Things You Can’t Invent

Most of the things in our lives are not of our own making – they were given to us. Our language, our culture, the whole of our biology and the very gift of life itself is something that has been “handed down” to us. In that sense, we are all creatures of “tradition” (traditio=“to hand down”). Of course, these things that are not of our own making and are the least controllable are also those things that we take most for granted. We may hate our culture and our biology, but will still have to use our traditioned language (or someone’s traditioned language) to say so. Tradition is simply the most foundational, inescapable aspect of human existence.

A common fallacy in the contemporary world is to treat tradition as an option, the sort of thing you can value or dismiss at will. A number of contemporary Christian groups dismiss tradition as a stumbling block and hindrance to the spiritual life. But such an attitude creates a false spirituality, one that assumes that we can live without the necessity of tradition.

The Christian faith is a Tradition. This is inescapable. Everyone who names Jesus as “Lord,” does so because the story of Jesus, and even the reality of His Person have been handed down to them from someone else. The concepts with which they practice their discipleship will not be new – they will have been handed down as well. Christianity is a traditioned faith.

There is a proper spirituality that accompanies tradition.

First, tradition alone makes possible a life of grateful thanksgiving. Those who reject tradition fail to give thanks for what they have been given in that they refuse to acknowledge that all that they have is a gift. That gift is the very content of tradition.

Second, the rejection of tradition creates a false sense of competency. One of the great errors of our contemporary society is its assumption that the present exists in order to correct the past. There are inherent utopian assumptions about our ability to create a better world. The arrogance of those assumptions consistently produces a world of unforeseen consequences.

A spiritual life that rightly regards tradition is governed by the giving of thanks: it is eucharistic. All that we have, all that we are, all that we ourselves have fashioned is treated as gift. The gift is offered back to the Giver who continues to give.

It is equally marked by a spirit of humility and stewardship. Through no particular competence other than being born at this time, we have been given stewardship for everything that has gone before. It is the treasure of countless lives. Even the resources of the planet are a treasure, the energy of eons of time stored within the world we inhabit.

The character of every sacrament is gift. In every case the grace that we receive is the gift of God – it is rightly described as being “traditioned.” The character of the sacraments should also inform the character of our lives. We are not “movers and shapers,” the masters of the world, and the great makers of decisions. The imagery that marks much of contemporary spirituality is simply foreign to what we have received.

The path of salvation must be marked by humility and thanksgiving. Christ Himself confessed, “I can of Myself do nothing.”  (Joh 5:30) And St. John the Baptist said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven.” (Joh 3:27) The way of salvation is the path of self-emptying thanksgiving in which we recognize that we contribute only our emptiness, while God gives the fullness.

St. Basil the Great in his treatise on the Holy Spirit, famously defends the sign of the Cross saying:

For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance that they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel at its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is there who has taught us in writing to sign with the cross those who have trusted in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ?

This is only the “first and most general example” of the things that have been handed down in the life of the Church. Not only have the Scriptures been handed down (yes, the Scriptures are a part of the Tradition), but the manner of reading them as well.

There is no “non-traditional” Christianity (for Christ Himself and all knowledge of Him comes from someone other than ourselves). I easily understand that many Christians fear that “the traditions of men” will somehow distort the purity of the gospel. But we cannot have a Christianity that is not a tradition. But we can have grateful hearts and learn to be good stewards of the mystery of God.

19 comments:

  1. Father, I accept everything you say here and this is, in large part, why I became Orthodox. But I struggle with the application of this in my every day life – particularly a disdain that I have for our society and economy. On the one hand, I want to accept everything I have as gift – even the struggles and pain and lack of income and corporate abuse I’ve experienced. On the other hand, I want very badly to be out there marching against these things. It is painful for me, but even more painful for many others I’ve known.

