made an idiot of myself opening doors for her. I never think she quite understood the point of such a gesture, but no matter. And I was pretty annoying, anyway. We all are, us males, at that age. But the point remains the same. When one gets down to it, there's cosmically very little difference between kissing the ring of a bishop and the hand of a woman--for the woman's body, the temple of life, is the sign of her office and dignity just as the jewels of a pontiff. The same goes for all those masculine gallantries that today's woman seem to have so little time for. Perhaps it's more humble, not more grand, more puffed-up pompous, to let him carry your bags for you, to let go for a few moments of your life and let him do something for you.

When I take my cap off to a woman, it is a gallantry, yes, but I can't help thinking of a priest doffing his biretta at the start of mass. At least that's what I tell myself when they don't notice it. It hardly matters if they see it--the fact is, the acknowledgment is there for God, and Mary, the ornament of the world, to see.

There's always the danger of pedestals. Woman have been perched atop quite a few in their time against their will, and it's a lonely anchorite life up there for sure. But there's a difference between a pedestal and a step, of artificial exaltation and natural hierarchy, of an idol on a pillar and the divine ladder of seraph and cherub, throne and domination.

And anyway, nobody's on the top rung in this case--the sexes are complementary. Neither one would work without the other, and I mean this in life and culture, not just in terms of the basic mechanics of bringing a child into the world.

We are told it's a matter of power, that men have all the power, and women get it by being men. The Church has had both abbot and abbess, monk and nun, both worthy and powerful in their own way--when will our secular age come to recognize the virtues of a uniquely feminine species of authority, terrible as an army with banners? I suppose the skeptic will say the Church doesn't have it in Her to permit it. But some of those medieval abbesses were truly terrifying creatures--and glorious, still. And it's not just abbesses--it was a skinny little twentysomething girl in a black-and-white habit who bossed the Pope back to Rome, wasn't it?

The dignity and genius of women of which the Christian faith speaks is not a pedestal, but a broad and glorious plane. It may grow gloriouser still as feminine strength and intelligence continues to spread from the microcosm of the domestic into the macrocosm of the world at large. Women acting as men in politics and science and the arts, as in the derelict feminism of the 1970s, will do nothing for the world--it just means more men, rather than bringing the complementary and receptive balance of the domestic family to the world at large. But women being women out there in all those varied fields will bring something both new and very old into the bloodstream of civilization.

How's that for a broader pedestal?

If man can be said to have a headship of the family (and St. Paul says he does), it is the headship of Christ washing the feet of the apostles and dying on the cross rather than Archie Bunker with his beer and his dingbat. The little ceremonials of day-to-day homage that once marked the public life of the two sexes are the cultic acts of his unique dignity, and hers. Ladies, I kindly ask you, help him fulfil his mission. It's a small humility to suffer, isn't it?

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