Reconciling Tradition and Change

An excerpt from Radical Spirit: 12 Ways to Live a Free and Authentic Life, by Joan Chittister, OSB

AFTER THE RELEASE of the documents of Vatican II, the great effort for change in the church erupted in a maze of emotional confusion. We struggled with the idea of change in the structures and presence of religious orders. We strained to balance the skewing of perceptions of change among the faithful as well as in the hearts of religious themselves. What would happen to the traditions that gave the spiritual life meaning? In fact, what would happen to tradition itself? Was the past considered useless now? Lost? Simply being abandoned? And at what cost to us all?

The outburst of newness at every level of the faith—clerical, academic, lay, and religious—convulsed the system from top to bottom. What seemed theoretically desirable one day became the fault line of revolution the next. How much change could the need for change tolerate without bringing down the entire institution with it?

And all the while, the eighth step of humility, to do only those things “endorsed by the common rule of the monastery,” acted both as a barrier to change and as the only sensible companion through it.

It was time to wrestle with the difference between tradition and traditionalism in a rapidly changing world. It was a new question in institutions that took for granted that yesterday was a guide for tomorrow. The spiritual importance of the value of tradition was incontestable, of course. But the tendency to make traditionalism—the repetition of a thing simply because it has “always been done this way”—a worthy substitute for tradition was eating like a moth at the threads that made a spiritual life in the modern world possible. It created a built-in tension: the most important one of all.

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