Monks in the modern world are daily confronted with incongruities. We dress in tunics and scapulars that were the workaday clothing of sixth-century peasants. We pray the Psalms, composed some three thousand years ago in a language that does not translate into contemporary idioms very well. Many of our customs date from the early Middle Ages (suddenly a controversial era!), presupposing a worldview that is unfathomable to many of our neighbors in Chicago.
Articles tagged with conversion
A few weeks ago, I compared Jordan Peterson with the medieval theologian Peter Lombard. I didn’t go into great detail on my own intuition in this matter. After some ill feelings about the analogy, I’ve come to reaffirm it in my own mind.
St. Ignatius of Loyola died on this date 561 years ago. He did not set out at first to be a saint, but a soldier. Then Providence intervened. A cannonball shattered his leg, and as he was recovering from this terrible compound fracture, he underwent this remarkable experience:
He asked for some of these books [of knight-errantry] to pass the time. But no book of that sort could be found in the house; instead they gave him a life of Christ and a collection of the lives of the saints written in Spanish….When Ignatius reflected on worldly thoughts, he felt intense pleasure; but when he gave them up out of weariness, he felt dry and depressed. Yet when he thought of living the rigorous sort of life he knew the saints had lived, he not only experienced pleasure when he actually thought about it, but even after he dismissed these thoughts, he still experienced great joy. Yet he did not pay attention to this, nor did he appreciate it until one day, in a moment of insight, he began to marvel at the difference. Then he he understood his experience: thoughts of one kind left him sad, the others full of joy.
Ignatius’s circumstances didn’t change. His joy and sadness did not depend on the healing of his leg, or on his future prospects as a soldier and a dandy. In other words, our contentment in life, or lack thereof, is not, primarily, a function of the external circumstances of our lives. What determines the emotional shape of our lives (and therefore, that aspect of our lives that really matters!) is our thinking.
This profound insight of Saint Ignatius comports with ancient monastic wisdom, both in Christian and Buddhist forms. The difference between Christianity and Buddhism, in this regard at least, is that traditional Christianity does not aim at avoidance of suffering by the elimination of the ego. Rather, the Gospel allows the newly, intentionally reborn self [in the image of Christ] to embrace joyfully the suffering that comes from standing out to the full, which is to say, the suffering that comes with sainthood. Our suffering is embraced “for the sake of the joy that was set before” us [Hebrews 12: 2]. We do this by changing the way we think, by the “renewal of our minds [Romans 12: 2].” How is this done? By, among other things, faith in God’s promises.
This future-oriented, eschatological thinking finds yet another interesting corroboration in the insights of Jewish psychotherapists Viktor Frankl and Rabbi Edwin Friedman. Both men asked this question: “Why is it that, under experiences of extreme stress, some persons not only continue to function but even thrive?” It’s good to note that Frankl himself was a Holocaust survivor. Both men experienced quasi-Ignatian moments of insight. Frankl’s very language echoes the experience of Ignatius [my emphases in bold]:
Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the [prisoner] marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of Man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when Man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position Man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”
Frankl and Friedman both challenge us to change our thoughts, to substitute thoughts of love, hope, purpose, and meaning for thoughts of hatred, anxiety, frustration, and resentment. I will be returning to Friedman, whose overall insights are especially counter-intuitive in our present world (which, from the perspective I’m adopting here makes them actually more persuasive). For today’s feast of Saint Ignatius, let me offer one more example of a change of thinking, this time a literary one. As Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins trudge their way through the soul-killing terror of Mordor, Sam experiences this moment of insight. It changes nothing of the external horror to which he and Frodo have been consigned. But it does something quieter, yet more radical. It changes Sam’s heart, and, in Tolkien’s story, this small, hidden change of heart changes the world.
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.
…you use intention to trump action.
What do I mean by that? When I began as Prior, I noticed that when some brothers failed to do something I had asked, they would reply with a chuckle or confused look at say something like, “Oh, I didn’t mean to do that…” or “I had intended to do that, but then I thought…” The expectation was that if a monk’s heart is in the right place, then if he sins or fails in his duties, I should be quick to forgive. What was often missing was a genuine apology. I don’t write this to shame my brothers; I think that this is the default mode of many people today. Certainly it’s a temptation for me.
