A friend of mine makes steaks for dinner, and I notice she is cutting off the edge of the steaks. I ask her about it, and she answers that her mother has always done this. So I ask her mother, and she replies that her mother has always done this too. Fortunately I can ask that elderly lady the same question, and it turns out that she has been doing this because her frying pan was very small. That purposeful manner turned into an absurd family tradition, mindlessly handed down from one generation to the next.
On the last day of our parish mission the Stations were celebrated at the hour of Jesus’ death on the Cross, namely 3pm. Ten people took part in the event, including four members of the team and the PA system operator. Honestly it was the least successful celebration of the mission. But don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining! I didn’t take part in it either. Actually making the Stations at that time of the day might have been successful only in a child-free town with massive unemployment. Everywhere else people were working, going about their business, and picking up their children from school. It was a nice idea to celebrate the Stations at the hour of Jesus’ death – but utterly impractical.
We all have some traditions, customs and habits, implanted in us as part of a family, regional, national or religious heritage. Most of them are so deeply rooted in us that we don’t realise their identity until we are confronted with questions or contradictions. Subconsciously we assume them to be normal, standard ones. Other people can see them as odd, peculiar, cruel or even dangerous. Locals down in England were astonished when they found out that Polish people were fishing for inedible freshwater carp and eating them at Christmas; but that’s as iconic a Christmas meal for them as turkey is for the British.
Religious traditions and customs can be similarly unpleasant or dangerous for the spiritual life. During the mission we heard about the Miraculous Medal, rosary bits and other forms of devotion. Every priest is obliged to read the breviary, a set of prayers drawing upon the psalms and biblical readings, several times a day each day. Religious orders have their own customs, like permanent reading of their constitutions. As Catholics we are obliged to attend Mass on Sundays and on Holydays of Obligation. All that is fine, and can be very helpful to keep and to maintain deep spirituality. But each religious practice, each sort of devotion, each tradition can turn into a mindless and lifeless habit, providing only a selfish ‘feel-good’ factor. Then we have priests diligently saying their breviary, nuns and monks diligently fulfilling their obligations, lay people diligently saying the rosary and attending Mass – but nonetheless lacking in compassion, sympathy, understanding, patience, forgiveness, love, and all other attitudes of the Holy Spirit that really matter.
Our Catholic faith provides many tools, instruments and ways of deepening our personal relationship with God. They can be helpful, because they appeal to and involve our senses and minds. But their only purpose is to support and strengthen us on our way to recognise what Moses says in today’s first reading: ‘No other people is as wise and prudent as this great nation, with the Lord our God so near to us whenever we call to him.’