Wednesday, 18 September 2019

TRADITION, CHALLENGE, WITNESS (1) An Address to the Carmelite General Chapter by Michael Casey OCSO

12 September 2019

1.     Tradition

Then the LORD said [to Elijah]: “Go out and stand on the mountain before the face of the LORD. Behold the LORD is about to pass.” And there was a great and powerful wind, rending the mountains and shattering the rocks before the face of the LORD. But the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was fire. But the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire, the sound of a faint whisper. (1 K 19:11-12)

One of the great paradoxes of the spiritual life is that the God whom we seek is present to the world of space and time precisely by being absent from it. God’s presence is through a perceptible absence. God is not in the world as a discernible object, but as a presence as close to nothing as we can conceive. As Elijah’s vision at Horeb indicates, the presence of God seems to be no more than the sound of a faint whisper. It is silence. Real yet subtle beyond our imagining. Even while we can affirm God’s agency in the world we are baffled by the fact that God is not-a-thing, not a thing alongside other things, but a reality that is utterly other. Whatever we say about God is necessarily trite and without foundation, yet it is this experience of the density of God’s absence which kindles the desire that is the driving force of every spiritual journey.

The marketing of such “an unknown God”, as Saint Paul quickly discovered, is not easy. The alternatives are atheism or some form of idolatry. The lurking temptation to make contact with other more accessible deities is ever-present, and gods of our own creation are usually more amenable to our ways of thinking and acting. But manufactured religion (ethelothreskia – Col 2:23) has no transcendent component; it can be only a variant of social conditioning. Because the divine nature is directly unknowable – even if God’s existence is postulated – it would seem that human beings are limited to an effectively godless existence.

Then came the surprise. God spoke. God’s self-revelation. In various ways God addressed patriarchs and prophets, and as the centuries passed we received the gift of authoritative instruction in the things of God (torah). Furthermore, we were admonished by saints and sages to find the vestiges of God even in the opacity of the created world. Then, in the fullness of time, God sent the Son, born of a woman. In him the fullness of the Godhead resided, so that by his becoming human we might become divine.

Christ, as the site of God’s definitive self-revelation, is the portal by which we are able to make contact with the spiritual world and, thereby, with the God who dwells in inaccessible light. This ongoing revelation is living and active; it is not inert. It is the means by which God’s agency in the world continues to be accomplished. It is the means by which eternal life – which comes from contact with the divine – is transmitted. Christ as the source of eternal life transmits it to us through human mediation: the proclamation of the Good News, the sacraments, the life-giving communion which is the Church.
And there you have a description of tradition – one that goes beyond sociology and cultural anthropology and views it in terms of theology and metaphysics. It is the transmission of life. Eternal life.

1.     Tradition
“[Elisha] picked up the cloak which had fallen from Elijah and returned to stand on the bank of the Jordan. There he struck the water with Elijah’s cloak, saying ‘Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?’’’ (2 K 2:13-14)

Tradition is often misunderstood as a stodgy reality, referring to the conservation of the past and, thereby, resistance to the present and an indifference to the future. The form of the word contradicts this reading. The suffix –itio in traditio indicates that it is a process. It is closer to a verb than a noun. Properly traditio refers to the act of handing on something to another, rather than the thing that is being transmitted. Tradition is alive as long as it is being passed on from one generation to the next. Far from being static, it is an ever-flowing Heraclitean river.1

But there is a catch. The verb tradere means not only “to hand on” but also “to betray”. Ironically, what is handed on is inevitably changed. The act of reception modifies what is received. This is the presupposition of the “telephone game” (téléphone arabe), sometimes called “Chinese whispers” (Chinesiches Flüstern). It is impossible to receive a message and to pass it on without adding to it something of oneself. So far from being a museum-keeper’s climate-controlled sterility, tradition promotes preservation by replicating itself in a variety of forms, each version drawing sustenance from its own unique and particular environment.

There are, therefore, two false notions of tradition. One is to identify it with a fixed and unchanging deposit – of beliefs, values or practices – which serves as a permanent criterion of orthodoxy. The other is to view it within the nineteenth-century mentality of continuing.
progress; every onward step is an improvement which makes the past redundant. The reality comes somewhere within this polarity. Tradition remains itself by constantly changing. It is ever new, yet it loses nothing of what it was.

