The Queen and Living Well

There is a certain type of unhappy person who is unhappy because his conception of life, and of human nature, is totally wrong. This is the type that seeks happiness as an end in itself. We have all met people like this; we can all picture them now. The man who buys every new interesting gadget, and grows bored with it within a week. The man who is always the repeating the holiday travels of his younger days, but who always returns, deflated, with the sense that he had had more fun the last time. The man who always laughs just a little too long, consciously trying to extend his mirth, whilst all the while a little voice in his head asks him ‘Am I happy? Is this happiness? If not, how do it get it?’. Such people are never spontaneously, unselfconsciously happy; and so, whether or not they show it, they are some of the saddest people in existence.

Fortunately, ever since the Greeks, wiser heads have understood what these people are getting wrong. Happiness, as our forbears realized, is not so much a target one can aim at, but the reward of living virtuously. We humans are limited by our embodied human nature, and we have duties. These can be burdensome, but they also offer a road-map to virtue: if we respect our nature, and fulfil the duties of our state of life, then we start to live virtuously. Happiness flows from this. In another terminology, happiness is one of the second things of life: something we cannot pursue as an end in itself. The first things—the things that we should consciously aim at—include the love of God, the fulfilment of our duties, and thus the nurturing of the natural virtues, traditionally adumbrated in the four ‘cardinal’ virtues of prudence, temperance, bravery, and justice. By the grace of the New Covenant, which reconciles, perfects and completes all prior human striving after the Good and Beautiful and True, baptized Christians also have access to the supernatural, theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, which complement but do not supplant the other ones.

All this amounts to a simple formula for happiness. If you want to be happy, never think about happiness, and never feel hard-done-by when you lack it. Instead, be dutiful and cultivate virtue.

In illustration of this formula, I adduce the Queen. Last week Her Majesty undertook her first solo public engagement since the death of her husband, visiting the Royal Navy’s new carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth. There she was, a neat, tiny figure on the huge grey flight-deck of a capital ship; the gentle, indomitable, beaming, red-hatted reason why hundreds of sailors and marines, both British and American, had donned their best dress, and were now standing proud on deck; a symbol of duty and charity that united the servicemen in dutifulness and good-feeling. Any monarch is a person to salute; the keystone in a civilized archway of mutual recognition and duty. But few have become a symbol of duty itself, let alone a symbol of charity: a symbol of giving of oneself for others. The Queen has. Her dutifulness has led her to live out a splendid life. What’s more, I do believe that she is really happy. For deep happiness is infectious, and few can meet the Queen without feeling better about themselves. (Since hardly anyone enjoys her degree of physical vitality or personal security, this is a quite remarkable phenomenon).

Cynics will say that the Queen has excellent P.R.; yet no P.R. can generate the kind of respect that she has won. More plausibly, cynics will also say that Her Majesty has had every advantage in life, and that the British public would always slavishly extol any monarch. But is this true? Or has the Queen won the public’s affection for herself?

Consider the beginning of the Queen’s reign. She had been born into European royalty just after Europe had torn herself apart, and as crowned heads were falling everywhere. She grew up as Britain’s experiment with democracy was bedding itself in, and as aristocratic houses were daily being demolished, or sold to a new, harder kind of capitalist. Her grandfather was Emperor of India, and her father was to be so too; but already Britain’s power was waning. As a young woman she served in Second World War: a war which at once marked the final failure of the old order, and dashed the younger, scientific-eutopian hopes of the modernists. Soon, she was to accede to the throne; but she herself would be no empress. (Besides, the last one, Victoria, had almost turned Britain republican with her eccentricities, until an ingeniously accelerated jubilee had changed the public mood). The Queen’s early reign was a tale of kingdoms conceded, British flags lowered, the Iron Curtain, Suez, Americans, the shadow of the mushroom cloud; an age of rapidly changing morals, and a growing sense that something good had been lost for ever. She saw the failure of old, the failure of the new, the end of the Empire; she belonged to an age whose thinkers would led us into a long, still-enduring rut of post-modern despair.

