Traditional, traditionalist are two ways of describing how we relate to tradition as a human transmission of experience. There are, however, many nuances within the idea of tradition that we need to be alert to if we are to get our relation to the past and the future right. And in our era of instant excitement and chronic amnesia, getting it right is necessary to our survival
Last week at the annual John Main Seminar (hosted this year by our Houston community) the presenter, Bernard McGinn was one of the great scholars of the Western Christian mystical tradition in our time. At eighty he radiates energy and a contagious enthusiasm for the field of study and research to which his life has been dedicated. The presence of his wife and colleague Pat and the benevolent evidence of their decades together was another kind of reminder that the past does not need to be the dumping ground of redundancy and obsolescence. The past lives on when it is integrated into the present and fuels us for the future.
‘New’ does not only mean what has just now been invented or discovered. Human existence is not restricted to youth. Delightful and beautiful as youth is, it (and all beginnings and the early stages of things) has many limitations which only experience through time, trial and error can correct. On the physical plane, there is a price to pay for this, because of mortality and the fourth law of thermo-dynamics. Probably since humans first began to think about life they have been amused and saddened by the disparity between the capacities of youth and the knowledge that can only be acquired by ageing which involves the loss of capacity.
By the time we learn why we are making mistakes we have often lost the opportunity to repeat them as enjoyable and painfully as before. And even those in the full bloom of youth often undermine their own enjoyment because of a divided mind: thinking of what they might have chosen to do while doing distractedly what they did choose. Transmitting the wisdom of experience is one of the defining responsibilities of the old to the young. To resist letting go of youth betrays this responsibility.
Usually, it seems inevitable that the young will make errors that their elders can foresee and perhaps cushion but rarely prevent. Their role then becomes one of giving reassurance and hope for the future.
Human existence is traditional. It involves the transmission of knowledge gained through mistakes and discoveries across the chasm of mortality. There are huge failures in this transfer of experience and wisdom, which is why we continue to repeat the same mistakes – such as the use of violence to resolve differences and the construction of unjust economic systems. But there are also amazing successes such as in the transmission of mystical knowledge that has created the interweaving wisdom traditions of the world.
In Houston, we learned more about our own mystical tradition from a mind and personality who had for long acquired and stored it in his tissue in ways with which Google or any hard-copy library could not compete. Humour, perspective, seeing new linkings across familiar territories, deepening one’s love for what is already very familiar – these are aspects of the transmitting of spiritual wisdom. The written texts are important – as will be the audios and videos of modern culture – but they are not enough. Tradition is not static. When it begins to gather dust it is not longer tradition – the inter-personal transmission of knowledge – but merely an archive. Dr McGinn reminded us several times that he was ‘only an academic’; as a musician might remind us he is only an interpreter, an instrument player, not the composer. Nevertheless he communicated what he had learned with human skills that awoke or deepened curiosity and delight in us.
His listeners were fired with the excitement of making new discoveries, seeing new patterns. Some bought big books, which they won’t finish. For us all, the outcome was both a renewed understanding of our daily contemplative practice and of the importance of passing on the gift of meditation.
From St Thomas University in humid Houston to the great cool valley of Snowmass monastery in Colorado, 8000 feet high in the Rockies. Last night we had the first meeting of a group of younger contemplative teachers and practitioners drawn equally from the World Community, Contemplative Outreach, the Center of Action and Contemplation and the Shalem Institute. The leaders of these four contemplative networks, with the inspirational support of the Trust for the Meditation Process, have invited these representatives of the coming generation of teachers who are taking responsibility for re-discovering and re-transmitting the contemplative tradition of Christianity in our time.
Bridges and personal relationships between the generations are vital. It is vital that the young take responsibility and use their capacities to the full with all their dedication and commitment. It is vital that their elders help them, offer sustained friendship – and, when necessary, get out of their way.