Tradition is a process of ongoing re-formation of whatever is received in accordance the emergent situation. Re-formation is not an occasional necessity; it is an integral component of the process. The shape of this re-formation is not determined exclusively by what has previously existed; it is a response to new challenges. Taking the Good News beyond the ambit of the lost sheep of the house of Israel inevitably meant that the Gospel would be modified in the process. There are today thousands of ways to embody the beliefs and values of the Gospel, differentiated by their geography and by their individual cultural pathways through the centuries. The self-revelation of God has produced an almost-infinite variety of resonances is the hearts of human beings that collectively testify to the unfathomable richness of the divine entity.

This principle is exemplified in the different traditions of Gospel living that are associated with the various religious orders that have sprung up in response to what Vatican II famously termed “the signs of the times”. We can, if we are so inclined, trace the genealogy of these traditions, noting how through different concatenations of circumstances a single stream of tradition is repeatedly re-formed.2 Many of these re-formations imagine themselves as the recovery of the original and authentic tradition that had been lost or deformed over the course of time. But, in every case, it is something new that is emerging. And, of course, traditions are often deformed in the course of re-formation – that is why the history of so many of the older religious orders is punctuated by spasms of reform.

The Second Vatican Council summarily described the task of the renewal of religious life as returning to the sources and responding to the signs of the times. The key word is, of course, “and”. One or other of these courses of action is no more than moderately challenging; to pursue both objectives simultaneously is much more demanding. Within the ranks of those who follow particular traditions there have always been some who hanker after returning to the past and others who want to leave it behind and precipitate themselves into the present. And this requires – to use another much-favoured ideal of Vatican II – dialogue. Otherwise, the result is polarisation and sometimes division between what might be termed “conservative” and “progressive”. In such situations, the wisdom of the well-known saying of Hegel is often forgotten. "Genuine tragedies in the world are not conflicts between right and wrong. They are conflicts between two rights." Two rights often make a wrong.

At the heart of this dilemma is the issue of hermeneutics. Is the tradition being read correctly and dynamically or is it being seen as something fixed and immovable – on the one hand to be embraced, on the other to be rejected? The interpretation of a spiritual patrimony is not governed by the same norms as the juridical reading of legislative texts. There is a kind of family access that allows those who have long lived according to the beliefs and values embodied in the tradition, intuitively to contextualise what is written and to grasp its meaning in their own very different situation. There is the possibility, as Hans-Georg Gadamer pointed out, of a “fusion of horizons” (Horizonverschmelzung) which is the prerequisite for arriving at a common language that permits dialogue.3

 To engage with our spiritual tradition we need the fundamental openness of a listener4 that permits “uninterrupted listening”,5 and this presupposes that, in approaching the text, we are “radically undogmatic”.6 I accept that in coming to the tradition for guidance I will encounter “some things that are against myself”.7 Previous internalisation of the beliefs and values of the tradition is not meant as a defence against change, but as a point of departure for a new expression of ancient truths in which the enhanced sensitivity of the committed reader plays a necessary and creative role.

We must not lose sight of the theological component in spiritual traditions. The tradition of a religious order is one expression of ecclesial tradition, one channel by which the out-pouring of God’s self-revelation flows into us. Our participation in a tradition – and not merely our reception of it – is a source of life. It is a means by which the life of Christ flows into us and enables us to live at a level otherwise impossible. Consider your call. Was not our experience of vocation a perception of a path leading to more abundant life? It opened out before us as a means of access to the spiritual world, which we could accept or decline. It was more than a career-choice. We experienced it as the call of Christ not greatly dissimilar to the call of Simon the fisherman, or Matthew the tax-collector, or the rich man who went away sadder.

Our corporate sense of being called by Christ is the hermeneutical key to understanding our tradition. We approach our patrimony with the desire to understand what it is to which we are called – today. Not yesterday. “If today you hear God’s voice…” I suppose that what is operating here is the grace of communion which energises those who give it admittance, not only to ensure that the tradition is alive but to aspire to make it lively. This means that we who participate in a tradition are obliged to allow that tradition continually to work its magic on us. With one hand we receive from the past, we make it our own and, with the other hand, we pass it on to the future. This particular lifeline by which God acts in self-revelation and self-communication is kept alive by human mediation. That is, by us. By continuing the tradition we become instruments in God’s work of sanctification.

