Tradition and Convention

My favorite monk, Thomas Merton, makes an interesting distinction in his book, No Man Is an Island.  Merton differentiates tradition and convention.  Merton talks about tradition in very positive terms.  I like the way Merton defines tradition.  “Tradition is living and active…Tradition does not form us automatically: we have to work to understand it…Tradition really teaches us to live and shows us how to take full responsibility for our own lives.  Thus tradition is often flatly opposed to what is ordinary, to what is mere routine.”  I will unpack this lengthy quotation as we consider the meaning and impact of tradition in our spiritual lives.           

But first let’s get a sense for how Merton uses the idea of convention.  Then it will become clear how he differentiates convention and tradition.  “Convention,” says Merton, “is passive and dead…Convention is accepted passively, as a matter of routine.  Therefore convention easily becomes an evasion of reality.  It offers us only pretended ways of solving the problems of living---a system of gestures and formalities.”           

In some ways tradition and convention are both accumulations of the past.  I have traditions from family, from the Quaker meetings in which I spent my youth, some athletic traditions and others.  Within many of these traditions were conventions.  If you went to my Quaker meeting (or church), there would be certain things you were “supposed to do,” even though there were no rules that someone could have handed to you.             

Conventions often come to us as those things “we have always done that way.”  Conventions usually mean that you are right if you do it the right way.  I think Merton is insightful when he describes convention as passive.  “Just do it,” is the mantra of the convention.  “Don’t ask why, just do it,” is the unwritten rule of convention.  Convention has an implicit assumption that suggests doing the act results in the act being meaningful.  For example, convention would say that sitting together in silence in a Quaker meeting for worship means you necessarily have a spiritual experience.  Anyone who has done that knows it is not necessarily true.  It may be true; but it is not necessarily true.          

I think this is the insightful, which Merton figured out.  Tradition is living and active.  Tradition is also the “story” by which we engage the past.  In some ways tradition, like convention, says, “this is the way we have always done it.”  Tradition knows this past and wants to hand it on to all newcomers.  If you play on my team, if you join my group, if you are part of my family, then this is the way we have always done it.           

But tradition never assumes that “the way we have always done it” is a guarantee that it always works.  Tradition never assumes that merely doing some traditional thing guarantees success.  Convention implies that is true; tradition knows it is not always true.           

I like Merton’s emphasis on the fact that tradition really teaches us how to live.  No doubt that was true for his monastery, which would have been steeped in tradition.  My Quaker meeting back home is more than two hundred years old.  And it is part of an even older Quaker story and tradition.  And Quakers are part of the much older Christian tradition.  Of course, there are many conventions that have resulted.           

Conventions are like the sediments of our history.  They are the ordinary and the routine.  There is nothing bad about them.  But they are not active and do not live.  Being conventional is ok, but not vital.  Doing conventions is ok, but not enlivening.  On the other hand, tradition puts us in touch with the past and with history, but it vitalizes the present and thrusts us forward into exciting futures.  It teaches us how to take full responsibility for our lives.           

Tradition helps me take full responsibility for my life.  Allow me to go back to the Quaker example of sitting.  It is Quaker tradition to use silence as a medium to be available to the Spirit of God to engage us.  Convention would say to be silent and God will come.  Nothing to it!  But tradition says to become silent.  Silence, however, is not passive waiting.  Silence requires active waiting.  In silence one prepares the heart, opens the mind, becomes vulnerable to the Presence.  Being silent guarantees nothing, but is does insure the increased likelihood that the Spirit will be experienced.           

If I get myself out of the way, the Spirit comes my way.  That is what tradition teaches me.  But tradition teaches me knowing that is different than experiencing that.  Tradition teaches me how to become spiritual.  But I actually have to do it.  Knowledge is good, but it is not sufficient.             

I appreciate the many conventions in my life.  But I value the traditions that form me spiritually and that teach me how to take responsibility for my own life.  And I thank Merton for helping me understand the difference.  I don’t mind being conventional.  I want to be traditional.  But most of all, I strive to be incarnational.   

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