If we believe the great sociologist Mary Douglas, this appeal to an inner state (good intention) and lackadaisical approach to formal, external actions (duties to one’s superiors), is a product of a certain kind of social organization. If my place in society is very clear and determined, when I am connected by ties of blood and marriage, hierarchical chains of binding authority, and so on, then external ritual (including obligatory actions mandated by authority, apologies, formal recognition of persons, etc) becomes more important. If I am free to change jobs, move around, lose touch with cousins, and keep my options open, then internal states become more important.
When brothers enter our monastery, they come from a very loose culture in terms of stability, mutual obligations, and so on. An entry into a monastery from this perspective might seem to be a personal choice, a way to maximize internal joy and freedom. And the monastic life can, at times, serve these purposes if we choose to pursue them. Most monks in a contemplative community have very little contact with the outside world, and what contact they do have tends to be with devout, supportive persons who are often inclined to praise our way of life. Which of course feels good if we’re looking for that kind of thing. When a superior corrects or criticizes, it’s tempting to think, “Who is this guy? Everybody thinks I’m pretty swell. I don’t know why he’s picking on me for failing–in his eyes–in jobs that aren’t that important anyway.” And the rest.
Mary Douglas notes a major problem with the attempt to import this loose structure into the monastery. Loose communities lose the ability to understand the heavy ritual component that makes sense of the monastic life and the Christian life in general. “The perception of symbols in general, as well as their interpretation, is socially determined. [Natural Symbols (1996), p. 9]” She goes on to show that loosely articulated social structures make it impossible to understand the full range of meanings of symbols that were at home in a more clearly articulated structure. Monastic life has always been highly regimented, based in clear lines of authority and obligation, and therefore has generated a wealth of symbols. Men entering today, however, usually can’t read them correctly right away, and part of our conversion of life involves learning how to do this. And this in turn requires us to discover our new identity through the roles that are given to us in the life: novice, junior, priest, cantor, prior, cook.
Now the Catholic liturgy is also the product of a highly articulated social body, the Church. The world being what it is today, most of us struggle to make sense of dense symbols like the Eucharist, the priesthood, a church building, an icon, and papal vestments. If Prof. Douglas is correct (and there is good reason to suppose that her general theses in Natural Symbols are correct), then the cure for our liturgical mystification is something like commitment. We must make our own the roles suggested (or even given) to us by the Church and by the locale we happen to inhabit. This means getting involved in a parish, treating one’s pastor like a pastor, as someone who has authority over one’s spiritual life. It might mean recommitting to certain formal structures in one’s family (and explicitly in a climate of faith): common meals with assigned seating, traditional celebrations of holidays. It might mean taking more seriously days of abstinence and fast, holy days of obligation, and so on,–anything that requires us to order our internal experience by the external ritualized and moral demands of Church discipline, and, importantly, not letting ourselves off the hook by appeal to good intentions.
I decided to take up this topic once again because of three separate instances in the past week or so. The first one directly involves me. I was preparing to go to the sacrament of confession. During my examination of conscience, I came upon an old, all-too-familiar sin. I’m tired of battling against it, occasionally discouraged by my inability to make much apparent progress. But what happened next was interesting. I noticed that there was a very subtle stirring inside that suggested to me that what I needed to do was feel worse about this sin. And feeling really, really sorry, really upset with myself…well, I suppose the idea is that my behavior will magically change if I change my feelings.
Well, it doesn’t actually work for me. Does it work for you?
Once you start thinking about this meme, you find it all over. We try to convince each other of our sincerity (especially when we let each other down) by furrowing our brow, biting our lip, getting bleary-eyed. The template for this in my world will always be President Clinton. This is not a criticism of the ex-President. When he felt our pain and acknowledged “not feeling contrite enough,” he was doing what a leader should do–in an emotivist world. Media figures and fellow politicians wanted to make sure that he felt bad, and he needed to make sure that we knew that he felt bad. And it’s become something of a public ritual ever since. When a celebrity (Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Paula Deen) messes up, he or she is expected to go on camera and exhibit signs of sorrow.
