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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:30 AM
 

When does a tradition become a rut?

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, December 11, 2011



Once upon a time, there was a Zen master who had a cat. One day, as the master was meeting with his students, the cat jumped into his lap and demanded to be petted (as cats are prone to do). But the master was busy teaching his students; so he ignored the cat; he placed it gently on the ground, and went on talking.

            But of course, the cat (being a cat) was not going to take “no” for an answer; so, he jumped back into the teacher’s lap. He began really digging in, kneading his claws into the master’s knees, swooshing his tail across the master’s face. The teacher put the cat back on the floor. The cat jumped back into the master’s lap. This happened several times, over and over again.

            Finally, without saying a word, the master got up, carried the cat outdoors, and tied it to a big tree in the front yard.  Then, he calmly went back into the house and continued teaching his students.

            This happened every day the master met with his class—every day, for several weeks. The class would start. The cat would jump into the teacher’s lap. The master would tie the cat to the tree. Then, one day, some of the students got to class early, and decided they would help their teacher, by tying the cat to the tree before the class began. So then, every day—for weeks, then months, then years—before the day’s teaching began, the students would take the cat outside, and tie it up.

            When the master died, the students would still come to his house every day, and tie up the cat.

            Then, when the cat finally died, the students found another cat and tied it to the tree every day.

            The master and his teachings were long forgotten. What remained was the ritual of tying the cat to the tree. That darned cat had become a sacred object!

 

            Such is, often, how “traditions” are born: one day, someone does something for a perfectly good reason, and those who come after keep doing it—even though the reason for doing it might be long gone. Here’s another example. It’s from Nancy Friday’s book, My Mother/ Myself:

            Peggy was a newlywed and she was cooking her first big meal for her parents since the wedding—a big, glorious Virginia ham. Before she put it in the oven, she sliced off three or four inches from the shank end. Her new husband saw her do it, and asked her why. Peggy looked surprised that he should ask. “Mother always did it that way,” she replied.

            At the dinner table, as he was carving the ham, Peggy’s husband asked  her mother why she cut three or four inches off the ham before baking it. The mother looked puzzled, “That’s how my mother did it. Doesn’t everyone?”

            So, the net day, Peggy phoned her grandmother, and asked why, in their family, do they cut off three inches from the shank end of the ham before baking it. “I’ve always done it that way,” grandmother replied, “because that’s how my mother did it.”

            Now, it happens that this family was very fortunate, and that Peggy’s great grandmother was still alive. So Peggy drove out to the nursing home where her great grandmother lived, and asked her about the missing three or four inches of ham.  “Well,” the elderly woman began, “one day I was teaching your grandmother how to cook, and we were baking a big ham. But it was too big for the pan, so I sliced off the shank end so that it would fit, and then I put it in the oven.”  

            Sometimes, we think that our “traditions” have reasons behind them, when they have actually long outlived their usefulness. They’ve become dead habits, mere ruts. Sometimes, they don’t do us any harm; at other times, they’re unnecessary and wasteful— I hope they were at least making stock with the four inches of ham they were slicing off all those years for no good reason. At other times, though, they’re detrimental to us; they fence in our spirits; they limit us in who we can become, and how deeply we can experience life.

            The American theologian Martin Marty once said that the “seven last words” of the church could well be: “But we’ve always done it that way,” and he could well be right.

            Now, don’t get me wrong. I am as much of a traditionalist as any of you (and probably a good bit more than many of you). As you already know (unless, perhaps you just tuned in, or have somehow been asleep for the past nineteen years) I love history. I love talking about it, and preaching about it, and reading about it, and even writing about it. I love visiting historical sites (which I define very liberally—in my view, anywhere that anything ever happened qualifies as an “historical site”, worthy of being squeezed into one’s vacation itinerary).  I once took a skills inventory test as part of a job I was doing, and found out—surprise!—that my reference points come from the past, not from the present, and I am sure as heck not what they call a “futurist”.

            Nothing gives me deeper joy than understanding how what we are doing today connects with the lives of those who came before us. That is what history is all about to me: seeing how our current story emerged out of the stories of the men and women of previous generations; how we are joined to them in a continuous line of shared humanity.

