Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
In a true-life “tale as old as time,” the recent royal wedding proved that we have not lost our fascination with, or longing for, a happily ever after. The romance of American actress Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, the younger son of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Charles, Prince of Wales, seems like an old-fashioned fairy tale. Culminating, as most good fairy tales do, in a wedding which took place on May 19, their story (and especially their wedding) captivated well-wishers worldwide. Not the least among those captured were Americans, many of whom rose early on the day of the wedding to view live coverage, throw wedding day viewing parties, and generally experience the passing of an era: the second, and last, of Princess Diana’s beloved sons was officially off the market.
In many ways, I felt as though I grew up with Diana’s sons, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who daydreamed about being whisked away by William, who was much more stalwart and dashing than Harry, who always seemed a little impish with his red hair and perpetual twinkle in his eye. Diana’s sons were cultural icons of the ‘90s: more than Britain’s princes, they were our princes. Gracing the magazine racks of the grocery store aisles for as long as I can remember, William and Harry transcended British royalty to become princes (real live princes!) for us all. Dreams of fairy tale romance didn’t seem so far-fetched while growing up in the same generation as William and Harry.
By all rights, Americans shouldn’t much care about the nuptials of the second son of a long-deceased foreign princess and her husband, the heir apparent of Britain, but the numbers tell a different story: 29.2 million Americans tuned in to watch the wedding, with many more viewing it afterward on streaming services. The verdict is in: We care, not just about Harry and Meghan’s love story, but about royalty itself, and we cared long before Harry and Meghan (now the Duke and Duchess of Sussex) fell in love.The British monarchy is not devoid of dysfunction or heartache, but it gives us a real-life vision for what really is to come.
The Windsors represent, for many of us, a glimpse of an absolute other. Of traditions, values, and rites of a bygone era we Americans have eschewed, but that a corner of our minds and hearts still hold onto as good, or at least comforting. For all their family dysfunction, we still love the royal family. They represent tradition, like going home to Mom and Dad’s house for Christmas, and we rather hope that England’s monarchy will never change despite it having experienced a great deal of sorrow and dysfunction.
As I was a child of the ‘90s, Princess Diana’s death is stuck in my generational memory, sandwiched between the O. J. Simpson verdict and the Columbine School shooting. Diana’s death is set like a stone of remembrance — one of those events you just don’t forget. I was fourteen when I learned about it on the news, but I remember not really believing it until I saw it in the morning newspaper. I still remember the bold print of the newspaper headline, my mom assuring me it was really true, and the sense of loss and denial I felt. I shed actual tears for Diana, because Princess Di was our princess, not just Britain’s.
She had flitted through the newspapers, magazines, and tabloids like a fairy, transcending her national identity through her humanitarian work, reaching across oceans with her open arms and kind eyes, and seeming to embrace all of us as she embraced her sons. When she died, it was one of those rare moments where it felt like the world took a breath and mourned together.
Diana’s “fairy tale” ended in divorce, depression, multiple suicide attempts, and an early death. But when we tell fairy tales, our stories are different than what happened to Diana. We love a tale of a dashing prince, a swooning damsel, and a happily ever after. It’s as if, in our stories, we seek to set the record straight about what royalty should look like, thank you very much. When Princess Diana died, tragically young, the world was reminded that our royal figures are made of flesh and blood and mere humanity. They are an imperfect echo of a greater Majesty.
But despite the tragedy of Diana, and maybe in part because of it, Americans’ fascination with the Windsors — and royalty in general — continues. It is a fascination that transcends the idea of an old family rift between our countries and goes beyond even our desire to see Diana’s beautiful boys have happily ever afters because she was denied one. The state of being royal, whether one is born to it or marries into it, will never cease to be a source of intrigue for those of us who are not it, and the very existence of royalty in the history of the world — and its ongoing allure — speaks to the existence of a First Royalty.
I‘m toying with Aquinas’ famous 5 Proofs here a bit, but I think there is precedence for it. The human desire for authority, worship, and adoration; our innate longing for order; our love for beauty; our marveling at majesty — not only are these attributes that set us apart from the animals, but they are also written on our hearts and minds so intrinsically that, if we follow them back looking for their source, like falling dominoes, we will find they couldn’t have sprung ex nihilo out of the primordial goop. There must have been an external Greatest or First to etch these fascinations onto us.
Of course, as Christians, we would call this First God. And if I can be allowed to apply Anselm’s Ontological argument, God as That Than Which No Greater Can Be Thought is the First and Greatest Royalty. It might even be appropriate to use a sort of Platonic explanation of God as a form of True Majesty, a mere echo of which remains in our hearts and minds, drawing us to not only create and consume fairy tale depictions of royalty but also to adopt certain royal families as our own in real life.
J. R. R. Tolkien, and later C. S. Lewis (under Tolkien’s influence), speculated much on the nature of the True Myth and Christ as the Dying God. In their discussions on this, all “dying god” myths ultimately find their fulfillment in Christ, therefore pagan mythology contains Types of Christ and should be read and celebrated as containing and pointing to Truth. The same, I believe, holds true not just for fictional fairy tales, but for our real-life fairy tales and the royal families we love. Royalty, and most especially royal weddings, are a chance for us to peek beyond the veil at True Majesty, and that is something we long for. It is an Edenic echo, of sorts — a glimpse of our relationship with God before the Fall when everything was very good. But more than that, they point also to God’s nature now and forevermore, and Christ’s nature when he will return, not as a suffering servant, but as King.
Perhaps we love to see a fairy tale like the story of Harry and Meghan play out in real life — complete with a real prince who has chosen, not a noblewoman to marry, but a commoner, and an American at that! — because such royalty and pageantry sparks that transcendent longing for the majesty, authority, and love of God as both King and bridegroom. And not just any bridegroom, but a bridegroom who reaches down in love to lift us up out of our common and lowly estate. The British monarchy is not devoid of dysfunction or heartache, but it gives us a real-life vision for what really is to come. And that’s a happily ever after the whole world is longing to see.
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