What other route might there be? Keep in mind that contrition is a condition of absolution in the sacrament of penance. So there is nothing wrong with the feeling itself. It can be a sign of a healthy conscience. The difficulty is that these feelings may or may not actually have an effect on future behavior. If you’ve ever dealt with (or are an) an alcoholic, you know this. Caught lying, the addict may well feel completely miserable and sorry. But the lure of alcohol and drugs typically overrides the feelings eventually. So generating correct feelings is insufficient for changing behavior.
What I recommend instead is truth and preparation. By truth, I mean what twelve-step programs mean by steps four and five: making a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves and stating the exact nature of our wrongs. By preparation, I mean that we learn what situations trigger our disobedience, and make a decision to act contrary to our inclinations when temptation presents itself.
Let me give another concrete example of emotivism.
A common complaint about liturgy is that those attending “don’t get anything out of it.” This sort of rhetoric tempts pastors to make the liturgy more interesting, to see it as a service that they provide to consumers whose desires need to be accounted for. And what are the consumers hoping “to get out of” the liturgy? I can’t say for certain in every instance, but I can speak from my own youthful experience. I thought that church ought to make me feel better about myself, others and the world, that it should inspire me to be a better person. I should walk away from the liturgy with different feelings. This is how many of us gauge the effectiveness of many, if not most, public and private encounters. Success means feeling good, and feeling crummy means that we are doing something wrong.
But does it? This is a highly questionable idea.
When I was studying to be a professional musician, I typically practiced three or four hours at the piano every day by myself. I did not enjoy this for the most part. Wynton Marsalis likes to refer to practice as The Monster. Every day, musicians have to get out of bed and confront the monster and slay it. The payoff comes when, after years of slaying monsters, one plays the trumpet like Wynton Marsalis or sings like Renee Fleming. In the meantime, though, one must act contrary to one’s feelings, rather than taking feelings as any kind of objective measure of one’s moral state.
Similarly, in a marriage, when a spouse becomes debilitatingly ill or a child develops a major behavioral issue, dealing with this situation will often require mastering one’s immediate feelings of disgust at sickness, resentment at having to set aside personal goals, and fear that things may spiral out of control. These feelings must be opposed because to give in to them would be to act wrongly, to fail in one’s duties and responsibilities to others. Nursing an ailing loved one can be exhausting, no fun at all. But it is beautiful. When we witness this kind of sacrifice, we recognize it as true and good as well. But to accomplish this sacrifice, we must be prepared to act contrary to our feelings, rather than having our feelings somehow demand of others some kind of compliance (as is the case when we want to “get something out of the liturgy”).
These kinds of routine decisions to act in accord with the truth, with the demands of beauty and goodness, change us into different persons. Our identities become completely wrapped up in the repeated good action, and we become virtuoso trumpeters or faithful spouses, beloved brothers. We have become virtuous, having the ability (Latin: virtus) to choose the truly good, the truly beautiful even when others can’t see it. Here’s the hitch. As we are changing, we are likely at times, perhaps often, to feel “inauthentic.” That is to say, we will miss our old selves. What it’s actually like to be a virtuoso or a faithful spouse is at first an unfamiliar experience and requires us to act in ways that feel insincere.
In an emotivist world, the great sins are inauthenticity and insincerity, the great virtues sincerity and authenticity. Thus, it is difficult for an emotivist to make any headway in any kind of human excellence. Let me end with a quote from Lionel Trilling on what this might mean [emphasis added]:
“At the behest of the criterion of authenticity, much that was once thought to make up the very fabric of culture has come to seem of little account, mere fantasy or ritual, or downright falsification. Conversely, much that culture traditionally condemned and sought to exclude is accorded a considerable moral authority by reason of the authenticity claimed for it, for example, disorder, violence, unreason.”
