An Instance of Tradition

08.15.2012, 11:35 AM

In an interview with a lapsed Catholic, college-educated salesman from a new subdivision in Maytown, I was asking him why, when he was finished with college and thinking about proposing to his girlfriend, he did not want to simply live together with his girlfriend in a long-term relationship. Why did he want to get married?

I mean, coming from a Catholic faith, you look at the way that we’re kinda raised. It is kind of a — p-dum, p-dum [imitating drum beating sound]. It’s kind of like that program thing. You go to school. You go to Mass. You find a nice, Catholic girl. You get married. You buy a house. You have a kid. Boom, boom, boom, boom, you know? And I find myself living my life on the next step. I was thinking like that.

To me, his answer is an example of how traditions and institutions help to simplify what are otherwise extraordinarly complex decisions. It is also an example of how culture orients a person toward certain decisions — “I was thinking like that,” he says.

Sometimes tradition is overbearing and stifling, and leads a person down the wrong path. Or because tradition is tradition, the danger is that the person fails to own what the tradition teaches. But when traditions, or institutions, are working as they ought to work, the “p-dum, p-dum” of tradition’s drum help a person to internalize accumulated wisdom, march confidently into the future, and to a certain extent, “predict” the future.

5 Responses to “An Instance of Tradition”

  1. Amy Ziettlow says:

    On a related note, I often think about the rhythms of liturgy and the ways that formal liturgy be that the Islamic call to prayer or the sacramental words of communion liturgy and so on-I find that the words and tunes and postures shape us over a lifetime and shape how we think of the divine and of ourselves in the world. And in times
    Of distress my mind short circuits and I need words and tunes my body remembers.

  2. La Lubu says:

    You know, I actually agree with this; that traditions can provide guidance, support, and put one into the “flow” (of life, one’s community). It’s why I meditate and follow the Wheel of the Year. It’s why I find certain rituals and practices necessary, not just meaningful.

    But it took me a very long time to find a community of people I could share a tradition with. I don’t think there’s much acknowledgement from conservative-minded folks that most of us who aren’t adhering to “tradition” aren’t people who oppose the idea/concept of tradition….it’s just the specific traditions we’ve encountered or had some experience with……just don’t fit. Just don’t work for us. I felt that lack of spiritual community as a gap in my life….but it wasn’t a gap that could be filled by just anything. I didn’t want to sign on to something I didn’t believe in, something where I would have to leave whole parts of myself out of, and worse—teach my daughter to do the same. I feel fortunate that I found a tradition I could sign on to wholeheartedly, and raise my daughter in without having to give her various caveat lectures along with it (like the still-practicing Catholic members of my family do with their kids….the “these are the things the Church is wrong about, but please stick with it anyway” talks).

  3. Amy Ziettlow says:

    I was just having a conversation with a former dance professor of mine about how classical ballet is a spiritual practice. I’ve always been fascinated by how we structure our lives and what those structures reflect about the universe and ultimate concern, to steal Tillich’s term.

  4. David Lapp says:

    Amy, Yes, the same is true of liturgy, isn’t it. I grew up in an evangelical Protestant church that did not have a liturgy. We emphasized the importance of spontaneous expression. Now a Catholic, I’ve come to appreciate the rhythm of the liturgy. I still have to fight it becoming a dead ritual, however. I never want that to happen. Just like tradition should remain a living tradition.

    La Lubu, today, I’m reading another interview with another college-educated lapsed Catholic. He was talking about how his views on marriage, which he says are not similar to the Catholic Church’s doctrine. He likes being Catholic, he says, but he also says that his views on things like marriage and abortion aren’t “Catholic views.” He sounded very much like your Catholic family members who say “these are the things the Church is wrong about, but please stick with it anyway.” And that doesn’t sit well with me either.

    And I think you’re right in saying that “that most of us who aren’t adhering to “tradition” aren’t people who oppose the idea/concept of tradition….it’s just the specific traditions we’ve encountered or had some experience with……just don’t fit.” It reminds me of the evangelical Protestant churches I grew up in, who make a big deal about being non-traditional. But whether they recognize it or not, they have traditions they’re abiding by.

  5. La Lubu says:

    David, I also think in most of these conversations in the US, we negate how/to what extent the traditions or rituals we are comfortable with are informed by our ethnic heritage—there’s this myth of the “melting pot” that…is more untrue than true.

    In my own UU congregation (for instance), most of the members are former Catholics (as is the minister). We have rituals that function as a liturgy of sorts (it’s a non-creedal religion), like the lighting (and extinguishing) of the chalice, the Water Communion, the Flower Communion, etc. Even the first time I went, that felt very familiar to me, because it resembled the call-and-response during Mass (only, with the lighting of the chalice, I could actually believe/agree with every word; I didn’t have to say to myself, “ehh, no….but it doesn’t matter, what matters is keeping up tradition..). But that same ritual that warms the hearts of all the Irish, Italian and Eastern European members with its rhythmic familiarity makes the folks who are generational Unitarians/Humanists bristle. It’s not the words, but the “smells and bells” of lighting the thing. Conversely, the southern Gospel pieces favored by our primary pianist/music director make a lot of non-Christians uncomfortable and perplex many of the former Catholics (at least, those not familiar with the songs from the labor movement/civil rights movement).

    Where seekers land has a lot to do with finding that familiarity. I found it really interesting to learn that many of the changes to UU services came from the score of women who entered the clergy starting in the 60s (after a long hiatus; Unitarians and Universalists both ordained women ministers in the 1800s).