All her life the Queen has lived in a dying West. Even her father had had some power in a Great Power; she has never had any. And what was her solution? Despair? Self-pity? A sense of lonely isolation in an impossible task? No. Instead, I would suggest, her whole life has flowed from two choices: two conscious, free commitments that she made at a young age. First, she chose to do her duty, and to do so for her whole life. Second, and more than that, she realized that she, as Queen, would not be simply Elizabeth, a human being; but would be a symbol; a figure one would meet as an honour or inspiration or both. She accepted this unchosen burden as God’s plan for her, and she resolved to make the most of it by making those she talked to feel special and important. She chose to love; and by resolve and hard work, love became a habit with her. Nothing else can explain her famous smile, given to all-comers, and inimitable by those merely condescending to play a part. The Queen cannot not command armies, cannot influence policy, cannot thrash out deals with other sovereigns. The big abstractions—wars, nations, summits, plans, resolutions—lie just out of reach for her, in the coded hints of Prime Ministers’ conversation. She reads her papers: the international acronyms, the dishonest jargon, the ludicrous sociology, the PPEists’ fatuities all bespeak a world with little room for an monarch’s personal touch. But she knows she can do one thing: she can be kind to every individual she meets. She has chosen to love.

To choose to love. No decision is more human. Through this decision, she has helped to forge a true family of nations, the Commonwealth, from the fallen empire; she has symbolized steadfastness in an era of oppressive, continuous change; she, with her late husband, has inspired duty and loyalty in a culture contemptuous of hierarchy and rootedness and impositions.

Though the comparison would hardly occur to the Queen herself, I am reminded of Graham Greene’s short essay about Pope Pius XII, someone also known for his patience and love. As an adult Pius witnessed the mad slaughter of the First World War, the rise of Hitler, and then the Second World War. The German ambassador who attended his coronation in March 1939 remarked ‘Very moving and beautiful, but it will be the last’; and at one point in the war it seemed likely that the pope and the Vatican would be razed to the ground. All his life, everything was falling apart amidst frightening chaos; and so he did the one thing he could do: he chose to love.

There is a moving passing in which Greene describes the failure of every diplomatic plan and policy from the First World War onwards. There parallel with the Queen is not perfect, of course, but the passage is worth quoting in full; for she, too, was an heir to the catastrophic failure of the civilized order.

Since the days of Pius X that word ‘Peace’ seems to chime through all the encyclicals and papal letters and speeches, just as it chimes through the Mass so that we become accustomed to it in its every declension, pax, pacis, pacem. Pius X was Pope when the First World War broke out. When he was asked to bless some armaments, he replied ‘War! I don’t want war. I don’t bless war, I bless only peace. Gladly I would sacrifice my life to obtain peace.’ A fortnight after war was declared he was dead.

Benedict XV, his successor, whose peace proposals in 1917 were rejected, who was called Papa Bosch by the French and ‘The French Pope’ by the Germans, said, ‘They want to silence me, but they shall not succeed in sealing my lips; nobody shall prevent me from calling to my own children, peace, peace, peace’. And his successor, to whom he once said these words, Pius XI remarked to an English archbishop as the alignment for the new Hitlerian war became evident, ‘Peace is such a precious good that one should not fear to buy it even at the price of silence and concessions, although never at the price of weakness’.

The world has darkened progressively since those days. Pius X was an old man ready to give his life, but a prayer is not always answered as we want it answered. Benedict believed in reasoned diplomacy and failed. Pius XI believed in a mixture of shrewdness and pugnacity, and he failed too. Now a new note sounds from the man who was his Secretary of State and who from that inner position saw shrewdness and pugnacity outwitted, and observed the limits of diplomacy… Sometimes we almost feel he is abandoning those vast hordes of people we call nations, the dealings with the War Lords and Dictators, and… concentrating on each individual, teaching the individual that peace can be found on Golgotha, that pain doesn’t matter, teaching the difficult lesson of love… | That is Pius XII’s achievement, if we can call the grace of great charity an achievement.

Then Greene beautifully describes the habit of charity, the hard-acquired relentless energy for loving strangers—which, as he says, must be so difficult to retain amidst crowds and palaces and servants, amidst endless meetings and delegations and ambassadors:

From another room one hears the stream of aged feminine talk while the Monsignors move restlessly in their purple robes, looking at their watches or making that movement of the hand to the chin forming an imaginary beard, that is the Latin way of exclaiming at a bore. Out comes the last nun, strutting away with the happy contented smile of a woman who has had her say and out from his inner room comes the Pope with his precise vigorous step ready to greet the next unimportant stranger ‘with deep affection’.

