Lessons From A Monastery: Keeping Tradition Alive

So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter. (2 Thess. 2:15)

There are two extremes in the Church right now regarding Tradition. The first is to disregard anything one finds irrelevant to our modern age. Meanwhile, the other extreme is to cling to everything, not allowing any room for change. Both extremes are wrong, and more importantly are harmful to the life of the Church.

At the center of this issue are two things. One is the individualistic society we now live in which makes it hard to understand what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ. This influences how we view Tradition (both Holy Tradition and the lesser, but also important, traditions of the people). When we see traditions as being those of “others,” of belonging to individual people, we look at them from afar, as outsiders, thinking they have nothing to do with us.

The second problem at the heart of the issue (closely related to the first problem) is a lack of understanding regarding what it means that the Church is alive and in a constant relationship with the Holy Trinity. Having the traditions of the Church handed down to us and simply mimicking what people of the past did isn’t enough. We need to internalize them and make them our own, which may mean organically changing things in certain ways. Understanding why we keep certain traditions, how it is that they have lead people in the past to God, and how they can lead us closer to God, is absolutely essential to our faith.

Abbot Nicholas explained to me that, “Tradition is the life experience of the whole Church—the entire Body of Christ, as it has been guided and influenced by the Holy Spirit. When people are thinking about life and making decisions, they draw from many sources to make those decisions. The Church draws on her life experience for discernment, that life experience is what we call Tradition.”

The life of a monastic revolves around the life of the Church—their lives are immersed in this life. At Holy Resurrection Monastery the liturgical life is lived, the full cycle of the Liturgy of the Hours is prayed daily, the sacraments are celebrated, the Church calendar is followed, acts of fasting, hospitality, and charity are regularly performed. The monks maintain the Holy Tradition of the Church and keep many traditions of the faithful alive.

The monastery is a treasury of memory, song, beauty, and the keeper of the family history. At the services the saints of the day are commemorated, their story read at Matins, our brothers and sisters gone before us remembered and most importantly are asked to pray for all of us. The monastery is where the saints and the liturgical experience of the Body of Christ are very much alive and not just forgotten relics of the past with no meaning or purpose for today’s Christian. It is also a place of balance, maintaining Holy Tradition and traditions of the faithful but doing so without making tradition an idol.

Being so young (in age and faith) when my husband and I first met the monks at HRM their example has left deep impressions on us. Seeing these men (and other religious) live their Christianity out the way they do has driven home the importance of keeping the faith as it has been handed down alive and strong. We know to continually draw on this life experience of the Church to understand and live our own relationships with God in a deeper and more meaningful way. When you see people living their lives in a way that keeps the faith alive and growing, the importance of the Tradition of the Church is made clear.

Where would we be without Tradition? Scripture is the written experience of the Church and a part of Holy Tradition. The sacramentals of the Church like the candles, incense, vestments, the chant, the liturgical cycle, etc. all of these things are a part of the Church’s life. The sacramentals are teachers to us; they help us to understand better the sacraments we receive. For example, candles are lit to remind us of the light of Christ we received in baptism, and that we are to shine this light for the world to see. We lose who we really are when we disconnect from the experience of the Body of Christ and want to reinvent the wheel and have a faith not handed on to us but made to suit our own taste and desires.

Abbot Nicholas gave me a good analogy, “Think of tradition as passing on a language. If you are teaching a language to someone and you introduce too many new words you have bastardized the language and it will not have the same meaning to other people. You will then fail to communicate properly with others.” He continued to explain that organic changes are fine, but when a few people drastically and purposely change things it makes tradition irrelevant to everyone else and only makes sense to a few.

I touched on the keeping of tradition in my previous article about religious habits. I explained the pros and cons of religious wearing a habit, and also explained that we lose too much when we discard practices that have been proven to lead us and others to Christ.  People are right in wanting to shed things that get in the way of loving God; pride is often mentioned as a reason not to wear a habit. And other people are right in wanting to keep traditional practices that have been proven to aid people to grow in holiness. The answer is in understanding why we have specific traditions and then allowing them to aid us to love and grow closer to God. If someone will be proud over their habit, while not wearing it won’t solve the pride issue, it will just remove that one source. The shedding of sin is what we really need to be focused on; overcoming the pride is the real goal and truly understanding why we have a tradition is also.

We have so much to be grateful for to the consecrated people of the Church, they have kept the faith alive, safeguarded Holy Tradition, passed on the traditions of our family gone before us and as members of the Body of Christ live the life of the Church in ways that benefits all of us. We have much to learn from them.

We can all learn to immerse ourselves and family into the liturgical life of the Church, to live Feast to Feast, to pray, fast, and give alms, to utilize the sacramentals of the Church in order to understand the faith in deeper ways, to commemorate and know closely the saints.

One of the greatest dangers of our individual society is we end up feeling alone and isolated, we think we have to figure everything out ourselves and that no one understands our struggles. Christians living in such a secular society are few and far between at times, which is why it is important to build up our Christian communities. However, we have the entire history of Christianity behind us and before us. As the members of the Body of Christ we have the entire experience of the Church to draw from and learn from. We are not alone if we just look to the right source for help and cling to what we should, not our own individual ideals and thoughts, not right things but with the wrong intention of heart or understanding either. We cling to the life of God that is burning inside of us and one another—burning within the Kingdom of God—the Church and her tradition.

I will leave you with one last story to think about. The Coptic Orthodox Liturgy is around three hours long. Someone asked one of the Coptic faithful why they still pray such a long service, why not shorten it. The person explained that they do not have the right to change the faith and they remember the numerous martyrs who died for this faith, remembering them, how can they change what the martyrs died for. Amen, and let us remember too.

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Jessica Archuleta blogs with friends at Engage the Culture where you might find a movie review, a piece of poetry, a work of art, or any other number of culture related topics being discussed or shared from a Catholic point of view. She also blogs at Every Home a Monastery where she shares her experience of being a Monastic Associate (oblate) of Holy Resurrection Monastery located within walking distance of her home. She and her family moved across the country to Wisconsin from California after the monks had to make the move themselves. Jessica is a Romanian Greek-Catholic (Byzantine), mother of ten, and has been married for 20 years to her most favorite person in the world.

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