I teared up several times as I watched the parade of mourners lay flowers at Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace in honor and memory of Queen Elizabeth. Pundits and British citizens reflected on her devotion, duty and duration as monarch. She was the model of stability and service, they said; unwavering in her commitment, despite all the turmoil in her family and the oppressive forces and voices that reigned during the last days of the British Empire, and beyond.
Her presence and her stoicism touched people, even though very few were allowed to touch her, or even get near her. She was the embodiment of English tradition, which we usually associate with pomp and circumstance, pageantry and elegant celebrations. Most people tend to think of tradition as quaint, archaic, disconnected. Tradition can be seen as stuffy and distant – pleasant to watch every now and then, but a distraction from life as we live it now.
Several years ago a colleague of mine made the distinction between custom and tradition. Custom, he said, are the practices we cook up to fit the current situation. They get revised or discarded. It has been the custom in Western culture to shake hands upon being introduced. With the vestiges of covid, in some quarters the custom is being altered to a nod of the head or dispensed with altogether. Tradition, on the other hand, refers to something deeper. Tradition evolves from timeless, life-giving roots. Traditional practices may evolve over time, but they point us back to the depths of who we are as people.
Queen Elizabeth was the head of the church; the guardian of the faith. Most of us don’t even an inkling of the nature of her faith, or the scope of her theology, or if she even had a theology. But what we do know, and what we saw many times over the years, is that she fiercely held on to the tradition of the faith. It was for her – and is for us, a spiritual ligament that goes down to the depth of the world’s soul. She held on — and my guess there were times when she held on for dear life. But she held on, confident that it would support and guide.
That spiritual ligament connects all of us to a presence that is abiding and guiding. It is something beyond ourselves. Something we are invited to hold on to, whether we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu. I firmly believe that it is the same spiritual ligament; we use different language, symbols and stories to access it. Queen Elizabeth was a living icon of that presence, which we could see in her devotion and duty and commitment, but we could also see through her to this eternal presence. There is a fear, now that she is gone, that we will have even less access to the mysterious presence than before.
We need these icons that enable us to see into the mystery of life and love and hope, despite all the forces and voices that get in the way. My guess is that King Charles III knows about the importance and power of living icons and will do all he can to embody it.
In late spring I spent a week in London, and went to five Evensong services in seven days. I was transported by the music, but quibbled a bit over the custom of using Elizabethan language (the first Elizabeth, queen from 1558-1603) and I kvetched about the dated theology. But in each of the five Cathedrals where I attended this unique liturgical expression, the brief written orientation to the service was essentially the same: ‘we are offering this worship service up to God. You are invited to join us. We do this for you. We are presenting this timeless tradition.’ Each service was welcoming, but unapologetic about what they were doing and how they were doing it. After five hundred years, the leaders of the church have figured that Evensong has touched this spiritual ligament that, if held onto, can lead to a deeper experience of the divine presence. That certainly happened to me.
Queen Elizabeth was fierce and unapologetic about her role and her faith. She trusted the life-giving roots of the tradition, and held onto them. No doubt they gave her life; and it is profoundly clear that her unyielding grip gave life to millions of others – not just in England, but around the world.
I grieve her death. And give thanks that her trust in the divine presence has deepened mine.