Greene was no slavish hagiographer, least of all of the living; I think he here described a genuine quality: a sheer energy for duty and for love in this saintly man. The same, I feel, has sustained the Queen. It is a curious fact of history that Pius XII was the first pope she ever met; she and her husband had an ‘animated’ conversation of twenty minutes with him at Rome in 1951. One wonders what those three faithful people said to each other: a seventy-five year old priest enmeshed in work, and a youthful couple themselves on the precipice of a lifetime—and more than a lifetime—of gruelling monarchical duty.

For that, of course, is really the key point. Charity is a supernatural virtue; a gift of the Holy Spirit. The Queen has served us, and served us prayerfully, because she knows that it is her vocation to do so: her God-given opportunity of serving God. For sure, hers is not the most frightening or painful of vocations; but nor are most people’s. One is reminded of Evelyn Waugh’s words about St Helena the Empress, the mother of Constantine the Great, who, in her extreme old age, went on a pilgrimage to the holy land and discovered the True Cross. Again, the parallel is inexact, but instructive.

She accepted the fact that God had His own use for her. Others faced the lions in the circus; others lived in caves in the desert. She was to be St. Helena Empress, not St. Helena Martyr or St. Helena Anchorite. She accepted a state of life full of dangers to the soul in which many floundered, and she remained fixed in her purpose…

What we can learn from Helena is something about the workings of God; that He wants a different thing from each of us, laborious or easy, conspicuous or quite private, but something which only we can do and for which we were created.

Since the abdication of Edward VIII, the Queen has had an evident, secure vocation: to reign. Her greatness lies in this, that she has pursued it prayerfully with faith, hope, and charity. In other words, she, a sinner and a mortal creature, is not the source of her own greatness; Christ is. In ‘a state of life full of dangers to the soul’, she has willed to respond to the grace that he offers. That is why she is so great. (I am sure she understands this herself).

A final point. The Queen has been praised many times by many writers. There is, however, one recurrent idea in the praise of the Queen which I must reject, and which I think she would reject too. This is the nostalgic idea that we shall never see her like again, the idea that the ‘Greatest Generation’ has all but passed away. No doubt, it is true that she represents the last, dwindling generation of morally-serious Anglicanism—a faith whose members one could respect. But the Faith will not die with them; it cannot die. Nor can or will the virtues. Here one cannot but note that the Queen is one of the very last people left alive who was baptized into the Church of England before 1930, the year when the Anglican Communion permitted the use of artificial contraception, and so abandoned the Moral Law thitherto proclaimed by all Christians except a fringe of Mormons and the like. Now, once one accepts the idea that a moral sexual relationship need not imply the possibility of children, then one will not, with any logical consistency, be able to hold that sexual activity should be confined to lifelong marriage between two people of the opposite sex. From 1930, Anglicans’ feeling that marriage should be so limited was logically nothing more than an idle sentiment, and it barely survived half a century. (How many middle-aged, church-going Anglicans do you know whose children are all living with their partners?). However, in my generation, the unchanging moral truths are again being discovered, not only by Catholics—whose Church had taught them in season and out—but by many thoughtful and serious protestants too. As with abortion, protestants have been late to the cause, but are now taking it up with energy and zeal. (They have realized that trying to solve the problems of sexualization and unwanted pregnancy by giving doctors power over our natural capacities, is rather like trying to solve obesity by giving everyone a state-funded purging machine: human problems need human solutions, not mechanical ones. Indeed, there’s something very naive about the originally (and, in practice, still) eugenic intent of mass contraception: only the sheltered middle classes could really believe that one can improve life in this fallen ‘vale’ of tears by ignoring the moral principles that alone enlighten it—by, that is, encouraging people to treat each other as instruments of pointless (and hence self-defeating) pleasure, rather than purposive partners). Perhaps one day, then we will again see devout, crowned heads on the coinage of a truly civilized continent whose institutions respect the basic moral truths.

I have compared the Queen’s circumstances to those of two saintly people. The Queen herself will probably never be an ‘official’ saint. The Anglican Communion inherited saints, but has not canonized new ones (except, in some people’s view, Charles I). Besides, some would I know object that she signed the Abortion Act (though personally I cannot see what else she could have done). In any case, though, we can be thankful that we have had a gracious and faithful Queen, and from her we can learn much about how to live a good life, and to be happy. The first step is to accept one’s circumstances, and to do one’s duty.