“Ritual and symbol are as necessary to human beings as air and water. They mark us as human, and give us identity.” -Kathleen Norris, 316
In many modern churches, traditions seem to be at war with growth and progress. Congregations move away from old customs in hopes of keeping up with a changing culture. Hymns are exchanged for modern music; sanctuaries are adorned with stage lights rather than stained-glass. We partake of communion only once-a-month or once-a-quarter rather than as part of weekly services.
And in the growing trend of contemporary worship, mainstream Christianity often relegates tradition to a back-burner or throws it out all together. The American church views liturgy as boring and ritualistic. Denominational structures are seen as political and judgmental. We rarely discuss and often misunderstand practices such as fasting or the observance of Lent. As we move forward in our culture, we come to forget what came before us. At times, we even come to mistrust church traditions.
There’s some fairness in being wary of tradition. Humanity has a history of elevating our customs above truth. In Mark 7:8, Jesus admonishes the Pharisees, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” The Pharisees allowed the laws of men to supersede the laws of God. A dangerous exchange. One that’s easy to fall into. We like our habits and don’t like to give them up once they’re formed.
But we have to realize that the problem doesn’t lie in traditions themselves, but in human nature.
In our attempts to correct the overemphasis on rituals, we often throw ourselves off balance in the other direction. We totally reject traditions rather than putting them back in their proper place. Kathleen Norris, in her work The Cloister Walk reminds us of the beauty and power of church traditions, especially of liturgy.
As she writes about her experiences in Benedictine monasteries, Kathleen Norris compares liturgy to poetry. She says that both let “words work on the earth of [her] heart” (145). Words hold an incredible ability to shape us and to “work on the human psyche.” By taking time to read Scripture aloud in communal settings and to engage in prayer, monks allow themselves to experience the truth of those scriptures. The words come alive in a new way; they take on a deeper meaning.
Church traditions take ordinary actions and use them to help us grow.
Norris says of monks and poets: “Both have a finely developed sense of sacred potential in all things; both value image and symbol over utilitarian purpose or the bottom line; they recognize the transformative power hiding in the simplest things” (146).
While the monastic calling is different from the church, the idea of simple things being transformative is central to Christian faith. Our faith is based on simple truths: believe and you will be saved, faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains, we are all sinners, we are all loved. And unexpected, everyday people and ordinary things become sacred in the hands of God. The angels first announced Christ’s birth to the shepherds. The first miracle Jesus performed was turning water to wine. Fishermen became disciples. Jesus, the very Son of God, identified Himself with bread, water, and light. Simple things matter.
Why should we be surprised to find that simple acts of tradition can become transformative as well? The act of reading Scripture aloud together helps to build a sense of community. We aren’t alone in speaking; instead, we’re surrounded by the words. Just as with singing together, speaking and praying Scripture pulls us into the present moment. The reading becomes, “a bodily experience. . . masticating the words of scripture in order to fully digest them,” (145). And as we all hear and speak and digest the same message, we’re unified. Even if only for a moment.
Church traditions can shift our perspectives to focus on something beyond ourselves.
“The monastic life has this in common with the artistic one: both are attempts to pay close attention to objects, events, and the natural phenomena that otherwise would get chewed up in the daily grind.” -266
Traditions and rituals help us to slow down and pay attention. When taken seriously, they remind us to listen and to absorb truth. Whether it be fasting, participating in baptism, or celebrating Easter or Christmas, these active illustrations of our faith force us to be attentive. They help us discipline our wandering thoughts into quiet submission. Norris says that listening is a central part of ministry, and rituals can helps us learn to listen well. They take abstract ideas such as unity or sacrifice and makes them real. A community of believers speaking in one voice. A meal given up to seek the Lord. The symbols of faith aren’t meant to be ornamental; they are in an odd way incredibly practical.
When we partake in the Lord’s Supper with an attentive spirit, the truth of Christ’s sacrifice presses itself upon us. On the cross, He paid for our sins with His broken body. He poured out His blood to wash us clean. Even if we’ve heard the story a thousand times, we still need that tangible reminder that Christ died for us. Perhaps that’s why Jesus commanded His disciples to take and eat and drink. He knew that as people, we need symbols.
Church traditions remind us that we are part of a larger whole.
God has created us for community. As part of the body of Christ, we’re connected to all our brothers and sisters, present and past. When we partake in traditions, we step into an experience shared across years, across denominations, across cultures.
Norris discusses in one chapter the habit nuns wear. Many nuns had moved away from wearing traditional habits, and in one community, the sisters made a new practice. They started giving nuns a long, simple black robe to wear for ceremonies. Norris states, “Several women in the community have told me that they enjoy this restoration of a link to their monastic past and the visible sense of communal identity that it gives them,” (327).
Church traditions can be a similar link. They mark us as members of a distinct community, a holy nation, chosen by God as described in 1 Peter 2. While traditions shouldn’t be our central focus, they can still be a powerful testimony of faith. They can help us refocus our attention and put Christ in the center of our lives where He belongs.
When we look at the Pharisees that Christ admonished, we learn the dangers of letting traditions rise above Scripture. But the point of those traditions was originally to seek God. The Pharisees failed, not because they washed their hands before meals and tried to keep themselves clean. They failed because they let the traditions become an end in themselves. They stopped using them to seek God.
If in today’s church, we saw traditions as a means to seek God rather than an end in themselves, I wonder how many Christians would be drawn to them.
Theology, as Norris quotes, is the prose of our faith but liturgy is the poetry (61). A poet at heart, I’ve always been drawn to the process. And traditions rest near the heart of faith’s process, never central, but pointing to it. Church tradition is a tool, a rich, beautiful, powerful tool for resting in Scripture. Perhaps rather than throwing traditions away, we should revisit them as the nuns did with their habits. We should reshape the traditions to better fit the needs of our communities, but still allow those links to the past to live on.
The world is full of loud distractions in our modern age. Perhaps the quiet poetry of faith is precisely what we need.