Preface to Sacredness Topic:
I recently purchased Iain McGilchrist’s seminal masterpiece ‘The Matter with Things’ comprising two volumes with over 1300 pages plus over two hundred pages of Indexes et alia. My only criticism thus far – it will take months for me to slowly pick my way through – is that the title doesn’t do the book justice. Part of its mission is to deconstruct the reductionist materialist fallacy that has run rampant through Western, and now in turn the worldwide modern, civilization promulgating all sorts of distorted behaviors and beliefs which in turn, unfortunately, are doing great damage to the physical planet and human cultural experience, aka ‘our lives and times.’ But another major part is that it goes beyond the materialist fallacy opening up vistas into other modes of perception and human culture, including especially, though not limited to, the experience of sacredness, or sacred perception. Iain mentions on one of his many Youtube interviews – for a philosopher he has a surprisingly active channel BTW – that several of his confidantes advised him not to end the book with his Chapter 28 ‘The sense of the Sacred’ presumably because the subject is almost taboo in today’s materialist mindset age which regards such perceptions as nothing more than the fanciful playthings of a childish mind and therefore beneath Iain’s otherwise magisterial subject matter. Well, I beg to differ, and am glad to see that he obviously has done as well.
For if we are not imprisoned by the shackles of materialism – by which I mean the widely held superstition that life is a mechanical process and we are no more than biological machines living in a world in which external physical form, or ‘matter,’ is the only substance which exists in ‘reality’, or that mind, being something produced by the physical brain, is a fictive imaginary thing of no import – then what else opens up to be considered as meaningful or essential as regards our fleeting human existence? The notion that imagination, for example, may be behind the creation of so many endlessly self-perpetuating forms and creatures might be more than mere childish fancy.
So despite being on a surprisingly long-lived Yi Jing kick of late, I also wish to do a series on sacredness. I shall try to keep the essays short, so will tend to pick one core topic or observation and build a little around that without trying to cover the whole field. A daisy here, a glimpse of a white rabbit there, but not the whole landscape every time. Glimpses.
I watched King Charles III’s coronation later in the day because it took place very early in the AM local time. As it happened, an old friend was on our Element message App so I ended up providing a running commentary to the service as it unfolded. (I shall soon watch it again without such distraction.) In the process, I noticed a few things which relate to sacredness only in tangential political aspects, but nevertheless, of enough interest to finally trigger kicking of this new Sacredness Series.
First, though, an introductory point: King Charles was already King as soon as his mother died. The ceremony is a spiritual affirmation of that fact during which the Monarch partly undresses to have his body anointed with sacred oil after which he has been consecrated and can now hold the crown, orb and sceptre as a living, Christian King who embodies sacredness in his being thereby imparting it, through God’s power, to all subjects, creatures and plants in His Realm. Something like that. The point being, that this whole ceremony involved evoking a sense of sacred presence in order to empower a Monarch to serve as such for his People. In short: this was a Sacred Ceremony taking place in these decidedly unsacred, aka secular and profane, times.
A few observations made during the ceremony:
1. The choral singing, some of which featured recent compositions commissioned by King Charles, most of which were traditional, some of great antiquity, was stunningly beautiful and entered the listener into sacred perception if that listener already has some experience of it, which for most listeners would have been in similar, though toned down, ceremonies at Church services throughout Great Britain and Christendom in general.
Music is a type of speech which bypasses the conceptualizing mind and takes one straight into something else – Iain would probably call it ‘right-brain territory’ or some such. In any case, it can take you into a different state of mind rapidly, and no doubt did for those witnessing the event live both inside and outside Westminster Abbey where such ceremonies have been conducted for well nigh on a millennium.
2. At first, it seemed to me that the costumes were all antiquated, though later there were more people wearing modern dress in the mix, which evened out the initial impression which was that because we rarely if ever honor sacredness in our modern world we need costumes and customs from yore to engender it making it not quite work since sacredness is something which heightens our sense of ever-present awareness. Indeed, sacredness is a word used to reference how we feel when we are in a state of nowness. There is no such thing as one without the other.
3. Speaking of nowness, my friend noted that Charles didn’t seem to be present, that he couldn’t ‘handle’ being in the now. It certainly seemed that way before the ceremony with visible muttering and twitching, but during the climax of the actual coronation am not so sure, will need to watch again (though video is terrible at communicating such atmospherics, just as it cannot capture how large waves feel as they approach and pass a sailing vessel).
4. Particular Detail 1: The Archbishop – who by all accounts is a very decent sort – picked up the Crown with his bare hands. This is incorrect. Only the Monarch should touch the Crown with bare skin, either hands or head, the Priest should not have done so. Doing so he was putting himself on a par with the King, possibly even higher.
