Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Tradition and Revolution I

Our Catholic women's book club read New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton over Lent. Obviously I am very late in sharing some of it with you. Overall, the book was interesting because I'd never been able to get through one of Merton's books before. This one, a series of essays, which Merton wrote for himself as much as anything, contemplates what holiness means for each of us. Oh, as well as contemplation. That too.

I did not always agree with everything Merton said. Although many tend to view him as a saint, I remind us all that he was not. An interesting writer, yes. Striving for holiness, yes. A saint, no. Infallible, no.

That said, I really enjoyed the way that he was able to set examples forth in defense of Catholicism much of the time. This is something that I believe some who enjoy reading Merton may not realize, considering that when I see him quoted it is often to make an edgy point about orthodoxy in the Church.

I have wanted to share this with y'all for some time and perhaps now is the right time since I am finally getting around to it. I think it is definitely an essay that needs to be read in the times in which we are living.
Tradition and Revolution

The biggest paradox about the Church is that she is at the same time essentially traditional and essentially revolutionary. But that is not as much of a paradox as it seems, because Christian tradition, unlike all others, is a living and perpetual revolution.

Human traditions all tend toward stagnation and decay. They try to perpetuate things that cannot be perpetuated. They cling to objects and values which time destroys without mercy. They are bound up with a contingent and material order of things -- customs, fashions, styles and attitudes -- which inevitably change and give way to something else.

The presence of a strong element of human conservatism in the church should not obscure the fact that Christian tradition, supernatural in its source, is something absolutely opposed to human traditionalism.

The living tradition of Catholicism is like the breath of a physical body. It renews life by repelling stagnation. It is a constant, quiet, peaceful revolution against death.

As the physical act of breathing keeps the spiritual soul united to a material body whose very matter ends always to corrupt and decay, so Catholic tradition keeps the Church alive under the material and social and human elements which will be encrusted upon as long as it is in the world.

The reason why Catholic tradition is a tradition is because there is only one living doctrine in Christianity. The whole truth of Christianity has been fully revealed. It has not yet been fully understood or fully lived. The life of the Church is the Truth of God Himself, breathed out into the Church by His Spirit, and there cannot be any other truth to supersede and replace it.

The only thing that can replace such intense life is a lesser life, a kind of death. The constant human tendency away from God and away from this living tradition can only be counteracted by a return to tradition, a renewal and a deepening of the one unchanging life that was infused into the Church at the beginning.

And yet this tradition must always be a revolution because by its very nature it denies the values and standards to which human passion is so powerfully attached. To those who love money and pleasure and reputation and power this tradition says: "Be poor, go down into the far end of society, take the last place among men, live with those who are despised, love other men and serve them instead of making them serve you. Do not fight them when they push you around, but pray for those that hurt you. Do not look for pleasure, but turn away from things that satisfy your senses and your mind and look for God in hunger and thirst and darkness, through deserts of the spirit in which it seems to be madness to travel. Take upon yourself the burden of Christ's Cross, that is, Christ's humility and poverty and obedience and renunciation, and you will find peace for your souls.

This is the most complete revolution that has ever been preached; in fact, it is the only true revolution, because all the others demand the extermination of somebody else, but this one means the death of the man who, for all practical purposes, you have come to think of as your own self.
Part II is here.

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