On Irreverence and Solemnity

With thousands of cable channels as well as streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime producing their own programming, there are likely as many television shows currently running as there have been in the entire prior history of the medium, combined.

With such a glut, it takes a special something to stand out from the crowd. Some producers target big-name stars, high-minded concepts, or lavish budgets for effects. Others opt for the squeakiest wheel. The easiest way to garner attention in a crowd is to begin shouting and cursing. If all you’re aiming for is to have eyes on you, your mission will be quickly accomplished.

Thus we see a proliferation of programming with material designed to make the viewer blush, cringe, and say to their neighbors, “Have you seen this?” Characters on the show Difficult People discuss their preferences for viewing pornography. The lead character on the show Scandal procured an abortion. Networks put together reality shows sympathetically following the lives of polygamous, polyamorous, and transgendered people, just to name a few.

There is no better advertisement for a comedy than to call it “irreverent.” There is no better way to bring attention to a show than to call it “controversial.” There is no greater attraction than smashing idols, shattering taboos, and sticking a thumb in the eye of the sacred.

Yet this is by no means the first time in history that people have tried to draw attention through irreverence. In fact, a whole school of Greek philosophy was founded on that very premise.

The school of the Cynics rejected authority and social conventions. They often performed ridiculous or absurd acts in public to make their point. The word “cynic” derives from the Greek word kynikos meaning “dog-like.” The exact origin of this title and its connection to the group is disputed. But early on, the school adopted the name for itself and began to live it out, to the point of barking at people they disagreed with. The philosopher Diogenes of Sinope introduced himself to people as “Diogenes the Dog.”

Solemnity is reverent, not gloomy*

We retain the word “cynic” today for people who look skeptically at the actions and motives of others. A cynic is someone who assumes bad faith, who thinks “everyone’s got a little larceny operating in them” (to quote that noted 20thcentury cynic, Bob Wallace, aka Bing Crosby in White Christmas). A cynic is someone who looks at things that others hold sacred and scoffs.

This cynical spirit can be found in all too many places in the Church today. We see it in priests who feel compelled to make jokes during the Mass – even during the Liturgy of the Eucharist –lest, you know, people take things too seriously. We see it in lay people who roll their eyes at priests who do celebrate Mass with a certain solemnity, making cracks about “Father Pious” behind his back. I saw it once in a religious brother who came by the local parish to get consecrated hosts to bring back to his residence (apparently the brothers there preferred to hold Communion services at home rather than attend Mass at a parish). He said, flippantly, “Hi, I’m here to pick up some Jesus.”

The problem is that people confuse solemnity with stuffiness. Processions with incense, ornate churches, beautifully decorated vestments – aren’t these simply signs of clericalism? The priest trying to put himself above everyone else? Isn’t this simply ostentation? But in a certain sense, in the proper setting and perspective, there’s nothing wrong with being ostentatious. The root of that word simply means, “show” or “hold forth.” One can show without showing off.

Perhaps we’d be better served using the word “manifest.” The visual, aural, even olfactory elements of the liturgy manifest the sacred realities being made present. They show forth the holy mysteries being celebrated. They convey to our senses the truth of what we are participating in. They are visible signs of the invisible grace at work.

Such manifestation, such solemnity, is rejected only because we have a false understanding of what solemnity really is. As C.S. Lewis wrote in his Preface to Paradise Lost:

This quality will be understood by any one who really understands the meaning of the Middle English word solempne. This means something different, but not quite different, from modem English solemn. Like solemn it implies the opposite of what is familiar, free and easy, or ordinary. But unlike solemn it does not suggest gloom, oppression, or austerity. The ball in the first act of Romeo and Juliet was a “solemnity.” The feast at the beginning of Gawain and the Green Knight is very much of a solemnity. A great Mass by Mozart or Beethoven is as much a solemnity in its hilarious gloria as in its poignant crucifixus est. Feasts are, in this sense, more solemn than fasts. Easter is solempne, Good Friday is not. The Solempneis the festal, which is also the stately and the ceremonial, the proper occasion for pomp – and the very fact that pompous is now used only in a bad sense measures the degree to which we have lost the old idea of “solemnity.”

Irreverence is not a virtue won by a society that has thrown off the shackles of superstition. It is a vice that is a sign of a loss of the sense of the sacred. It can only be cured by taking hold of the sacred, the solemn, and cherishing it with the love and respect it is due. Irreverence is a privation, a lack of what ought to be there. It is emptiness. You cannot fill yourself on rejection any more than you can be satisfied by refusing dinner. Everybody has to love something. Loving oneself and one’s self-satisfaction at rejecting other’s sacred cows is a self-defeating, a self-eating, proposition. Best to love what is true, and good, and beautiful.


*This Eucharistic Procession took place at St. Christina Church (now St. Martin de Porres) in Cincinnati, Ohio. The date of the photograph is uncertain but appears to be sometime in the 1950s or 60s.

Nicholas Senz is the Director of Children's and Adult Faith Formation at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Arlington, TX, where lives with his wife and two children. He holds master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. His website is nicholassenz.com.