    Just the other day, I found out that the company I work for isn’t going to make their projected profits by the end of the quarter. They’re not in the red – still in the black – but they just aren’t making as much as investors expect. So they’ve responded by cutting employee hours and doing other things that basically offloads this to workers who already can barely afford to live off of what they’re paying.

    They’re not unique in this. This is the society I and many others have inherited. It has been “handed down” to us. How do we deal with this? How am I supposed to give thanks for this? How am I supposed to go home and tell my wife and kids that we have to tighten our belts even further, and view that as a joyful thing?

    I completely understand that I’m supposed to. But I don’t know how.

    Instead, what I really want to do is something – march, vote, protest, whatever.

    I have these two sides warring in me nearly all the time, and I have difficulty finding any peace with all of this. I’ve tried to pray, but the words don’t come easily, nor do they come joyfully…

    Do you have any advice? I expect I’m not alone.

  2. Athanasios,

    It’s worth noting that not everything handed down to us is worth carrying on. Discernment is needed. One could say that vices are traditioned as well if all that we receive is viewed in this way, but in those cases we need to break the cycle, let those things fall and not be picked back up.

  3. In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thank you Father Stephen. I read often but comment little and always enjoy your Post. First, the thing that caught me was that this is a “Teviah” Post. Could not stop playing in my head “Traditiooon! Tradition!”. Second, the irony is that yesterday I filed for a Provisional Patent for something that I know did not come from me. That is, the idea, the very thought itself was a gift or at least felt like it. Who am I to determine if it was from God? I only pray that it was and understand that I must be a steward of it in, well, a traditional sense. It is not the kind of thing that will make me a multi-millionaire. I don’t want that anyway. But, maybe it will help my wife and lead a more traditional life, which is what we pray for constantly. If it is granted, it is through His grace, not our own inventiveness. And, maybe we will be able to help our Priest build a new Temple as our little Orthodox Church is rapidly outgrowing the current one. In Christ, John

  4. Thank you Fr. Stephen,

    “The path of salvation must be marked by humility and thanksgiving”

    I once heard a beautiful metaphor for thanksgiving. Our receiving from God is a bit like an electrical circuit. If there is only one wire between us and God (the power line), but no return path (neutral), then no current can flow, and no power is delivered. Our *thanksgiving* is that return path, it completes the circuit.

    We know that for an electrical circuit to work best, it also should be properly “grounded”. That’s the humility part, I suppose. Doesn’t the word “humility” come from a word that is derived from the something meaning “earth, soil”? And the humble grounding also plugs us into the “interconnectedness” of all things.

    What a beautiful design our God gave us! Glory to God for all Things!

  5. As one who was of a “modern” church movement before I came to Orthodoxy and familiar with the Epistle to the Hebrews, I was somewhat startled to finally see the phrase that begins Hebrews 9, “Now even the first covenant had regulations of divine worship and the earthly sanctuary for there was a tabernacle prepared…” The word “even” implies that the current covenant also has such “regulations” or protocol, if you wish. I only mention this because it gave me a better appreciation for the form that has been handed down. Seeing this, I was able to re-read …”as Moses was warned by God when he was about to erect the tabernacle, for “See”, He says, “that you make all things according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.”

    Forms, patterns and traditions are full of deeper significance, but they can also be easily dismissed as non-essential in a culture that has forgotten the timeless and changeless God and Saviour, “The same yesterday, today, yes and forever.”

  6. The clarity in how you present this information is wonderful, Father! And even better is your spirit as you communicate and respond in the blog. Many thanks and blessings!

  7. This is such a holistic way of looking at it. I agree. The more wisdom one has, the more aware he is of all which is “handed down.” America however is not the wisest of nations. There is only the traditional human being, and the even more traditional one. Transhumanism is a frightening aberration, ungratefulness as ideology.

