The Weight Of Tradition
This is Holy Week for Orthodox Christians, and at our parish, that has meant a long morning prayer service called Bridegroom Matins. Here’s what we prayed this morning at our mission church. The Gospel reading was from St. Matthew. This part got to me:
Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the chief seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi’ by men. … “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
This is a passage about hypocrisy, but it seems to me it is also a passage about Tradition. Notice that Jesus doesn’t deny the validity of Tradition — “practice and observe whatever they tell you” — but excoriates the religious authorities for having made strict observance of the Tradition the measure of all things, while hollowing out its life-giving moral core. It seems to me that what Jesus strongly warns against is making an idol of Tradition. Notice he’s not being an iconoclast — he upholds the practices of Tradition — but rather calling in the strongest terms for those who consider themselves the guardians of Tradition to consider what the Tradition is really for — and to recognize that by their interpretation of the Tradition, they are crushing people under its weight.
This reading made me think about my relationship to the family tradition in which I was raised. My father loved me, and loved the family tradition, by which I mean his strong belief that serving the family comes first. He sacrificed his own dreams and talents to move back to this town and serve his family. He thought love demanded that kind of sacrificial loyalty, and he spent his life giving it. Because he loved me, he raised me to love what he loved, in this way. As I entered my teenage years, the burden of these expectations became crushing. Because he loved me so intensely, he expected me to love what he loved, and believed deviation from his prescription indicated bad faith on my part: a lack of love, and of loyalty (because if I really loved him, I would do as he wanted).
I had to get away from that. Day in and day out, the inability to live out that tradition was crushing me. My mother knew that, and though she didn’t want me to leave home early, she fought for me to go to the Louisiana School, hours from home, when I was 16. The alternative, she saw, was unacceptable. As I write about in Little Way, I tried to re-engage with this tradition when I was 26, but it wasn’t possible; my father, the guardian of the tradition, made it too burdensome. When I came home for that season, I realized that to submit to the tradition would mean a kind of death — and I realized that there was no other option but to take it as it was, or leave.
I left. And I thank God that I left. I was freed of guilt for having abandoned the tradition. I knew that to submit to the tradition on my father’s terms would mean not life, but its suffocating absence. Even as I was learning how to breathe, so to speak, but submitting to the Roman Catholic religious tradition, I was learning that I could not breathe if I submitted to our family’s tradition. My sister Ruthie, she did submit to it, and found it to be life-giving. Yet just like our father, Ruthie believed that I was living in bad faith by moving away and not submitting to our father’s will. The thing is, it was easy for Ruthie to do, because she agreed with him on most everything. Neither one of them would listen to me, or consider my point of view. They were Bayou Confucians: one’s task in life is to respect the ancestors, to find one’s place in the hierarchy, and to dutifully do as they would have done. This is a slight exaggeration, but only a slight one.
This caused me a lot of pain, even grief, because I wanted so badly to live in harmony with and proximity to my family. It wasn’t possible. It just wasn’t, unless I was prepared to sacrifice almost everything that was precious to me, including my calling. I might have done that, but I knew that it would not be the kind of sacrifice that would bring life, but a sacrifice that would cause endless misery, because I could never, ever live up to their expectations. Believe it or not, it was becoming a mature Christian as an adult that gave me the strength to break away finally from my family’s expectations. I came to believe that my obligation to God’s calling on my life was more important than my obligation to obey my father’s and sister’s expectations.
You know the subsequent story: Ruthie’s death changed me, and changed things. But it’s also the case that living away for 20 years past the time of my failed attempt to return had matured me, and made me stronger. I knew who I was, and was able to stand emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually on my own two feet. You can see why in the book. And yet, the scalding, tragic irony is that if Ruthie were still alive, I wouldn’t be living here today. I would not have been able to live under the shadow of her harsh judgment of me for being different. Don’t get me wrong, I would far, far, far prefer that she be alive, and I be living halfway across the country with my family, and us living out our tense but loving relationship, than her be in the grave. Yet that wasn’t my choice or hers to make.
What was my choice, in the end, was what to do in the wake of her death. Was there grace and redemption in it? Yes. That’s why I’m here, and that’s why I don’t feel the crushing weight of the tradition with which my father and my sister tried to shoulder me. Rather, I feel liberated being here, with the limits I have now. And as readers of Little Way know — no spoilers here! — my father has a stunning epiphany that puts his entire life, and his view of tradition, in a radically different light.
This is what I was thinking of this morning at matins, after hearing that Gospel. I was thinking that tradition is important insofar as it remains living, a means to life, not an end in itself. My suffering dad realized near the end of his life that the sacrifices he made for the sake of family tradition were largely in vain. Yet he was raised to believe that to have done anything different would have made him a bad man, or if not a bad man, at least a lesser one. It would have meant a failure of love, and of the piety a good Southern man must show to his family. The limits family tradition, as he understood it, put on him did not bring abundant life. The key thing, though, is that not to conclude that my father and my sister did not love me because they had unjust expectations of me. They did, and do, love me. It’s that they had a skewed sense of what family love requires — and in this, they were not uncommon. It happens all the time in families.
Family love, if it is not to suffocate you, requires freedom. If you love something so much and hold onto it so tightly it can’t breathe, you risk killing it. To be sure, love really does require the taking on of burdens and limits — the only one a person who sees no limits to his desire and will loves is himself — but these must be done freely. When I came back to Louisiana in 1993, it was out of a sense of duty and guilt. When I came back this time, it was out of love, seeing opportunity where before I had seen nothing but a heavy burden (because that’s exactly what it was back then!). To be authentic, that family love requires granting one liberty, and not only that, but working hard to see the other person, as God made them, not as we demand that they be. I certainly would not have expected my dad or my sister to approve of everything I did, or to share my religious, moral, or political beliefs, or of my decisions. I didn’t approve of theirs all the time. I only wanted them to love me as I was, not as they would have me be. I wanted that freedom. I was not wrong to want that freedom. This is why I insist that I did not come home to Louisiana as a prodigal.
I hope to pass on the tradition of love and service to family to my children, but I hope I will do so in a spirit that makes them see family, and pleasing their parents, as liberation. In the middle of my life, by the grace of God and the fruits of my sister’s sacrifices, I have found a way to embrace that tradition. If I’ve gained wisdom from this experience, I will raise my children to love their religious tradition and family tradition such that they find in it fulfillment, and a desire to embrace these traditions, and their limits. I want these burdens to be easy, and these yokes light.