Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Does Tradition preserve us, or we the Tradition?

St Anthony of the Desert having a lovely
quiet time.
There is a striking moment in Francis Poulenc's great Catholic opera, Dialogues des Carmelites. The young protagonist, Blanche, suffers from extreme timidity and wants to join a convent. She has an interview with the tough old Prioress, who ask her why she wants to join. She is seeking, she says, 'refuge'.

The Prioress rebukes her: Notre règle n'est pas un refuge. Ce n'est pas la règle qui nous garde, ma fille, c'est nous qui gardons la règle.

The Rule is not a refuge. It is not the rule which guards us, my daughter, but we who guard the Rule.

There is a little wordplay here: 'garde' means 'guard' and simply 'keep': we keep the Rule, in the ordinary sense of following it. But of course in keeping the Rule of religious life they by the same act maintain it, preserve it, guard it.

A rule of religious life, for those in it, is a burden which must be taken up every single day. Every morning you must get out of bed, often at some absurd time in the morning, to follow the Rule, and spend the day keeping its prescriptions on food, prayer, and work, in an endless round. It hems you in; it limits what can do; and if you get slack, if your vigilance wavers, then the regular life, the life of the rule, crumbles around you.

It is the same with the Church's Tradition. I don't mean the Deposit of Faith, but the living Tradition which informs the Christian life. We guard it, we keep it, in the simple sense of we keep it up. It exists as a living Tradition because it is kept, observed. It does not keep us: we keep it. If we stopped bothering, then we would fall outside it; too many people become slack, it will decay; if everyone gives up on it, it will cease to exist.

Aspects of this Tradition are bound up so closely with the Faith and the very existence of the Church, that they are covered by Our Lord's guarantee of the Indefectability of the Church. The rest is not. Important components of Tradition can be lost, and some have been.

It is uncharactistic of Gerard Manley Hopkins to get something so central to the Christian life completely and sentimentally wrong, but he does, in his poem about a woman taking the veil:

And I have asked to be 
Where no storms come, ...

If that's what she wanted, she must have been disappointed. The religious life is not for the faint-hearted; it is a field of spiritual combat, not a retirement home. The religious life, in this respect, is an intensified version of the Christian life in general. Ronald Knox put it well; talking about an old soldier who had become a Catholic, who was asked if he had found peace, he reported the response: 'Peace? I have found war!'

War: but not in a bad way. If you are wondering what the point of the obligations of the religious vocation might be, or what benefit is offered us by a Tradition which makes so many demands upon us, it is that they marshal us in the army of Christ, in the fearful battle with principalities and powers. They encapsulate the practical wisdom of our predecessors in the Faith, the Fathers, Doctors, Holy Founders and spiritual masters of the past, who, precisely because they are in the past, are not infected with the errors of today. The rules, the habits and practices, give us structure, discipline, and coordination; they keep us away from harmful influences, and they feed us with wholesome spiritual food. To relinquish them is to go naked into battle with Satan, without weapons of attack, armour of defence, or training in combat.

You may not want war, but the war will find you. This being so, the Church is of course the safest place to be, but not because you can sleep folded in her arms, but because she will make you strong. 

It is a simple point, really, that Catholics attached to the Tradition want to make. Not that salvation is impossible without the Brown Scapular or birettas, but that to reject great swathes of the Church's Tradition, and above all the Traditional liturgy, is to attempt to live without a whole lot of things which are of huge help in the Christian life. Taken in the abstract, they will no more protect you than a copy of the army manual of discipline and tactics will protect you against a hail of bullets. It is the army which must keep the principles of such manuals alive, not the other way round. Just don't expect an army without discipline or tactics to withstand the enemy's attack.

Catholics who think they, and the Church in general, can do without the Traditional Mass are both right and wrong. It is not absolutely necessary to an individual's salvation. But to cast its help aside at this moment of crisis is hubristic in the extreme.

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  1. Thank you for this post.

  2. After this synod Catholics who believe in the Traditional Mass may be the only Catholics left.

  3. An excellent point. But if I may, rather tangentially, defend Hopkins: he wasn't yet a Catholic when he wrote 'Heaven-Haven', and had had no opportunity to discover the realities of the religious life. He would soon learn better.

  4. “but the war will find you”

    And let us remember that no war, even the Catholic concept of a Just War, is pleasant. Quite the opposite. But fight it we and coming generations will have to do. An appeal to St Michael and our guardian angel is appropriate here.

    As for Tradition let us Catholics note what Chesterton pointed out .

    “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”


  5. To me the sentence, "... but that to reject great swathes of the Church's Tradition, and above all the Traditional liturgy, is to attempt to live without a whole lot of things which are of huge help in the Christian life, " is the best refutation of Fr. Longenecker.