Where Does Beauty Lie? Queen Elizabeth's Lying-In-State
Watching on television this evening, I have found myself thinking: the lying-in-state of Her late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, is mesmerisingly beautiful. But what, precisely, do I mean?
A majestic setting? Soaring walls of stone beneath an oaken sky; once the largest hall in Europe. Now, faint reverberations of the past, murmured memory of deeds, misdeeds, debates, banquets and even trials, carried upon venerable breath. Can the ghosts of Thomas More or Charles I still be heard, defending their consciences, and their lives? Imagination furnishes this place with the tingling of ancestral voices. So many utterances, but all is cloaked in quietness this night.
There is beauty, also, in the unfolding ceremony. Bright red and gold of uniforms, embossed, emblazoned with symbols of service; a trace of sacrifice in their colour, of blood, and many presents given for the purchase of tomorrows they would not see.
Guards' slow marching encircles the imperial state crown, glimmering, glistening, shimmering, shivering with grief and glory. Few things made by human hands can claim such undimmable beauty, with four unbleached candles as its sentinels of ever-changing aspect. There is power in these flames, flickering with the fragility of life, wax of time cascading down and away. Perfect symbols of a reign undimmed but spent in the giving out of light.
The 'people,' assembled masses, have their own ceremony, self-imposed and self-regulating (apart from an occasional, gentle, ushering nudge).
Poignant is the beauty of the great grieving serpent, glistening with tears and curling, caressingly, about the object of its love. The simple beauty of one body, yet also, under the camera's microscopic gaze, a multivalent form. Every sort and variety of person, every story, every experience, every virtue, and every vice.
Such, in the end, is the beauty of our humanity; it is one and many, common and personal, universal and particular. Common life is a precondition for hope. Mourners' undulating progress has no uniformity—some bow, others curtsey, whilst still others look uncertainly around—but the whole comforts and compels the parts.
Mesmeric scene: architecture, ritual and priesthood all united now, beneath a veil of black darkness clinging to great windows. Yet, these are merely beauty's outriders—and our original question, 'what, precisely, do we mean by the 'beauty' of this scene?' remains unanswered.
The late Queen said, 'grief is the price we pay for love,' and the heart is the seat of love. Locating beauty here means going to the heart of things: to the Lady, a purple-shrouded catafalque for a throne, clothed in the vesture of her authority.
If Elizabeth had not loved, she would not now be in receipt of love in such abundance. The spell of beauty, of the setting, the ceremony, the self-perpetuating movement of the human gathering, would be broken. Beauty does not consist in exterior things, no matter how clear and perfect their mimetic gaze may be.
Beauty reclines its head upon the good and gentle soul, its place of rest and safety not in diadems and diamonds, but in the deep darkness of the heart.
May God bless the late Queen, not because she was delightful to gaze upon, though she may have been, but because she was good, strong, loving and true, and for the inspiration she provided us all to become more beautiful ourselves.