Church Tradition as Spiritual Endowment

survival when everything else fails

Many of us, in difficult times, find comfort in the familiar and the habitual.

I was thinking about this recently because of two things. In her book “How the Light Gets In: writing as spiritual practice,” poet Pat Schneider writes about tradition and its value. She says, “Sometimes tradition holds us when we can’t hold ourselves.” If this is true, and I think it is, it means that the very regularity of the pattern of church services is a pastoral service to the congregation. For many with more years behind them than ahead, it is of immediate worth.

At the same time as reading Schneider I had a conversation with a friend about worship. To be honest it was about the usual worship wars—the conflict between what is seen as contemporary and what is traditional, particularly in relation to music.

It was once a hot button topic for me, many years ago now, but no longer. Maybe it’s because I can see myself gradually being absorbed into the age group whose worship choices I once despised and disdained. But I’m not convinced that’s it, or at least not entirely. Maybe it’s because I’ve mellowed, or lost my passion for church. Not sure that’s it either, though I have to say I’m less exercised by ‘church-as-performance’ than I once was. I’ve learned the value and worth of church as community as I’ve got older.

That which we do when we get together has huge importance for community formation. And I mean all of it, not just the music. And I find comfort in the regularity, the patterns, the familiarity, the familiar ritual. What we might want to call the tradition.

Too often in evangelical quarters, in our obsession with scale and novelty, we pay scant attention to tradition (or at least the visible tradition, because there is plenty about us that is traditional, just not called by that name.) So very little gets the chance to be rooted in the very guts of a person. We are unmoored.

We place so little importance on time in worship, and repeated performance over time, that little gets anchored down deep below the level of consciousness. I once heard a story from a pastor who visited a residential home for those suffering from dementia. Residents wouldn’t even have recognised their own family, he said to me. But two things remained. One was the hand movements they used in the factory work they did for decades. They would perform these movements while they sat in an unseen world. And the other were the songs they sang throughout their church-going life. So he brought a keyboard on each visit. And these people, ordinarily locked off from the world, opened up again to the familiar sound of traditional hymns.

For those who tire quickly of the repetition, tradition should be seen as a spiritual endowment, something laid down, mainly internally, whose value will only be proven in the future.

Schneider writes, “Karl Marx called religion ‘the opiate of the masses.’ I don’t agree. It is not the opiate. It is not escape or ‘feel good.’ It is a life-preserver in a stormy sea. It is the tree branch in the flood. It is the hand of a stranger when you are drowning. Religious tradition is not Presence. Religious tradition is not holy. But it is sometimes survival when everything else fails.”

Because of that I’m less inclined to be overly critical when the organ is played and the songs are Victorian and the choir warbles. For some, as other things around them fail including their own bodies, these things are a means of survival.

2 thoughts on “Church Tradition as Spiritual Endowment

  1. The emotional force of memories is powerful indeed. For the good and the bad. The choice depends on the memory and the present situation.
    I’ve found that memories of “beautiful” things can be extraordinarily calming and healing. I can’t help being moved by hymns like “The day thou gavest Lord is ended” or “The Lord’s my shepherd”. And it’s not simply the text but the curve and rise and fall of the tune and of course the associated contexts of previous encounters- a wedding, funeral, the average simple plain Sunday? Yes, memories, whether transmitted or appropriated are emotionally powerful. And its true that music memories survive the ravages of dementia….

  2. Thanks Raymond…it’s funny, some old hymns we sing transport me right back to my youth, and I hear old voices singing again, voices whose owners have long passed. And I can see faces, the strain to hit a high note, the wave of the arm in enthusiasm (though the person was not given to extravagant gestures).

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