It was actually Queen Elizabeth who taught me to slow down and savor everyday moments.
In the first season of the Netflix series The Crown, a young Princess Elizabeth is tutored on the difference between the two sides of the British parliamentary system: the efficient (government) and the dignified (monarchy). The government is tasked with the present concerns of policies and laws; the monarchy is responsible for preserving continuity with the past, filled as it was with pomp and splendor. Both move the country together into the future.
As an American, I was struck by this dichotomy. Our culture seems to place a great emphasis on efficiency. We have drive-thru everything, with minimal time and human interaction required. We often eat on the go rather than around a beautifully set table. We send off quick texts constantly, but hardly ever hand-write notes. At first glance, the dignified appears archaic, obsolete, and thoroughly impractical.
However, after giving it some thought, I realized that this notion of the dignified is a thoroughly Catholic idea. The rituals of the liturgy and the beauty of the great cathedrals are perfect examples of the dignified. They use our finite senses to point our minds and hearts to the infinite eternal.
Bishop Robert Barron has talked about this at length. Barron describes beauty’s ability to draws us in; it has the power to evangelize, to move the soul, to change us from the inside. Beauty has an irresistible quality to it. It beckons our souls to look beyond the day-to-day and glimpse heaven.
Viewed in this light, pursuing the dignified in our daily life means finding (or creating) moments and rituals of beauty as we go about our day. It can be as simple as taking a 10-minute break to enjoy a cup of afternoon tea, or using cloth napkins on a non-holiday, or putting some wildflowers in a small vase on your nightstand. It can mean observing feast days or hanging a work of art on the wall. It might be creating a peaceful morning routine or listening to Beethoven. In many ways, it’s self-care that nourishes the soul.
The dignified and the efficient aren’t mutually exclusive. The dignified choice may be a means to an efficient end (for example, the dignified choice of eating at the table satisfies the efficient end of sustenance). Very often, efficiency in some areas encourages the dignified in other areas (e.g. crockpot freezer meals give me more time to set a beautiful table before dinner).
Rather, the dignified and the efficient are two sides of a coin, and both are equally necessary. As Princess Elizabeth learned, “the efficient and the dignified must support one another.” The efficient isn’t less-than, but neither is it sufficient on its own.
It can be easy to feel like the dignified is an indulgence or luxury. However, as Shakespeare said, “What is a man / If his chief good and market of his time / Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.” We are matter and spirit, and pursuing the dignified is simply an expression of that reality. The dignified is dignified because it reminds us of our dignity: beings made in the image of the Creator of beauty.