Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Awe Of Tradition (Contribution)

What's the least I have to believe and do to feel good about myself?

That's the fundamental question modern religious seekers seem to be asking.

For many contemporary Americans, religion is like a scented candle: The purpose of its light is to provide a comforting psychological ambience.

But for a small, growing minority – for whom religion, properly understood, exists to illuminate the challenging path to truth and holiness – there is an alternative: tradition.

We'll soon be hearing a lot about tradition – Catholic tradition, anyway. Pope Benedict XVI is soon expected to grant permission for the traditional Latin Mass to be celebrated in any Roman Catholic church in the world.

The Latin Mass was the liturgy used by the Roman church from the 1570s until 1970, when Pope Paul VI promulgated a new Mass following the dictates of the Second Vatican Council.

The new Mass simplified the language of the traditional Mass, translated it into everyday languages and made it far less "high church."

The traditional Mass was, for all intents and purposes, forbidden.

The new Mass ushered in an era of liturgical chaos and a sense among many Catholics that a crucial dimension of beauty, holiness and transcendence had been lost in translation.

In 1984, Pope John Paul II ruled that local bishops could grant permission for the celebration of the traditional Mass in certain instances, but in the United States, many bishops balked. Catholic authorities saw the traditional Mass as a sign of division.

Traditionalists have a powerful ally in Pope Benedict, who supports the Vatican II reform but believes that it has gone too far. "I am of the opinion, to be sure, that the old rite should be granted much more generously to all those who desire it," then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote in 1997. Now, as pope, he's going to give it to them.

The curious thing about enthusiasm for the traditional Mass is how many young people – Catholics who were not brought up hearing the Mass in Latin – hunger for it.

Here in Dallas, Father Paul Weinberger's celebration of the new Mass in Latin – which he popularized at Blessed Sacrament, his former Oak Cliff parish, and which he continues at St. William parish in Greenville – showed how breathtaking and exalting the Mass can be when said reverently, using the ancient liturgical language of the church.

To witness a Latin Mass – whether the old Mass or the new Mass said in Latin – is to experience something both old and startlingly new.

One has a similar liturgical experience at St. Seraphim Orthodox cathedral in Dallas – my church – where every Sunday, amid a panoply of colorful icons and clouds of incense, parishioners pray and sing the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

That rite, which is celebrated here in English, can be traced back to the famed patriarch of Constantinople, who assumed the office in 398.

Among Protestants, there are also signs of a return to traditional forms of worship. Anglican convert Eric Keber is an under-30 Christian who worships in a northern Virginia parish that recently broke away from the Episcopal Church. Mr. Keber watched the nondenominational evangelical church of his youth chuck the older, more formal style of worship for casual contemporary.

The church was so focused on What's Happening Now that Mr. Keber didn't learn anything about the history of Christianity until high school.

"Luther, Calvin, Aquinas – these were names from Western civ class, not church," he says. "It amazes me now."

Mr. Keber says young adults from his parish who have left behind their nondenominational pasts to embrace a more traditional form of Christianity appreciate the sense of "binding" that traditional worship gives them to generations of Christians who came before.

Mr. Keber also appreciates the freedom that comes from not having to reinvent the faith every time the cultural Zeitgeist shifts.

At Wheaton College, a leading evangelical institution of higher learning, Leroy Huizenga, a New Testament professor, says the increasing number of students considering converting to Orthodoxy, Catholicism or traditional Anglicanism is looking for "transcendence and unity." They're also searching for a solid ground of truth.

"They want existential relief from having to decide what to believe among these thousands of denominations with their truth claims, but it's also that they take truth claims very seriously," Dr. Huizenga, an evangelical, says. "It's not just a matter of feeling, and I'm proud of my students for that."

Seeking Truth

The question of truth cannot be separated from an authentic quest for tradition. Without a genuine desire for truth, traditionalism becomes merely an exercise in aesthetics and emotional gratification. If it is to have any weight, tradition must be viewed as the most trustworthy conveyor of religious truth.

Associated Press Traditionalists have a strong friend in Pope Benedict XVI, who is soon expected to allow any Roman Catholic church to celebrate Mass in Latin.

David Klinghoffer, who detailed his conversion to Orthodox Judaism in his 1998 memoir, The Lord Will Gather Us In, recalls that the liberal Reform Judaism in which he was raised taught him to accept only that part of Jewish teaching that he found "meaningful and relevant" to him as an individual.

For Mr. Klinghoffer, the idea that a believer is free to cherry-pick from sacred tradition to suit one's needs in the here and now is to view truth as essentially irrelevant – and thus to empty sacred tradition of its power to bind, to elevate and to endure.

Traditionalists of any religion fundamentally differ from modernists in that they see truth as objective and delivered within the rules, rituals and teachings of the tradition. Truth, so considered, is something around which individuals must shape their lives.

The modernist sees religious truth as subjective, something that can be shaped to fit the lives of individuals in different times and places. If they're right, there's nothing regressive about reclaiming attractive and useful elements of tradition within a modernist context.

Except that it's a dead-end. Orthodoxy (right belief) cannot be severed from orthopraxy (right practice); both inform and reinforce the other, beholding the truth and embodying it in the rites and pious practices of individuals and communities. The writer and Orthodox convert Frederica Mathewes-Green warns tradition-seekers that the reason the outward manifestations of tradition – the chants, the icons, the liturgies – have such power in our fast-moving, throwaway culture is that their authority is embedded within a living and longstanding communal tradition. If you don't accept the tradition whole, you cut yourself off from its transformative power.

"It's like gathering flowers: They look great when you bring them into your contemporary church, but they have no roots and they're going to die," she says. "You'll have to keep going out and getting more flowers. Eventually, the whole thing will feel stale. Unless you plug into the ancient-continuing church and let it form you, you're just being a shopper."

Not an end in itself

Modernists nevertheless make a point that traditionalists ignore at their peril. Tradition has to be flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances without abandoning its core principles.

A tradition that loses touch with the needs of the living community is in danger of degenerating into rigid formalism. Some traditionalists make an idol of sacred tradition, as if it were an end in itself, not the most reliable and efficacious means to God.

A friend of mine left the Orthodoxy of his youth for evangelicalism because, in his telling, the static, spiritually moribund church he grew up in was more concerned with celebrating ethnicity than celebrating Jesus. Other Orthodox churches, however, refuse to act like an ethnic tribe at prayer and are being renewed by a flood of dynamic converts.

The imminent return of the Latin Mass offers a tremendous opportunity for Catholic traditionalists to appeal to those unsatisfied by happy-clappy modernism within contemporary Catholicism.

The media attention that will be given to the Latin Mass moment is also a chance for other forms of religious traditionalism to step out of the incense-clouded shadows and show the world what they have to offer. Much to the astonishment of the baby boomer generation, who thought such things had been relegated to an irrecoverable past, everything old really is new again.

And why not? Times change, but human nature does not.

The British poet Philip Larkin, an atheist, captured the eternal appeal of religious tradition in his poem "Church Going," told from the point of view of an unbeliever peeking in on an abandoned country church:

A serious house on serious earth it is/ In whose blent air all our compulsions meet/ Are recognised, and robed as destinies./ And that much never can be obsolete/ Since someone will forever be surprising/ A hunger in himself to be more serious/ And gravitating with it to this ground/ Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in/ If only that so many dead lie round.


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