Monday, August 9, 2010


I suppose I should be glad that I'm a Protestant...

I've been following some practices in the last few months that come from a monastic tradition. Specifically, as a result of doing contemplative retreats at a Benedictine monastery in northwest Missouri, I've become very attracted to the Liturgy of the Hours, or what's known as the Daily Office. In addition, I've taken to reading the Rule of St. Benedict on a daily basis, with the objective of reading it as Benedictines do - three times complete in a year. Other spiritual reading is part of this mix as well.

In sum, I'm a confessing Protestant who does things that a Roman Catholic would find quite familiar. And yet, for all that, I think I'd make a pretty bad Catholic. Let me explain.

The Roman Catholic church is the product of twenty centuries of Christianity filtered through the lens of the descendants of the Roman Empire. The traditional language is Latin; the organization is heirarchical; echoes of ancient Roman imperial behavior can be seen throughout the entire church.

Tradition in the Roman church is capitalized when it appears in church writings, and if I'm not mistaken, treated in many ways as equivalent to holy Scripture. And this is why I'd make a lousy Catholic. And for that matter, I'd make an equally lousy Greek Orthodox.

I don't have this veneration for Tradition, and that's a flaw I willingly confess.

Tradition is not nearly so venerated in Protestant denominations, particularly those of a more Reformed heritage. Reformed theology preaches "sola scriptura," "by Scripture alone" as the basis for all salvation and holiness. In this worldview, Tradition is an interesting addendum to what is true and right, but nothing more.

This attitude toward Tradition has permeated my thinking and religious observance my entire life. I've gotten somewhat relaxed since earlier days, but I still have nowhere near the attitude toward Tradition that Roman Catholics or Orthodox do.

Let's see what Tradition really is.

In every case I can think of, any given Tradition began as anything but traditional. Take the Tradition, or Sacrament, of Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the bread and wine from the Last Supper. It did not begin as a tradition; it was a one-off event, at a particular time in a particular place. It was only later that it became a capital-T Tradition. Over time it has become encrusted with so much symbolism and religious adornment that it's hard to see back to the original event. So let me help...

Here's the account from the NET Bible from the Gospel of Luke:

22:19 Then he took bread, and after giving thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 22:20 And in the same way he took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood."

And here's a similar account (NET Bible again) from the Apostle Paul, from 1 Corinthians:

11:23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread, 11:24 and after he had given thanks he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 11:25 In the same way, he also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 11:26 For every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Do you see the development here? In the first, during a ritual meal, which Jesus held with his disciples, he redefines the nature of the Paschal feast, and takes that sacrificial role onto himself. He takes a loaf of matzoh and a cup of wine, at different points in the meal, and imputes symbolic significance to them. He tells his followers, "Do this in remembrance of me."

In the second account, we're presented with a somewhat more specific prescription for repeated practice, as in "every time you eat this bread and drink the cup."

My point is this. A meal with certain unique characteristics has been transformed into a rite that is the center of the Roman Catholic Mass. Eucharistic adoration is veneration of the host, which, sanctified by a priest, becomes the literal body of Christ to a devout Catholic.

I can not get my head around all this.

I understand praying the Psalms, as is done in the Daily Office.

I understand practicing contemplation, as I've learned to do in multiple retreats.

I understand reading the Rule of St. Benedict, the reading of other books of Christian meditation and spiritual introspection, and the use of gestures such as signing the cross.

I don't understand Tradition as it's developed in the Catholic church, to the extent that it has.

Protestants, however, for all their preaching about "sola scriptura," are not immune to encrusting simple events with traditional associations. If the rite of Communion were to be celebrated just as it was in the first instance, all of us worshipers would be wearing robes and sandals, reclining on pillows around a long table and eating and drinking while  propping ourselves up on one elbow. If you've been to church to celebrate Communion, you know that's not the way it's done. Instead, you may find a tray filled with tiny shot glasses with a thimble-full of grape juice and little bread pellets that look like breath mints. Or maybe you'd find a single chalice filled with wine, and round, flat wafers of bread-like substance. Or, as at our church, you'd find a single chalice filled with wine (or grape juice - we swing both ways) and a loaf of bread from which you'd tear off a chunk and dip it into the chalice. No pillows, no robes, no sandals, no propped-up elbows. Not exactly original - instead, very Traditional.

Tradition is important. It can provide linkages to the past, a past two thousand years ago, and maintain continuity with that past. It can be examined to show how things go from simple at first, to complex as time passes. Tradition has value, and should be appreciated for that. But Tradition can also bind you when you should be liberated, can tie you to rituals that are irrelevant in the modern world and perhaps can be discarded centuries after they became Traditional. It's all a judgment call, as is virtually everything we do in the name of God and all holiness.

My traditions are not those, primarily, of the Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches. I am steeped and infused with a Protestant mind-set. I'm getting old enough that I feel I can re-examine my attitudes and open myself to new practices, as I've described.

Right now, from the vantage point of where I am on my walk with Jesus, I don't believe I could be a good Catholic. But who knows what might happen tomorrow, or the day after? Who's to say what might be in store for me, or perhaps even for the Catholic church itself? One man was nailed up on a cross like so much house siding, and his death and return to life forever changed the world, and who expected that. I really don't know what comes next, but I'm willing to wait and see.

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