  8. Thank you Father for this post. Coming from a “traditional” protestant background, I am very thankful for all that it brought me. Transitioning into Orthodoxy a few years back I definitely found myself being more grateful for my heritage and less critical. However, it may appear to others that I rejected my heritage. I wish my family understood that I am not rejecting the faith that they “traditioned” to me, but am actually embracing it to the fullest extent possible within Orthodoxy.

    As in the comments to your previous article, it would be nice if Orthodoxy in America was known as the normative faith and tradition, so that my family wasn’t seen as “weird” but as normal Christians embracing the Eucharistic tradition of Christ.

  9. Athanasios,

    What could possibly be more blessed than to return to nature? Why not leave that hateful, devilish job and come live with me. I own my 2-story house on two large lots and a vacant lot, garage, shed, and barn. You could plant garden, create greenhouse, raise chickens (think eggs!), maybe a couple of goats (think milk and cheese). You would be doing God’s work. In exchange, you could help with repairs and upkeep This could be permanent depending on how you work out?
    email hidden; JavaScript is required

    Janis

  10. ajt,
    When I was an Anglican, the faith that was “traditioned” to me, was presented essentially as the Orthodox Church in the British Isles, certainly I was taught that it was of a piece with the Church of Augustine of Canterbury, St. Cuthbert, etc. I believed that at a certain point. But that faith began to wane with the more contact I had with Orthodoxy. I could see that it had been there, but it was clear that something was broken. I came to firmly believe that what was broken was the living communion of the Orthodox faith. This historical reasons for that are obviously quite complex. But I consider myself to have indeed returned to the roots and tradition of my faith. Orthodoxy is that faith. I had the incredible privilege of chrismating my parents when they were 79 years old. We all made it home. I have a brother still who is Anglian, but I know he sees it very much as of a piece with its tradition. He and I could argue about that as historical reality, but we would probably have no argument about the role of tradition.

  11. Athanasios,
    This is probably one of the most important questions anyone can ask. First, I believe that it is both possible to give thanks for the things that are “bad” as well as the things that are “good.” On the one hand, it is a profession of faith in the goodness of God. It is as though we are in an argument with the devil. He says, “Look at that! God is not good!” And my task, come hell or high water, is to reply, “Nevertheless He is good.” In this we are united to Righteous Job and all who have suffered faithfully through the ages.

    Injustice is real and there is nothing that says giving God thanks rules out working for change. The important thing is to guard the heart. The desire for justice is the desire for things to be fair and equitable. And anger is deeply tied to our sense of justice. When we sense or see injustice, anger comes up and gives us energy to do something. The Fathers are clear about this.

    But as St. Paul said, “Be angry and sin not.” That’s the hard part. The difficulty with the desire for justice is that it is also married to a passion (probably envy). And that passion, like all passions, is infinite and cannot be sated. It will feed our anger into infinity.

    So, we bless God and give thanks for ALL things. We can perhaps even suggest to ourselves that He has given us this suffering for a purpose and pray to be faithful, and for your family to be faithful. It is also right to pray, “Arise, O Lord, and judge the earth!” And to pray for guidance if He would have you do something. But also beg Him not to give you over to your passions. Nothing will get done and you’ll be consumed.

    Begin slowly. Offer “Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord,” is St. Paul’s admonition. The more we sing, the more it drives the enemy away. The less of him and the better everything works.

  12. Thank you for your reply, Father. You’ve given me much to think on. I tend to swing between extremes: either ignoring everything going on around me and dedicating myself to prayer, or else finally being confronted with the injustice of it all so severely that prayer slows (sometimes even ceases) and some kind of political or economical action begins. I don’t know if this is a common trait among everyone, or if it is especially bad among my generation (the Millennials), but I have noticed it in many others my age or younger as well.

    I have a feeling this will be a life-long struggle for me. The desire to “fix things” immediately runs strong in me. It is not an easy passion to recognize when it rears its ugly head, nor to fight when it is recognized. At least right this moment I can say: thanks be to God.

