Some of the emails I’ve gotten and some of the public replies to my post on division and the Church have prompted me to some further reflection on the thing we “traditionalists” call the Holy Tradition. My reflections will unfold in two parts, of which this is the first, each part having to do with a different connotation of the question which is the title of this post. That is to say, one connotation of “Why Tradition?” is the sense of explanation, or what we mean when we say things like “Holy Tradition.” The other connotation is “Why Tradition?” in the sense of justification and defense.
Many of the comments I’ve received have to do with an understanding that is radically at odds with the way we “traditionalists” understand ourselves when we say “Tradition.” I am coming from the Orthodox perspective (insofar as I can best represent it), so mine will be different in some emphases from what an Anglican or a Roman Catholic means by “Tradition.” But in that we are all referring to that living experience which has been transmitted from the Apostles down to our own day, we can said to be of one mind on the matter, and I hope to accurately reflect that mind.
First, what we do not mean by Holy Tradition. We do not mean those things that are not universal in shape and content to the entire apostolic Church. We also do not mean by Holy Tradition a set of legal codes or rules that must be unquestioningly obeyed at all times. We do not mean a love of the past merely for the past’s sake. We do not mean a fortress into which we can retreat from the social realities we find troubling and distasteful. And we certainly do not mean by Holy Tradition a state of power in which we get to control the behaviors of other people. All of this is most emphatically not what we are about.
Rather, we mean by Holy Tradition quite simply that in which we know we can find the Life of Christ. We fast on Wednesdays and Fridays because we know that doing so brings us into real and vibrant contact with the Life of Christ. We rise bleary-eyed in the mornings to recite prayers somebody else wrote and prayed centuries ago because we know that those prayers unite us to all the saints here and in the heavenlies and in that union accomplished by the Holy Spirit we touch Life. We kiss our icons–which for many of us are paper reproductions pasted on wood (since we cannot afford a handwritten icon), these icons which have been blessed with holy water and lain on the very altar where bread and wine become the very Body and Blood of our Lord–because we know those kisses pass beyond paper or paint and wood and come in contact with the Life of all. We adhere to the male-only Eucharistic ministry because we know that our priests image for us Christ, who is male, and who himself images perfectly the Father in heaven, who is masculine. This is the only God we have ever known and the only one who has given us the Life we now live. We keep the only form of marriage the Church has ever known, that of one man and one woman for life and for the begetting of children, because in creating life and sustaining it, in our mortal unions themselves in a mytery too great to fathom we somehow touch Life. We keep the Eucharistic fast because we know that what we will consume in several hours’ time is something so pure, so holy, and so life-giving, that to ingest anything else would be a mockery and an imitation of the only Food which can make us immortal.
Holy Tradition tells us that we are made in God’s image, each of us united to him in his Son by the Holy Spirit. Our flesh became his flesh, and through that bridge our natures by grace became divine. Holy Tradition is that Life in which our orphans have a heavenly Father who revealed to them his only beloved Son, their brother, our fathers have a Mother who gave our Lord his humanity, their salvation, and our mothers have a divine Son, who gave them first of all the news of Resurrection, their special apostleship.
Those who speak to us of oppression and phobias, rights and justice, speak to us in a foreign language, and of an experience we have not known. Who can insist on rights when we are all slaves of God, bought at great price? Who of us would insist on justice when it is only by God’s grace that we are shown mercy? What is oppression beside the despair one feels as the tyranny of our passions burden us with the sins we willingly commit at their urging? What sort of political freedom or empowerment could satisfy us when we are yet imprisoned by our own sins? What greater fear could one have than that of disowning our Lord? Not for nothing does the hymn ask of God that we never outlive our love for him! How is it possible that the same Tradition which gave us our reverence for the Mother of God could ever diminish the role and person of these daughters of the second Eve? We do not understand this language of oppression and rights, because it is not our language nor our experience.
By this we do not say to you that your hurts and fears are meaningless. How could we respond thus to your hurt and pain when we ourselves have been pierced through by our own misdeeds? We do not say of your exprience of oppression and injustice that it is all a will-o’-the-wisp, a black fantasy. We have only to say that what you describe is not our experience. Your darksome reality is not ours.
What we would be so bold as to say is to come to Holy Tradition and there meet the Life it gives in our Lord. There embrace his holy Mother, and all the saints. Come and experience the joy we know.