Tradition: A Personal Mode of Seeing

One of the more interesting insights offered by Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon in his book Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church, is his argument that tradition exists “enhypostatically.” As near as I can tell what he means by this is that tradition—any tradition—does not exist in an abstract or pure sense, but only insofar as it is embodied in the life of concrete persons and communities.

While Zizioulas discusses the enhypostatic expression in terms of asceticism and liturgy, I want to reflect here, somewhat overly briefly I admit, on how tradition—and specifically the Christian Tradition—shapes how we see ourselves and the world of persons, events and things that constitute our lives.

Last Sunday (11/23) I sat with the catechumens in the parish I serve. We are reading together Clark Carlton’s book The Way: What Every Protestant Should Know About the Orthodox Church. Carlton mentions that the NIV translates 2 Thessalonians 2.15 (“So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings [traditions in the KJV] we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.”) in a way that does violence to the text, but which supports the Evangelical dismissal of tradition in the life of the Church.

This isn’t necessarily to fault the translators of the NIV, after all we never read Scripture in a vacuum, but always in light of certain (often unexamined) presuppositions. In a word, our reading of Scripture is always based on tradition, always.

As the discussion continued, we began wrestle with the place of the Tradition of the Orthodox Church in our own lives. For many, and especially many converts, Holy Tradition is a goal to be fulfilled. But over the course of 2,000 years, the tradition has been embodied in many ways by myriad people and communities in a variety of historical and social settings. This means that the Tradition of the Church is not only, old but deep and (within limits at least) varied.

No one can hope to do everything that was ever done and so, if I’m not careful, I will pick and choose the part of Church history that I prefer and confuse that with the whole of the tradition. One of the examples I used with the catechumens was monastic hairstyles. The “modern” practice is for monks to have long hair and untrimmed beards. But if we look at icons of early bishops—I used St John Chrysostom—we see that an earlier practice was for monks in the East to cut their hair in much the same way that one sees in traditional Western monastic life. Look sometime at the icon of Chrysostom and then look at picture of Frair Tuck. The hair styles are more than a little similar.

So if we are not to imitate the past, what value do we find in Holy Tradition?

Guided and guarded by the Church’s dogmatic and moral teaching, our life of prayer (personal and liturgical) and asceticism (especially fasting and care for the poor), we become ever more sensitive to what is Good, True, Beautiful and Justice. We see these first in the Scriptures and the lives of the saints, especially as they are communicated to us in the Church’s liturgical life. And then, building on this foundation, we become ever more aware of the presence of the Good, the True, the Beautiful and the Just in ourselves and in the world of persons, events and things that constitute our everyday life.

This discovery that these are not simply abstract notions but embodied realities is not the end of the adventure. As I come to recognize for example the Good, the force of that recognition confronts me with the presence of wickedness, falsehood, ugliness and injustice first of all in my own heart and then in the world around me. As I never tire of reminding my own spiritual children, I do not learn from my mistakes, I learn what is true and then come to see I am mistaken.

Goodness, Truthfulness, Beauty and Justice, as with the Tradition that sensitize us to them, are not abstract philosophical constructs or historical curiosities. They are rather embodied realities. If because of Adam’s sin these they are only more or less embodied in me, if my life is still disordered, or if Beauty (for example) is marred, this in no way detracts from the reality that it is the Church, the Body of Christ, that most fully (though not exhaustively) embodies these in human history.

Where we have gone wrong, I think, is we have rarified Holy Tradition. We have made it a thing, an objective standard to be imitated. In doing so we have lost sight of Holy Tradition as, to borrow from Vladimir Lossky, the Presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church as it leads and guides the faithful throughout history.

And it is this same Spirit which inspired not only the writers of Sacred Scriptures, but those who preached the Word. It is this same Spirit Who inspires the Church at prayer in the Liturgy and in the secret places of the human heart. And it is this same Spirit Who sustains and guides the saints who have struggled to remain faithful to the Word.

When we see Holy Tradition as something external to the person, to the traces of grace in the human and community, we miss all this and the Christian life, the life of the Church, becomes (to borrow from Christos Yannaras) yet one more source of division in the human heart and family, albeit now a religious division.

A blessed and Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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