5. Particular Detail 2: He also remained standing over the King having placed the Crown on the King’s head and did not immediately bow before him – again putting himself above the King. This must be a deliberate decision, probably to show the Monarch’s deference to a Higher Power. No doubt the logic is that the Priest is God’s representative and God stands above the Monarch and so the Priest does as well, but the Priest is also a man in a man’s body and should have bowed in reverence to the embodiment of Sacred Leadership which the Monarch, partly thanks to the Priest’s sacerdotal ministrations, now so powerfully and imminently embodied. Not bowing is a clear sign of arrogance – which drives any sense of sacredness far, far away. Indeed, that is why the very first words of the service involved the King saying – beautifully I thought: ‘I come not to be served but to be of service.’ Humility is a necessary prerequisite for opening up to the experience of sacredness.
6. Particular Detail 3: When exiting the Cathedral after the Coronation, the King was flanked by two Bishops. I noticed that they generally chose to walk slightly ahead of the King instead of slightly behind, again showing their superiority and his inferiority. Wrong!
As the Service unfolded, I sensed a sub-text playing out, namely that the Monarch must bow to and place himself beneath the Church. This is fundamentally wrong.
By happenstance I stumbled upon an article in Unz.com yesterday about the relationship between Church and Monarch in European medieval times. The article is overly long for my taste but also confusing because there is quite a lot of King X did this to Pope X who responded by excommunicating him after which King X or King X+1 retaliated by seizing country or principality Y and writing a letter to Pope X or X+1 about how he was overstepping his authority and so on. Centuries of it.
The dynamic is well summed up shortly before the article’s Epilogue:
In 1236, Frederick mobilized a large army to subjugate the rebellious Lombard cities that, with papal encouragement, were forbidding him access to Italy. He received the support of many European kings, including Louis IX of France, Henry III of England (whose sister Isabelle he married) and Béla of Hungary. Europe was in the process of reaching its unity. Frederick therefore hoped to remake Rome the capital of the Empire. This was, of course, contrary to the unchanging policy of the popes, who, by invoking the Donation of Constantine, reserved the imperial prestige of Rome for themselves.
The energy deployed by Gregory IX to harm Frederick II (including by assassination attempts) would be matched only by that of this successor, Innocent IV, who held to the same principle of the pope’s plenitudo potestatis. In July 1245, at the Council of Lyon, Innocent IV rejected Frederick’s overture to appease their differences, confirmed his excommunication and declared him deposed. It is noteworthy that, in this occasion, the devout king of France Louis IX protested:
“As powerful and respected as he is, the Pope does not have the right to depose a king. Every monarch is on his throne by virtue of Divine Right, and Divine Right is superior to the Apostolic Right which the Pope holds as heir to Saint Peter. We therefore formally oppose Pope Innocent’s deposition of Emperor Frederick, because this act, which generates endless disorder, would have the main effect of shaking the Christian community to its very foundations.“
Faced with the pope’s refusal to negotiate, Frederick called on all the princes of Europe to a general revolt against the papacy, in a manifesto that must have smelled of the most dangerous heresy to the pope:
“God is our witness that our intention has always been to force churchmen to follow in the footsteps of the Primitive Church, to live an apostolic life, and to be humble like Jesus Christ. In our days the Church has become worldly. We therefore propose to do a work of charity in taking away from such men the treasures with which they are filled for their eternal damnation. … Help us to put down these proud prelates, that we may give mother Church more worthy guides to direct her. “
Frederick died in 1250 at the age of 55. His son Conrad, son of Yolande of Brienne, left Germany for Sicily but died two years later, at the age of 26. His half-brother Manfred declared himself regent of the Kingdom of Sicily on behalf of Conrad’s son, Conradin, who was only two years old. But the pope gave the kingdom to Charles of Anjou, an ambitious and unscrupulous character, quite different from his brother Louis IX. Charles landed in Sicily in January 1266 with a powerful army of mercenaries, and overcame Manfred, who was killed in battle (the pope had his remains dug up and thrown into the Garigliano river). Charles captured Conradin and had him beheaded. Manfred’s young widow was also captured and thrown into prison, where she died after five years. It is said that the eyes of her three male children were gouged out and that they also quickly died in prison.
From The Failed Empire The Medieval Origin of the European Disunion by Laurent Guyenot
I shall have more to say about all this elsewhere, no doubt. Suffice to say that at least many centuries ago during the foundational period of what is now known as Europe, this power struggle between Kings and Popes was seminal, some residual evidence of which existed even in this Church of English service for a twenty first century coronation of a constitutional monarch stripped of any executive power. I will be suggesting that our relationship to the Sacred is no less seminal in our lives, whether or not we live in a culture that recognizes this. Not being an accomplished scholar or academic, I shall advance this thesis (of sorts) with simple points which build on each other in an easily digestible fashion.
Postscript: just to be clear, am personally neither a great fan of the Windsors nor British Royalty generally, but however imperfectly they are a living example of a tradition combining national leadership and sacred perception. It is the general topic of sacredness which I find makes monarchy interesting including how sacred monarchy effects society and vice versa. So the primary interest on my part is the interface of sacred perception with social mores along with any sense of how they foster leading a meaningful life.