  13. Athanasios,
    Fr. Zacharias of Essex quotes Elder Sophrony as saying that if we can give God thanks always and for all things, then we would have fulfilled the saying given to St. Silouan, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.”

    So, it is a tremendous struggle, one that ranks with the greatest things we can do. Do not underestimate the struggle, nor the grace that is given!

  14. Athanasios ~ Dear brother, you’re right, you are not alone. Not by a long shot! Many Christians, Orthodox and otherwise, suffer hardship and difficulties every day, financially and health-wise and emotionally. I have no answers but sometimes the only prayer I can muster is, “Lord have mercy on me. PLEASE see us through this day.”

    Thank you for your honesty. You and your family will be in my prayers.

  15. Father, at one time you wrote/commented about seeing everything as working for the good of those who seek God. I cannot remember if it was in a comment or part of one of your blogs (I have gone through the latter and been unable to find it). I’m trying to see the connection in the concerns of Athanasios and God working all to His good.

  16. Athanasios,

    I would like to share a quote that has helped me a lot in letting go of things, and in at least *trying* to disconnect from the world where possible. We cannot change the world (it seems too far gone for this anyway), and it is not our job. But we can change our soul by offering it to God…. Fr. Zacharias says that the only work that will remain at the end of our life is the work we have done on our heart….

    by Elder Epiphanios:

    “God appointed the salvation of the world to His Son and not to us…. We must first look at our soul, and, if we can, let’s help five or six people around us”.

  17. Byron,
    It’s a topic I’ve touched on many times, so I’m not sure. The thought is, of course, Romans 8:28 “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose.”

    From our perspective, it is a confession of faith. We simply don’t know what our “good” is. The primary good is our salvation – union with God. If that is not present at the end of things, then nothing will have been good. But God does not ignore other needs in our lives either. Sunday’s gospel (the one I’m trying to write a sermon for right now) is a good meditation for this. Matthew 6:22-33.

  18. Athanasius

    Thank you for honesty and clarity.

    Often I find new answers we I’m presented with new ways of seeing my circumstances. Perhaps, these words from Archbishop Dimitri of blessed memory will be helpful to you. They’re helpful to me
    —–
    It is just when our freedom lies within the “opus Dei,” the work of God, that it does not cease to be true freedom. The “Let it be to me according to thy word,” of the Virgin at the Annunciation does not come from a simple submission to His will, but that very acceptance expresses the ultimate freedom of her being. In this sense, she was the first fruits of the intervention of God into human time and history, the first product of the Incarnation. She is the image of the Church, those who receive the Word of God and keep it, of those who would lose their life and gain it.
    Christ, in becoming Incarnate, has permitted us, not to imitate, but to relive His life, to conform ourselves to His essence.
    In each Christian’s response to God, in saying, “let it be to me according to Thy will,” he identifies himself with the God-Man Christ, and in this way, the Divine Will, freedom comes as an expression of one’s own will. The will of God, His work, His freedom have become one’s own. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” says St. Paul. (Galatians 2:20)
    None of the foregoing is said to diminish or to negate in any sense the validity and importance of all human beings, especially Christians, to seek, to work for freedom in the usual earthly, if you will, sense of the word: social justice, equality, and the right to pursue, unrestricted, a better life here and now for the human race. The Christian, if he takes his commitment seriously, can never be guilty of putting restrictions in the path of others, of coercing, of forcing. On the other hand, what has been said is conceived as a reminder that much of the Christian world, my own Church, has a long experience of this, has lived under repression in places where freedom, justice, equality, and the right to differ, were given lip-service, but were not realities. The hope of Christians, their consolation is based on a higher freedom, which only God can give, which our Lord Jesus Christ showed us.

    From The Dawn
    Newspaper of the Diocese of the South
    Orthodox Church in America
    October 1998

    You might enjoy the full article

    http://www.orthodoxresearchinstitute.org/articles/misc/dmitri_freedom.htm

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