Unless you’ve been living under a rock or a die-hard American patriot, you may have heard about a little event that took place this weekend in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. Several thousand people lined the streets to cheer the happy couple and the world watched with pleasure the beautiful spectacle of a lovely, wealthy young couple wed in a historical chapel – and make history.
I myself overslept, a far cry from July 1981 when my sister Ann and I rose before dawn, tiptoed into the living room, and watched with breathless anticipation as Lady Diana Spencer swept into St. Paul’s Cathedral with her enormous train and puff sleeves. By the time I remembered that Princess Diana’s son (as I like to think of Prince Harry) was getting married, the ceremony was over and the happy couple were in a horse-drawn carriage waving to the crowds.
I caught the reruns thanks to the marvel of the internet which already boasted several videos on YouTube of key moments. I found myself sighing at the beauty of the Duchess of Sussex – the former Meghan Markle – as she alighted from the Rolls Royce in a simple bateau neck white gown, completely devoid of ornamentation save for a flowing white lace veil. With a figure and looks like Miss Markle, who needs lace and pearls? She was the ornament; her smile lit the skies on that May day like none other.
Prince Harry looked nervous, then delighted, then so much in love with the American actress that it made me feel good inside as if I were his proud mum looking on.
What is it about a royal wedding that makes even an American like me, and a Catholic too, tune in to every nuance? Here we have the Church of England, founded by an adulterous king who threw a royal temper tantrum, stamped his royal food, beheaded a few royal wives, and disobeyed the pope solely to beget a male heir (God had the last laugh; his eventual heir was, of course, a woman, Elizabeth I.)
Here we have, of course, Great Britain, a powerful ally and friend to the United States. But we are a country who eschews kings and elects our leaders, God help us. (I watch eagerly for a glimpse of the Queen and am not disappointed. The hat! Purple and yellow! Go, Your Majesty!)
Here we have the royal family, beset by scandals themselves. Even my beloved Princess Diana was an adulterer and Charles, too. Yet I watch, and watch, and enjoy the pomp, the ceremony, the flowers, the hats, the order of service and tradition.
What gives? What makes an American Catholic in the 21st century lap up the royalty like so much English toffee?
First, it’s the simple beauty of the entire ceremony. My eyes ache for beauty, for formality, in a world where flip flops, torn jeans, pajama bottoms and every other sloppy garment rules the day. A ceremony where hats are the norm and the household cavalry rides in formation satisfies my deepest need for beauty.
Then, of course, there is love. Love, plain and simple. It shone from Meghan’s eyes as she looked up at Prince Harry. He looked delighted with his bride. I remember Prince William and Duchess Catherine’s wedding in 2011; they had the same look, albeit a bit more formal and guarded. His father, Prince Charles? I remember how terrified Diana looked and how uncomfortable Charles appeared, both adults doing their royal duty as had their ancestors for generations before, marrying to ally families, titles and fortunes rather than for love.
Love, beauty, and pageantry. But there is something deeper which calls the soul on a day like this, and Father Dwight Longnecker put his finger on it in a brilliant essay, A Catholic Anglophile on the Royal Wedding.
We are all yearning for Tradition.
It is Tradition our eyes seek in the royal ceremony to the point, that, when it is changed, we notice it. We notice that Meghan walked herself partially down the aisle (her father could not attend the wedding due to ill health); we notice that the choir sang “Stand By Me” in stead of a stately hymn, another slight shift in tradition.
We yearn for the symbolism of monarchy simply because we live in a world devoid of tradition. We know that Meghan Markle is a divorced woman, yet we expected her to wear a flowing white gown, traditionally the sign of a virgin bride; tradition again. We love Prince Harry in his military uniform, the Prince waiting for his Cinderella even if his Cinderella is a wealthy actress. We love the traditional flowers, the songs, the carriage, the household cavalry, the queen, and all the rest of it.
As a Catholic, I am lucky to live with a sacred tradition that includes the holy Mass, which is built upon 2,000 years of tradition. I am blessed to be part of a church that values tradition, symbolism, and the inherent meaning within them. My eyes yearn for symbolism, tradition and beauty; my heart, too, and it is satisfied when I sit before the altar.
I wish Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and the former Meghan Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex, all the happiness in the world. And I thank them for giving me a respite from the drudgery of a sweatpants and flip flops world with a glimpse into High Tradition.
Side note: A few things that blew my mind during the ceremony:
- Meghan Markle is descended on her mother’s side from Georgia plantation slaves. A descendent of slaves is now the granddaughter in law of the Queen of England. You can’t make this stuff up.
- Prince Philip is 96 years old and had hip surgery a month ago. He walked right into that chapel on his own steam without a stick, cane or other crutch. He really is the Iron Duke.
- Fascinators when chosen correctly are beautiful. When poorly chosen, they look like strange, exotic, science fiction movie props.