Tradition and ritual also can be a bridge linking the islands of the past, present, and future. It can keep alive the important and life-affirming parts of tradition, which deepen us and make us more humane. Ritual helps us to re-member: to join ourselves again to that which has come before, to keep intact the precious strands linking the present to the past. That’s important, it seems to me, if we are fully to realize our humanness. This re-membering can be such a wonderful gift to this world of ours, which seems so often hell-bent on change for the sake of change, and ever more accelerated. Tradition slows us down, and reminds us of those who came before us, and the debt which we who live today still owe to them.

            I fully understand what that Jewish woman was experiencing in the kitchen there, in the reading we shared from Rachel Naomi Remen:  “I was a single thread, but I belonged, something I had never experienced before. For a few seconds, I had a glimpse of something larger, not only of who I am, but Whose I am…I felt changed by it.”

            We are changed and deepened by being part of a tradition—if it’s a tradition that lives—that exists for a reason, both in the world, and in our innermost souls.

            But sometimes, traditions do not live any more. They’re dead letters; empty rituals, practiced second or third hand—like the students still tying the cat to the tree. Sometimes—if we’re not in touch with why we practice a certain ritual—what it connects us with—either in the world or in our history or in our souls—then it can stifle us, limit our creativity, interfere with our spiritual growth. Then, it’s nothing more than a rut we’ve fallen into. To persist in doing something just because “we’ve always done it this way” is not enough reason to keep doing it. Not in this day and age of profound transition, when old and venerable institutions seem to be dropping like flies (to use a rather inelegant metaphor; for these are, I fear, rather inelegant times in which we live). As one of my colleagues has put it, “If [our] tradition cradles our stories and dreams, then it has value; but if we cease to know the reason why, then we are perpetuating [something that has already died].”

            If we quibble about niceties of “tradition” while the world is convulsing in change all around us, then we’re kind of like the people who arranged tea service on the Titanic. It might have seemed important and even looked nice at the time, but that ship was heading for an iceberg, and was, in reality, already on its way down.

            So do we men and women in this new age, we sons and daughters of postmodernism, even need such things as ritual and tradition in our lives? Or are such things but remnants of an age already dead, mere niceties for antiquarians and other people interested in religious stuff to dabble in? We have Facebook, so why bother with churches? We have androids and i-phones and all that stuff (that I don’t have a clue about)—so can we survive without ritual, without clinging to tradition?

            No doubt, we could survive, I guess. But would it be worth the cost? Suppose we human ones didn’t celebrate our rituals of winter festival—Christmas and Hanukkah and Kwanza, Solstice, and so on—would our human race remember, in time, that though the days be dark, the light returns at last? Oh, no doubt the astronomical observation would remain; we’d still know that spring will follow winter finally. But we would forget, I think, that such a power of light and dark exists within ourselves, as well. Without our religious and spiritual traditions, I think we might well forget that though the light in our souls grow dim in certain seasons, that it, too, can return in its time.

            “Ritual is a way of marking and intensifying value,” Starhawk reminds us. According to Robert Fulghum, tradition represents “those patterns that we… repeat again and again because they bring structure and meaning to our individual and collective lives.” But Fulghum also goes on to remind us that if our rituals don’t work for us anymore, they need to be discarded, or re-formed,  to meet new challenges, new realities, new patterns in our lives. Used correctly, Fulghum says, rituals can remind us of who we are, and what we are part of.

            As in most things, it doesn’t have to be all one way, or all the other. The way to live with a healthy regard to tradition lies neither in slavishly following the past, nor in rejecting it out of hand as out-of-date and foolish. They key, I think, is to step back and examine our traditions from time to time, and see where they came from, how they got us here, and whether they still deepen and strengthen us for life’s journey. If they do, then let’s continue them with new joy and new hope and fullness of heart. If they don’t do that anymore, then we can let go of them with no guilt; let go and get on with our journeys, birthing new traditions along the way for us and those who will come after us.

            A writer named Portia Nelson once wrote her “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters”. They are very short chapters, so let me read them to you now:

Chapter 1

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost ... I am helpless.
It isn't my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

 

Chapter 2

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I am in the same place.
But it isn't my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

 

Chapter 3

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in ... it's a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

 

Chapter 4

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter 5

I walk down a different street.

 

            May we love the street on which we are walking. But not the ruts. And may we always have the courage to choose a different road when the time comes.

 


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