The communion of saints is imaged in the New Testament as the Body of Christ – a body in which the different members are functionally distinct. This means that there is no ground for comparison between the relative value of one against another. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you’.” Within the universal call to holiness there are distinct vocations, each contributing to the divine master-plan. And we have to admit that no matter how much we labour over our vision statements and mission statements, we do not really know with much clarity exactly what is our ongoing role in the universal scheme of things. As a result, we often misjudge what is happening around us as we pass through necessary but unwelcome periods of transition. Nothing remains the same for long. Religious orders typically pass through alternating seasons of expansion and contraction. What we often fail to understand is that the driving forces of growth are often the lessons learned during diminishment.
In particular, we tend to be overly negative in assessing the potential inherent in the present situation. This is a convenient excuse for luxuriating in our lack of prospects and sinking into purposelessness, tending the fire sufficiently to keep ourselves warm, but lacking any missionary zeal to allow it to flourish. Many of us feel inclined to exclaim with Cicero, O tempora! O mores! We look around at problems and divisions within the Church, at the disheartedness of so many religious because of reduced numbers and diminishing vitality. We find rising in our hearts what may be termed the mantra of despair. “If only.” If only the pool of potential recruits were larger. If only we had more candidates. If only more of those that enter persevere. If only our leadership were more dynamic… To which God may well reply, “There are still seven thousand who have not bowed their knee to Baal.”

Too often we are held back from the good we can do by what Jean Baudrillard has termed “eclectic nostalgia”.8 We are tyrannised by our selective memories of what it used to be like, as though the exuberance many orders experienced during the 1950s, or in the nineteenth century, were normative. We are sent to interact with our own time and culture, whatever that may be now, and whatever it may be in the process of becoming. This is why tradition is alive; it draws its energy from the real world, which it views as an exciting complex of brand new challenges. The athleticism with which tradition has responded to change in previous centuries is a source of confidence that it is well able to serve God and advance God’s Kingdom in any situation that ambient society throws up.

Nobody would take seriously a tennis player who insisted on playing only those shots to which he had given prior approval. The point of the game is that a player does not know what sort of ball his opponent will send down next. He has to be ready not only to defend against his opponent’s shot, but creatively to turn it back on him in a way that is not expected. In kindergarten tennis it may be different, but the professional is expected to be able to deal with anything the other player throws at him.

Maybe it is time for us to pay less attention to the “prophets of doom” and their statistics and projections and begin to see what are the particular possibilities that this time of change brings. We should be in no doubt that we are confronting not merely an epoch of change, but a change of epoch. As Pope Francis has said.9 We are living through a paradigm shift.10 This may very well require of us new learning and new skills, but it is not the end of the world. And it need not be the end of the tradition to which we belong. Unless we have some sort of a death wish that robs us of hope and saps our energy to resist extinction. Perhaps we should take to heart the famous poem of Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

A tradition is not usually extinguished by external forces alone; if it fades it is because those who bear it become disheartened, lose their nerve, and put down their burden.

1 On this see M. Casey, “Tradition, Interpretation, Reform: The Western Monastic Experience,” American Benedictine Review 69:4 (2018), pp. 400-428.
2 In “From Desert to Cloister” in Monks Road: Gethsemani into the Twenty-First Century (Trappist: Gethsemani Abbey, 2015), pp. 9-87, I tried to demonstrate how different facets of monastic spirituality were successively brought into play by the distinctive social conditions of the eras to which it was addressed.
3 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Sheed and Ward, 1965), p. 273; “Understanding … is always the fusion of these horizons which we imagine to exist by themselves.”
4 Gadamer, Truth and Method, p.324.
5 Gadamer, Truth and Method, p. 421
6 Gadamer, Truth and Method, p. 319.
7 Gadamer, Truth and Method, p. 325. 
8 “Postmodernity is said to be a culture of fragmentary sensations, eclectic nostalgia, disposable simulacra, and promiscuous superficiality, in which the traditionally valued qualities of depth, coherence, meaning, originality, and authenticity are evacuated or dissolved amid the random swirl of empty signals.” Sourced from
9 “We are not so much living in an epoch of change, but a change of epoch.” L’Osservatore Romano, 4 July 2014, p. 10.
10 Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 4th Edition 2012). p. 175. See Hans Küng and David Tracy [ed.], Paradigm Change in Theology: A Symposium for the Future (New York: Crossroad, 1989). Hans Küng, Can We Save the Catholic Church? (London: William Collins, 2013)

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