Tradition Must Live and Breathe

In Chapter 10 of his De institutis coenobiorum (Institutes), which contains 12 chapters on the ordering of monastic life, St. John Cassian (circa 360 – 435) gives practical and pithy wisdom on the adaptation of “rules” to time and place.

But we need only keep to those which the situation of the place and the customs of the district permit. For the severity of the winter does not allow us to be satisfied with slippers or tunics or a single frock; and the covering of tiny hoods or the wearing of a sheepskin would afford a subject for derision instead of edifying the spectators. Wherefore we hold that we ought to introduce only those things which we have described above, and which are adapted to the humble character of our profession and the nature of the climate, that the chief thing about our dress may be not the novelty of the garb, which might give some offence to men of the world, but its honourable simplicity.

Too often we are enamoured of whatever tradition informs or fascinates us, and we attribute to the rules and instruction of a former time or a foreign place a rigidity unknown to their original formulation.

Tradition is helpful, indeed even necessary, so long as it serves a principle or set of principles. When it usurps the place of principle and becomes that which is being served, tradition becomes inflexible, harmful and counter-productive.

One of the things I love about God’s torah (teaching, instruction) is the eminent practicality of His nature revealed therein. I think of Deuteronomy 14 as an example:

“You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire–oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household. Deuteronomy 14:22-26 (ESV)

So God says to take 10% of the fruits of your labor and have a feast in Jerusalem with it. However, if you live too far away to get your animals, and produce to Jerusalem, sell your produce and bring the money to Jerusalem to have a feast filled with whatever your heart desires. That is a God in tune with the day-to-day realities of the people He was communicating with.

The quote from John Cassian delights me because we so often think of monasticism as one of the most rigid, legalistic forms of Christianity, yet here is one of the fathers of monasticism saying “take it easy, use what is appropriate and don’t let your punctiliousness cause you to stick out like a sore thumb rather than evidence your humility and simplicity.

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