Christians are called to conversion, to become different kinds of persons, a different kind of community. The liturgy is the place where we learn what sort of persons we are to be. I’ve given a number of theological reasons for this in recent weeks. I’d like now to turn to some other considerations.
First of all, what are we being converted from? The typical answer would be, “Sin.” And this is correct. But there is actually something more, something subtler that the gospel reveals. Baptism was frequently referred to in the early church as “Enlightenment.” So not only did baptism bring forgiveness of sins and sanctifying grace, but it brought about a change of thinking, a revelation, light and clarity where there had been darkness and obscurity, sight where there had been blindness.
The typical blind person in the gospels is, revealingly, the Pharisee. The Pharisees, it should be noted, were generally held to be models of virtue by the Jews of the day, and with good reason. They followed the Torah, kept ritually clean, tithed, looked after the poor, and all the rest. And yet, the Lord refers to more than one of them as blind. From this we can see that “sin”–understood as transgressions of specific laws–is not sufficient as an explanation of the worldview that we are meant to turn away from.
Saint Paul exemplifies this situation. He says in his own words that by the standards of the law, his younger self–a Pharisee–was blameless. What changed? We are apt to say something like, “He realized that he needed to be saved by faith instead of the law.” Now this gets us closer. But recall the question we are asking: from what sort of life are we being converted? This can’t be a rejection of the law, since those who do not keep it and prevent others from keeping it are least in the kingdom.
In Chapter 7 of Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul makes some suggestive (though difficult) remarks. He writes about “sinful passions.” This word “passion” comes to play a big part in monastic spirituality and later throughout the Church (though with somewhat less emphasis). Passions are not the same as feelings. Simple movements of emotion are a natural part of our bodily structure. A feeling becomes a passion when we distort it by liking it beyond reasonable measure, seeking it out, treasuring it, allowing it to bend our minds. This is the source of blinding. When we are under the spell of a passion, we no longer think straight. We all know this in some obvious cases. All one has to do is listen to talk radio or read internet comment threads to discover that anger renders people narrow and illogical. We all have known persons (perhaps ourselves) who, enticed by an attractive person, leave all caution and good sense to the wind.
The law itself can have this effect. Paul was so good at the law that he took pride in fulfilling its prescriptions, and this pride became a debilitating passion in him. So much so that he failed to see that he was acting against God when he was persecuting the early Christian sect. A wiser Pharisee, Paul’s own teacher Gamaliel showed better sense when he urged that Sanhedrin to leave the Christians alone, lest they “even be found opposing God [see Acts 5: 33-40].” Young Saul thought he knew better than Gamaliel and even convinced the Sanhedrin to go against Gamaliel’s sound advice [see Acts 22: 3-5].
Now to our peculiar danger: according to Alasdair MacIntyre, our Western culture is an emotivist culture, and has been for some time. What is emotivism? I will use one of the next posts to give a fuller answer to that question, but here’s an attempt at a short answer. An emotivist is not as interested in truth as he or she is in effectiveness. And to oversimplify more, an emotivist wants to put in effect whatever he or she feels to be good. If MacIntyre is correct, we have wandered into an institutionalized blindness, for we have placed the passions in the driver’s seat, unaware that our arguments are not rational (an emotivist only pretends to be rational because an argument that appears to be rational is more effective than one that is naked nonsense).
If the above is true, our conversion today needs to be away from emotivism toward genuine Truth and virtue. This is the spiritual analog to the argument put forward by MacIntyre over thirty years ago in After Virtue. It is worth noting that the traditional spiritual triad of the purgative, illuminative and unitive ways begin with the healing of behavior (purgative) and then of the mind (illuminative). For reasons that I hope to show in my coming post on emotivism, the problem with emotivism is precisely that it disposes us to willfulness and blindness, the opponents of virtue and truth. This can be true even when we have the outward appearance of a devout life of prayer and service. Emotivism hampers our ability to present the gospel to others, since it disposes us to hear the gospel in terms of effectiveness (and effectiveness in terms of realizing personal desire, not effectively achieving actual justice or compassion), rather than in terms of truth.
