Tradition vs. Convention

Okay, so I realize it’s been May since I posted on my blog, which actually discounts it from being a blog. But when you live on St. Simons Island and you take a summer break, well…, the summers last quite a while here.

Anyway, I am back to posting excerpts from Merton that we use for discussion in staff meetings at Wesley. While I realize it isn’t original content, it is transformative nonetheless. Let it get in you and you to can fall in love with Thomas Merton. Now that evenings on the back porch are more bearable (and enjoyable) you may even see some original gleanings before too long.

Matthew 15:1-20
1Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” 3He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 5But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father. 6So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. 7You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: 8‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 9in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”
10Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” 13He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” 15But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” 16Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

Excerpts from No Man is An Island, “Vocation – Tradition in the Monastery” by Thomas Merton

  • The first ones to condemn the monastery that has become infected with worldliness are those who, in the world, are themselves least monastic, for even those who have abandoned their religion often retain a high and exacting idea of religious perfection.
  • Where the sense of monastic tradition is lacking, monks immediately begin to lead unbalanced lives. They are unable to learn true discretion. They cannot acquire a sense of proportion. They forget what they are supposed to be. They are not able to settle down and live at peace in the monastery. They cannot get along with their superiors or their brethren. Why do all these things happen? Because the monks who have never learned how to be real monks are driving themselves crazy trying to live the monastic life with the spirit and the methods appropriate to some other kind of life.
  • It must be learned. And it cannot be learned without direct contact with the channels of life through which it comes. That is why St. Benedict urged his own monks to read Cassian, St. Basil, and the Desert Fathers. But the reading of ancient monastic books is only one of these channels, and by no means the most important. The only way to become a monk is to live among real monks, and to learn the life from their example.
  • Tradition is living and active, but convention is passive and dead. Tradition does not form us automatically: we have to work to understand it. Convention is accepted passively, as a matter of routine. Therefore convention easily becomes an evasion of reality. It offers us only pretended ways of solving the problems of living—a system of gestures and formalities. Tradition really teaches us to live and shows us how to take full responsibility for our own lives. Thus tradition is often flatly opposed to what is ordinary, to what is mere routine. But convention, which is a mere repetition of familiar routines, follows the line of least resistance.
  • Tradition, which is always old, is at the same time ever new because it is always reviving—born again in each new generation, to be lived and applied in a new and particular way.
  • Tradition nourishes the life of the spirit; convention merely disguises its interior decay.
  • Finally, tradition is creative. Always original, it always opens out new horizons for an old journey. Convention, on the other hand, is completely unoriginal. It is slavish imitation. It is closed in upon itself and leads to complete sterility.

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