“Without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as a Fiddler on the Roof.”A Meditation on the Loss and Recovery of Tradition.
When I was a young man, a teenager really, I did the usual crazy stuff of the early, 70s, long hair, bell bottoms, wide ties, crazy plaids, shirt open at least least three buttons, and of course, rock-n-roll.
But, through it all I had this love for older things. I think it had something to do with my Grandmother, Nana, whom I loved with great affection. Often she lamented the loss of the old things and old ways. She missed the Latin Mass, she missed when manners were better, when people remembered how to dress well, when things were more certain, when, (as Archie and Edith put it, Girls were girls and men were men). She also missed when things were built sturdy and plastic was all but unknown.
Somehow her love for older things, and older ways took hold in me, even as I indulged the silly seventies. My parents’ generation born in the late 20s and 30s, and even more so those born after the War, were something of an iconoclastic generation: “Out with the old, in with the new…New and improved.”
I remember my mother often wanting to get rid of some old thing. I often volunteered to remove it, and would then hide it in the attic. Old silver, silverware, Tiffany lamps, statues, trunks etc, began to fill our attic. In addition, I loved old buildings and hated the glass boxes that were being built in the 70s. I remembered the old churches of my childhood in Chicago that “looked like churches” and lamented the “ugly modern church” of my 70s suburb. And even though I liked rock music, when I went to Church I couldn’t stand the “hippie music” of the 60s that predominated in the 70s parishes: Kum-by-yah, Sons of God. Such dreadful lyrics all on stapled mimeographed papers: Here we are, all together now, gathered round the table of the Lord, Eat his Body! Drink his blood! and we’ll sing a song of love, Allelu, Allelu, Allelu, Allelu-i-a!
My Grandmother often said how she missed the beautiful old songs, the incense, the veils, priests in cassocks, and so many other things. She somehow had my ear. I was sympathetic, hiding antiques from both my parents home and from the church too, as they were cast aside. I looked for a day when the sanity would return, and such cast-offs were once again valued.
And that day has largely come. Much of the iconoclasm of the 50s- through the mid 80s has given way, and many older things are once again appreciated. As I took some things out of the attic in the early 90s, my mother strangely appreciated them again. Other family members took some of the silver, etc. My Chalice, (photo, upper right), was an old cast off I had restored. Statues began to return to church, some of the old hymns have returned, and the Latin Mass, relegated to the cellar, has been dusted off and is now appreciated again by many, mostly younger Catholics. I have also had the good fortune of helping to restore two old Church’s to their former glory, and to undo some of the iconoclasm from which they suffered. I even wear my cassock quite often.
For the record, I do not mind some more modern churches, some of them have a handsome simplicity. But nothing irks me more than to see a beautiful older Church made to look like 1985, all white-washed and stripped bare. Thankfully, I think that terrible era is largely ending.
But we have been through a time of it in the Church to be sure. Perhaps some things had to go “into the attic” for a time, in order that they could be taken down again, and appreciated anew. But whatever the reasons for the iconoclasm, especially of the 1960s, I sense we are now recovering a balance. A balance that does not reject the new, but still appreciates the old; a balance that nods to a hermeneutic of continuity, of which the Pope speaks, rather than a rupture and radical discontinuity with the past; a balance of which Jesus says, Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old (Matt 13:52).
Many look back and wonder at the great rupture and cultural tsunami we have endured in the West. We wonder how, and why. There are of course countless reasons, but I would like to single out just one: forgetfulness.
Traditions set up and endure for a reason. Fundamentally they simplify life by giving structure, boundaries and expectations. People know more easily how to navigate in the realm of tradition. But one sign that a tradition is in danger, is when people come to forget its purpose, when people forget where it came from or why we observe it, when people forget what it means or symbolizes.
I wonder if I were to get in my time machine and go back to 1940 in this parish and ask people some questions: Why do women wear hats and veils and men do not cover their heads? Why do we kneel to receive communion? Why is the Mass in Latin? Why does the priest face toward the altar? Why are all these things done this way? I suspect I would get an answer something to the effect: “I dunno, we just do it that way. Why don’t you ask the priest?”
In other words, I wonder if the first stage of losing a tradition is when it no longer makes conscious sense to people? That is, when when it is no longer clear to them why we do what we do, other than to say, “That’s just what we do.”
At some point when we are dealing with tradition we run the risk that they become wooden and rote, and we start sifting through the ashes of an old fire that has largely gone out. Unless we fan into flames the gifts of God’s love (cf 2 Tim 1:6) our love and appreciation of these things grows cold, and their beauty tarnishes. And then, some one says of something, “What’s this?” And we say, “What?! that old thing?!” And thus the suggestion to “get rid of it” receives a cursory nod, “Sure, that’s fine, get rid of it”
But the process begins with forgetfulness. And forgetfulness leads to a lack of understanding which then gives way to a lack of appreciation. And all this culminates with an almost gleeful dismissal of things old and now tarnished traditions which once sustained and framed our lives.
To be sure, some things need to fall away and perhaps there is place and time to lose things for a while, only to rediscover them. But what we have experienced in the last 60 years has been more than this sort of natural process. It has been a rupture, and radical discontinuity that has shaken many of our foundations, Church and family especially.
Therefore we do well to “remember” many of our traditions. The word “remember” suggests a process of putting the pieces back together again, a process of collecting some precious things that have been severed from the body and making them once again a “member” of the Body, the Church, and of our families. Remembering many of our lost traditions, even as we establish some new ones, is an important way of ensuring continuity with our past heritage and members.
Tradition is the “democracy of the dead” wherein our ancestors get a say in what we do. Tradition is a way to “re-member” the Church, to honor the ways and practices of the ancients that my grandmother recalled with fondness and a sense of loss. And it was a loss, but a loss I pray we are beginning to remedy, as we remember the best of the past and recover our traditions.
I thought of all of this as I watched this video from Fiddler on the Roof. This was written at a time when the sweeping changes of the last 60 years were already underway. And this song “Tradition!” while it tips a hat at tradition, ultimately ridicules it by implying that tradition is the kind of thing that essentially keeps men in charge, women down, and forces children into arranged and unhappy marriages.
At a key moment in the song Tevye is describing a tradition of the prayer tassels and says, You may ask, how did this tradition Got Started? And then after a pause he says, I don’t know! But it’s a tradition! The first sign that a tradition is in trouble is forgetfulness.
But the musical (written in 1964) pretty well captures the iconoclastic attitudes emerging at the time that were cynical of tradition in a general sort of way. Despite that cynicism Tevye rightly notes what we have come to discover only too well:
“Without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as a Fiddler on the Roof.”