There is a lot to unpack here. Please send any questions you have to me, and I will try to clarify anything that you are having difficulty understanding. I will try to go slowly, as this is an important topic and worth the time it takes to master it.
The liturgy is the primary place where this happens. And this is why the liturgy first disorients in order to re-orient us as new kinds of persons.
What kind of persons are we to become?
If I may coin a term, we must become eschatological persons.
The eschaton is the end-time, the goal of history, the eternal life in communion with the Holy Trinity that we hope for. A person who is eschatological lives already with one foot in this reality.
Let me unpack a bit of this today.
Becoming a different kind of person really is a matter of kind and not degree. The aim is not to become better at some set of behaviors that we already possess, to be nicer, more generous or happier. Becoming a different kind of person involves receiving and cultivating capacities that my old self did not possess. Let me use music again as an analogy. At age seventeen, when I first heard the album Close to the Edge by the band Yes, I couldn’t make heads or tails of the music. As a result, I judged it inferior to the music I liked at the time, mostly variations on blue-eyed soul and the later New Wave bands of the mid-1980’s. The album was on one side of a cassette tape, and I liked the music on the other side. So rather than rewind, I began flipping the tape over and playing Close to the Edge without listening very closely (I used to listen while practicing basketball and while running). After a few such passive listenings, I suddenly realized that I was actually able to identify recurring themes, and I began to have a sense for how the very energetic opening section was constructed musically. After some months, I had a capacity that I did not have before, a capacity to understand this difficult kind of music. I wasn’t necessarily a better listener, or a more discriminating listener. Rather, my ears had changed, my mind and heart had changed. Close to the Edge became one of my favorite albums.
Now conversion to Christ is analogous, though stronger. In my example, one might argue that in fact, I already had the capacity to understand Close to the Edge, but it was latent and needed actualization, to use Aristotle’s term. By contrast, when we are initiated into the “things handed down to us,” the Christian faith, we really do become new creations. By grace, we receive a share in the divine nature. Therefore we receive potentialities and capacities that we did not have before baptism [it is perhaps important to note that all human beings have the capacity to receive this divine life; but the divine life is not present in the same intimate way before baptism].
What are these new capacities? We would normally group them under the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord.
Here’s the trick, though. Since these virtues and gifts are proper to the divine nature and not our own, their exercise should, at first and perhaps for prolonged periods of time, feel unfamiliar, perhaps even strange and uncomfortable. We might not even recognize what it feels like to walk by faith, to act in charity or live in hope, even when this is actually happening, just as we aren’t usually aware of our breathing until we pay attention. We can become accustomed to the divine nature at work in us through self-denial (which reduces the distractions of the flesh to allow us more freedom in the Spirit), and through prayer. The work of asceticism and prayer is the work of owning this new self, making it who we really are.
The liturgy is the primary place where we are acclimated to the divine life. There we co-operate with our high priest and Head, Jesus Christ, to offer worship to the Father in the Spirit. We are immersed in the divine life, and it appears to us, as it were, through the senses. The visible, audible, and tactile signs of the liturgy really do communicate God’s loving, enveloping, and suffusing presence. The liturgy conforms and accustoms us to the divine nature, to the life of heaven, the eternal life to which we aspire, the celestial commonwealth that is our true abiding homeland.
But the liturgy will often feel unfamiliar, strange, perhaps even a bit irritating at times for the same reason that the divine life is at first unfamiliar. It is not ours; we didn’t invent it based on some already-existing human capacities that we discerned. The liturgy is a gift from God, attuned to and ordered for the human person, to be sure, but not of the human person.
