Dear Friends,

It turns out that tradition isn't what I thought it was.

In my mind, tradition meant doing what had always been done before, often unthinkingly and with little sense of meaning. It suggested crusty irrelevance.

Not so, says Thomas Merton, the twentieth century monk, in his book No Man Is An Island. That isn't tradition, but convention.

It's more than semantics - this distinction radically shapes the scope of our imagination.

“Convention and tradition may seem on the surface to be much the same thing," writes Merton. "But this superficial resemblance only makes conventionalism all the more harmful."

For Merton, “Tradition teaches us to live.” It contains timeless truths.

Though it is always ancient, it is also always new - because it is forever being born again into a new generation and a new historical context. Tradition must be lived and applied in a new and particular way. “Tradition nourishes the life of the spirit; convention merely disguises its interior decay.”

Think of it this way:
  • Tradition is a vast river of possibility. It flows through time, always transforming but somehow still recognizable. 
  • Convention is a stagnant pool into which the running water has flowed and can no longer escape. It probably has mosquitos. 
Merton is merciless about the need to avoid convention. It is the "death of all real life", he writes. A parasite that lives off the truth inherent within tradition turning it into a hollow formality.

The challenge is, of course, to know when a tradition is calcifying into convention, and what to do about it.

Last month, I was honored to host a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival with the outrageously insightful Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, Ahmane' Glover and Rabbi Sara Luria on this very question. You can listen to it here.

Sara, for example, transformed the mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) from a convention unhelpfully interested in  the notion of female purity and cleanliness, into a water immersion to honor one's life experience - like a graduation or miscarriage. It remains deeply recognizable as a mikveh, but the fresh water of relevance runs free!

My beloved teacher Matthew Potts and I delve further into understanding tradition in a recent episode of the Potter podcast. He reminds us that tradition is a storehouse of wisdom for us to use and interpret. 

Perhaps tradition's core gift is to release us from the anxiety that we have to make things up as we go along. 

We are not alone. We are the not the first one's to sit with these questions, with this pain, with these longings.

Tradition can hold us, and help us. We need only to dip our toe into its life-giving water.

Have a wonderful weekend, Shabbat Shalom,


Talking, we begin to find the way into
our hearts, we who knew no words,
words being a rare commodity
in those countries we left behind.

Both humans and similarly deprived,
we marvel at the many things there
are to say: so many variations
and colors of the same thought, so

many different lengths in the words
that line up together on our tongues.
No scarcity, no rationing, no
waiting in line in order to buy

the same answer we heard each time
we asked, that one word, owned by
the state, manufactured by the state,
serving all purposes equally alike:
No, No, No, and sometimes Never.

- Joyce Sutphen
Copyright © 2018 Casper ter Kuile, All rights reserved.

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