Thursday, January 18, 2018

An Unappreciated Beauty

The depth of his comment stopped me in my tracks. 

We were undergoing a marketing study at my previous school, led by Lindsay Jamieson, a well respected free-lance “brand” consultant, who has done work for Kelloggs, Coca-Cola, Steinway, Ford, ABC, Toyota, Nikon and many other national and international companies (In case you’re wondering, we could never have afforded him, but he helped us as a favor to his friend on our Board). As part of the study, he asked me to convene a set of representative teachers, Board members and administrators, so that he could put us through a series of exercises and listen closely to how we described ourselves. In one section, he asked us to discuss some of the challenges we faced. 

“As a diocesan Catholic school, “ one teacher opined, “we don’t have as much flexibility as of our private school competitors. We have to answer to the bishop and superintendent,  and there are some things we just can’t do as a Catholic school, which is sometimes a burden.” 

Jameison, who to my knowledge is not Catholic, looked at the teacher quizzically and said, “Yes, but it’s a beautiful burden, is it not?”

Wow. 

I’m guessing that very few Catholics, even, would have such insight and appreciation for the teaching authority of our Church.  It’s a poignant expression of both the gift and debt we share as Catholics--tied as we are to a “fidei depositum.” Yes, our teachings place demands on us. But that “burden” also grounds us, and perhaps even liberates us, from the vicissitudes of current opinion, helping us distinguish what is lasting from what is  faddish. 

Most of us living on the coast went to the beach with our families when we were young. Our parents would establish a “base camp” with towels and beach chairs near the water’s edge, and then we’d run gleefully into the surf, riding the waves, ducking under them, playfully oblivious to the outside world. Inevitably, at some point 15-20 minutes later, our parents would call us,  shouting with cupped hands, “Come back!” and we’d look up, stunned to see we were thirty yards down shore. We had not noticed how far the undercurrents had moved us—how could we, since all of our siblings were pulled along with us? And so we’d have to spend the next few minutes wading back, fighting against the undertow which until then we didn’t know existed. 

We are privileged to be heirs of a Tradition.  Short of living as a cloistered nun, we cannot escape our culture, which sweeps us along, shapes our opinions and slowly changes us. Nor do we notice, since everyone else is shaped similarly. The Church, anchored to a Tradition that is outside of that culture, calls us back. Yes,  that means the Church is often maddeningly slow to change, even when change seems called for. But the dialectical tension between our Tradition and the “now” helps us become more deliberative, less “reactive” to the moment, and hopefully, more open to the promptings of grace and God’s providence. 

As the cliche goes, we live in a “fast-paced” world. Speediness in decision making is more highly valued than being deliberative, and “progress” is preferable to the “status quo.” But as C.S. Lewis once quipped, “I’ve seen progress in an egg; it’s called going bad.” There’s something to be said for respecting the things handed down to us,  and we'd be wise not to dismiss our inheritance too quickly. 

I think this is what Chesterton had in mind when he said (wittily as always): 

“Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. It refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.” (Chesterton, Orthodoxy).


Tradition is our base camp, our "north star."  It helps us understand where we are today versus where we’ve been, and that clarity is a real gift which helps us navigate the here and now with greater depth and wisdom. And yes, that’s a beautiful thing. 

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