This is why efforts at liturgical reform that are based in rationalism, trying to help the liturgy “make more sense,” are misguided at best. We only begin to understand the deepest logic of the liturgy when we have become totally transparent to the Divine Will, when our minds have been truly renewed in Christ. And unfortunately, there is some reason to think that, in the West, we have been truncating and rationalizing our liturgical observances for some time, probably coinciding to some measure in the rise of the centralized, monarchical papacy during the high middle ages. Which is to say since the end of the Benedictine centuries (ahem). As active religious life became more the norm and the papal curia became more involved in the standardization of the liturgy throughout Europe, the usual drift has been toward simplification, utility, and so on. The last thing the liturgy can be is utile (David Jones’s wonderful term) or useful. It is divine, and God has no need of spaceships or our worship for that matter. The liturgy is a gratuitous gift to His creatures, a bridge between the creaturely and the Creator. In a utilitarian world, this will be profoundly uncomfortable for many of us (what if Mass started to take two hours? Would we stick it out?). All the fuss about candles, processions, maniples, altar cloths…I agree that this can be irritating, and the liturgical traditionalists sometimes can be their own worst enemies. Perhaps because the tendency even for a traditionalist is to find a water-tight reason why you need this or that thing, to make it make sense, rather than allowing the profound uncanniness of liturgy to break down our human agendas and replace them with the divine.
The liturgy is not utile. It does exist for any end in this creation, which is also why it is eschatological. I hope to have more to say on this point in future posts.
When God singles out a person for a special task, He often changes his or her name. Abraham, Sarah, and Israel in the Old Testament, and Peter in the New take on a different identity when God calls them forth. Von Balthasar has this lovely reflection on this phenomenon:
Simon the fisherman could have explored every region of his ego prior to his encounter with Christ, but he would not have found “Peter” there….Then Christ confronts him with [his mission], unyielding, demanding obedience, and it will be the fulfillment of everything that, in Simon, vainly sought a “form” that would be ultimately valid before God and eternity. —Prayer
God can confront each of us with a mission that we ourselves could not have predicted or discerned by “casting round our comfortless” interior, exploring every region of our ego. This is a radical idea. Our more typical notion of authenticity is based precisely in seeking for clues in the corners of our inner psychological Simons. Simon needed the man Jesus of Nazareth to say to him, “Come, follow me, and I will make you a fisher of men.” Otherwise, he would never have become Peter. He needed to be “made” by Christ anew, and the old man, the fallen man Simon, had to die so that this Peter, who is capable of things that Simon would never have imagined himself capable of, might begin to flower and put forth fruit.
I wrote yesterday that in order to become proficient in a tradition, one must undergo a kind of conversion. One must become a different kind of person. And this conversion depends on an act of faith in a teacher, who may ask me to do things that I don’t understand. Obedience need not be “blind,” but will be more effective when it is accompanied by love and devotion to the teacher. After all, what we are seeking is not only self-fulfillment, but sympathy with the master. “It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher [Matthew 10: 25].” The goal of Christian conversion is to mature into our “Christ-self,” to become members of Christ, to put on Christ, and this requires us to be called out of ourselves.
Most dedicated Christian know all of this. Where it becomes truly demanding is when we recognize that the calling really must come from outside, and therefore may well be more authentic when opposed to our inclinations and preferences. When we think of discerning God’s will, is it not the case that we often equate God’s voice with some interior conviction? Obedience to another person is a real undoing of the self, because it prevents us from confusing our own wishful thinking with God’s plans. And it comports with the notion that we must become different kinds of persons, rather than simply developing what we ourselves identify as our latent talents. “Consent merits punishment; constraint wins a crown,” Saint Benedict teaches [RB 7: 33]. He is quoting from the acts of the martyr Anastastia. In this connection we see how even allowing for obedience under unjust circumstances can be more fruitful than following our own inner light, for this docility allows God to act and conforms us more closely to Christ Himself.
Think for yourself!
By the time I was a highschooler, this mantra was assumed wisdom. The Vietnam War and Watergate had accelerated the questioning of authority. “Don’t trust anyone over thirty,” was quietly being replaced with, “Don’t trust any claim you can’t verify with your own eyes.” At least that was the ideal.
In such an environment, tradition often appeared to me as a surrender, a lazy forfeiting of one’s duty to discover the truth for oneself.
