Our Sacred Tradition Marks Us

“Tradition is a set of solutions to problems we’ve forgotten.”

This clever comment appeared beneath a story I read about the same-sex-marriage case recently argued before the Supreme Court. The commenter, who goes by a pseudonym, attributed the line to a science fiction writer. I hunted around for the original source, but I found no other mention of it online.

Does it scandalize you to learn that I was tempted to steal the idea and pass it off as my own? I probably could have gotten away with it. It’s unlikely that the commenter, or the science fiction writer, will ever read this column.

Nevertheless, I chucked the idea almost as soon as it entered my head. It’s wrong to steal, even when you can get away with it—maybe especially when you can get away with it. At least that’s what my parents taught me. You could say it was a family tradition.

Evidently, not everyone abides by the same rules. Stuff gets stolen all the time. We once had a baby stroller stolen from us right off the street. We made the mistake of leaving it unattended for six minutes while we dropped Clara off at St. Ignatius Loyola Day Nursery on East 84th Street in New York City.

I have often wondered about just what kind of person would steal a baby stroller from in front of a Catholic nursery school. Must have been pretty desperate.

The bulk of our secular laws are derived from traditional understandings of right and wrong. Most of us, though, don’t resist the temptation to steal simply because we are afraid of going to jail. Rather, we don’t take what doesn’t belong to us because we know in our hearts that doing so is a sin.

It’s written in the Bible—thou shalt not steal—which is good enough for me, but not for everyone, so we have evolved certain rules about the sanctity of private property. Society simply cannot sustain itself if everyone goes around taking stuff that isn’t theirs.

Thou shalt not steal is a good tradition, I think. It’s been useful. It’s served us well.  It’s hard to imagine anyone arguing to pitch it overboard, though you could probably make an intellectually defensible case against it. It does seem unfair to those who were raised to see strollers left on the street as fair game.

Now, I can’t say I’ve never stolen anything. I can’t even say that I’ve always or mostly respected others’ property. I’ve fallen short in these areas. I’m a sinner. But, thankfully, as a Catholic, I have recourse to confession.

The sacraments are a part of our sacred tradition. Our Protestant friends tend to reject the notion of sacramental confession to a priest, believing instead that sins are forgiven through faith alone. This sets us apart. Our sacred tradition marks us. It is not just what we believe—it is a part of who we are.

We observed two traditions recently in my family that held special resonance for me. The first was the sacrament of baptism, which is, of course, to be found in the Bible, but not in quite the same way we celebrated it. Infant baptism is frowned upon by certain Christians because in the time of Jesus only adults were baptized. Yet, our tradition is to baptize children shortly after they are born.

The ceremony was small—just family and Godparents were invited—but also momentous. It is a solemn vow we take to raise our children in the faith, and taking it always hits me hard. My small, defenseless, innocent Sally, entrusted to us by a loving God, knows nothing of the vale of tears awaiting her in this earthly life.

I get misty just thinking about it.

The second was a funeral service for my dear Aunt Ronnie, my mother’s younger sister, who lost a long battle to cancer last month. A friend of hers—a deacon—gave the eulogy. He revealed that although Ronnie had been estranged from the Church, she had made her confession and received our Lord before she passed.

Again, I get emotional. I’m a bit of a mush.

These ceremonies were, for me, poignant reminders that when we are at our most vulnerable, our sacred traditions are there to give us solace. The sacraments of our church—Baptism, the Eucharist, Reconciliation, Confirmation, Holy Orders, Anointing of the Sick, and Marriage—are special occasions to receive God’s comfort. We must safeguard them. We must be faithful stewards of tradition.

When we are young, we misunderstand the value of tradition. We think it is a tool to limit us. We are blind to its wisdom.

When we are old, we convince ourselves that tradition has outlived its usefulness. We think we have evolved beyond it. We are blind to its wisdom.

But tradition is the answer, even if we can’t remember the question.



  1. Anonymous says:

    Courtship Rite by Donald Kingsbury has this passage in chapter 30:

    Tradition is a set of solutions for which we have forgotten the problems. Throw away the solution and you get the problem back. Sometimes the problem has mutated or disappeared. Often it is still there as strong as it ever was.

%d bloggers like this: