Elizabeth, Daughter of Eve

Elizabeth, Daughter of Eve September 19, 2022

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A heart-warming story has been going around about the late Queen Elizabeth. The story goes that her chaplain had been preaching on the Second Coming of Christ. Later, she exclaimed earnestly that she wished Christ would come again in her lifetime. When she was asked why, she became emotional and said, “I should so love to lay my crown at his feet.”

Unfortunately, the story isn’t true—about Elizabeth. In fact, it’s about Queen Victoria, and it appears to have a legitimate provenance, from her friend and cleric Frederick Ferrar. Victoria’s faith as a young woman was reportedly marked by intense devotion. One night, listening to Handel’s Messiah, she kept instinctively wanting to stand, even though it wasn’t the done thing for royalty. When they came to “King of Kings and Lord of Lords,” she couldn’t help herself any longer. The Queen rose to honor the King.

The story may have been misattributed to Elizabeth, but the music for her funeral brought the image full circle as the congregation sang this verse of a beautifully apt hymn:

Finish, then, thy new creation

Pure and spotless, let us be

‘Til we see thy great salvation

Perfectly restored in thee

Changed from glory into glory

‘Til in heav’n we take our place

‘Til we cast our crowns before thee

Lost in wonder, love, and praise

I sometimes find I’ve sung a hymn so many times that I need to re-read the lyrics without music, as poetry, to feel their full power again. I feel that way now with these lyrics.

When the late Queen took the throne, her youth made her crowning seem that much more weighty, literally and figuratively. C. S. Lewis, in a letter, contemplates the symbolism of the heavy crown descending “on that small, young head.” I’ve been rewatching The Crown, which very effectively portrays Elizabeth as a young wife and mother who had hoped for years more of relative peace with her family. There’s a sadness as we watch her and Philip play with each other and their children, discussing the future, making plans for the house they thought they were going to call home, before moving into the House they didn’t choose. The show imagines her innocently writing to her father from her Commonwealth tour in Nairobi on the very day a messenger brings word of his death. The moment when she grasps the truth is conveyed entirely without dialogue—one long look from Philip, and she understands.

As the crown descended on Elizabeth’s head, Lewis saw her in one sense playing a part nobody else could, yet in another sense playing a part all humanity must play—“called by God to be his vice-regent and high priest on earth, yet feeling so inadequate. As if he said, ‘In my inexorable love I shall lay upon the dust that you are glories and dangers and responsibilities beyond your understanding.'” As Elizabeth was crowned, so have we all been crowned. Lewis wrote this a few years after publishing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where of course we see this thought worked out in the characters of the Pevensie children: four ordinary boys and girls, two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve, who have inherited thrones without knowing it. This is the splendor of our coronation, and the tragedy.

The late Queen was conscious of her throne, yet still conscious of her humanity. She took the crown seriously without taking herself seriously. We have heard and loved the story of how she laughed off not being recognized by American tourists on the street, or the story of how she bumped into a cleaning lady on a palace elevator—literally—and struck up what was to be a long-running friendship. We are also moved by memories of her quiet humanity, as when she wordlessly comforted a haunted war doctor by inviting him to help feed her beloved corgis under the table at dinner. Taken together, stories like this paint a unified picture of her character. We never knew her, but if this is who she was, we wish we had.

My own grandmother passed on to her reward at around this time last year. You can read my Substack tribute to her here. Others have commented that Her Majesty reminded them of their own mothers and grandmothers, not because they were all just like her, but because they shared in the same ineffable qualities of grace, dignity, constancy—the same “always-there-ness” that we always took for granted, until one day they were not there.

I reflected at the time that my gram was much like the woman revealed to C. S. Lewis at the end of The Great Divorce, who is attended with such pomp and ceremony in heaven that he assumes she must have been a figure of great importance. But she was never “Queen Sarah” in life. She was simply Sarah Smith, the woman next door who loved everyone and everything, and has received her just reward in death.

Queen Elizabeth was never allowed to be the woman next door. Paradoxically, this meant that as much as she loved her people, she inevitably had far less opportunity to get to know them than she would have wished. One can imagine her constantly having to leave this dinner, that city, that hospital, on her way from one Thing to the next, thinking if only she had had a little longer. If only she could have really heard that poor woman’s story, or really sat with that sick child. If only she had even some of the power a queen used to have, so that she could do more than be the queen, smile the smile, play the part.

But what she could, she did. What she had, she gave. As the world was made richer by her presence, so it is left poorer in her absence. And so we say goodbye to our mother, our grandmother, our empress, our queen. Goodbye to Elizabeth, daughter of Eve.

 

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