I began to think differently about tradition when I began my education as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, where students go to grapple with Great Books. My first exposure to Plato and the Greek historian Thucydides demonstrated to me that others’ observations on the world might at times be superior to my own in their power to explain and organize experience. In many ways, Plato played a parallel role in my life to the role he played for St. Augustine, broadening my mind to a consideration of the non-material aspects of the world, to a critical engagement with what it means to think at all.
But the utility, and indeed, beauty of tradition really hit home in my studies of music. Under Bruce Tammen, I began to learn the craft of choral conducting. What constitutes a good vocal sound? The proper formation of a vowel and articulation of a consonant? How does the interpretation of Brahms differ from the interpretation of Rachmaninoff? Answers to these sorts of questions were inevitably personal. We would do things the way Robert Shaw did them, or based on Weston Noble’s experience. When question arose about the execution of Bach, Helmuth Rilling did the talking. These were three men under whom Bruce had sung. But their insights were also grounded in personal recollections of great figures of the previous generations, notably Toscanini in Shaw’s case. Similarly, when Bruce and I would discuss art song (especially French chansons), a passion that we share, standards were grounded in the advice and experiences of older contemporaries like Elly Ameling, Gérard Souzay and Dalton Baldwin, who in turn knew people who knew Fauré, Poulenc and others. Charles Rosen, a faculty member at the U of C until his recent death, has similar observations in his copious writings about piano performance, how his early study was grounded in the sensibilities and techniques of famous turn-of-the-century pianists, notably Josef Hofmann, who cribbed from Anton Rubenstein and Franz Liszt.
Then I began studying composition with Easley Blackwood. His way of speaking about right and wrong in composition was akin to Bruce’s reasoning when it came to choral and art song performance. Why treat variation on a theme in such-and-such a way? Because that’s what Tchaikovsky would have done, according to Nadia Boulanger, who had heard it from Stravinsky (Easley studied under Boulanger and Olivier Messaien in Paris). My first exercises were to write a few short piano pieces in the style of Chopin. I wasn’t allowed to get fancy yet. I had to change the way I wrote and heard music, in order to align my taste with that of established masters of the craft. And Easley would be the judge of whether I was succeeding.
Both of these experiences required me to become a different kind of person than I had been before exposure to this tradition-based manner of learning. In order to learn certain things, I had first to dispose myself to be able to have certain kinds of aesthetic experiences. This requires that one trust one’s teacher, and assume that the teacher has your good in mind rather than self-aggrandizement. One guarantee of the teacher’s purpose is his own deference to certified masters of the past, as well as the general recognition of the quality of his work in the present by other established master-craftsmen.
From this perspective, tradition no longer appears as an irrational block of customary observances that abrogate one’s critical faculties. In fact, a genuine grappling with tradition ought to sharpen one’s critical faculties by constantly calling out the narrowness of one’s own previous education, upbringing and exposure. Not everyone has the opportunity to enter into a truly critical engagement with a tradition like the Western classical music tradition, but even for the amateur, a willingness to trust the insights of such a tradition will make one more reasonable rather than less. And all traditions ought to function in this way.
Human life being what it is, imperfect and prone to the fickleness of Lady Fortuna, traditions do get tangled, fall into dysfunction and disrepair and all the rest. But this is not a good reason to forswear all tradition. Yet it is one of the myths of the post-Enlightenment Western world that we should not ever trust traditions. Is it any wonder that we struggle to carry on anything like a rational debate in public life?
A corollary follows, with a stronger bearing on the purpose of this blog. Christianity, and within in it, monasticism, is a tradition. And to understand what the Church teaches requires from the disciple an act of faith that the Tradition and those charged with teaching it have the disciple’s good in mind. It also requires the disciple to become a different kind of person, which is to say, that we must undergo a conversion of life to enter more and more deeply into the truths that the Church means to convey to us. It will require us to leave behind the narrowness of our education, exposure and upbringing (especially that which took place “in the flesh”) so that we “may comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ [Ephesians 3: 18].”
Update, July 28: It just happens that yesterday Classical Minnesota Public Radio did a big piece on Weston Noble, who, I realize, is not a household name outside of American Lutheran college choral aficionados. Here’s a link, if you are interested in learning more about him.