Monday, September 29, 2014

Two Tales of Tradition


Following the pedagogical principles of our Lord Himself, it is at times better to use parables and stories in order to make a point. Thus, I present to you two true tales from two villages - one in Austria, one in France - about the importance and power of Tradition.

The Austrian Wall

In Austria, there was a certain village which had an old wall running around the length of the place. The wall was very old, dating at least to the late medieval period and possible earlier. It had become quite scenic over the years; in many places it was overgrown with beautiful ivy and people often visited the village just to take a stroll along the scenic wall - the sort of place where men would take their girls to propose to them. What's more, from time immemorial a certain spot on the wall had been associated with 'good luck.' When walking past this particular section of the wall, it was custom to reach out and touch it. People would leave flowers at this section of the wall, and sometimes candles. Nobody knew why. It was just the custom practiced by people from as long as anybody could remember.

Eventually the wall became dilapidated in many places and needed to be repaired. The village undertook and extensive restoration project on the wall. This entailed clearing away much if the ivy, scraping away old plaster, and replacing the old, crumbling mortar with new. In the process of this restoration, it was discovered that the "lucky spot" on the wall actually hid a glorious mosaic of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The mosaic was very old, presumably from the Byzantine Ravenna period (mid-6th century), when the conquests of Justinian had momentarily reunited Italy and parts of Austria with the Eastern Roman Empire. The mosaic was apparently an object of great veneration. Over the generations, accumulation of ivy, grime from offertory candles, and just dirt from being outdoors obscured the mosaic. Eventually the whole thing was simply plastered over. But the people of the region continued to venerate the spot, though having long forgotten the reason why. Hence the association of "luck" with the location, the offerings of candles, flowers, etc.

The French Cave

Our second story takes us to France, where at the beginning of the twentieth century there was a small village at the base of a mountain. This mountain featured a series of caves, which would frequently get cluttered by mudslides, brambles, and other debris. Since time immemorial, the village had a custom of hiring a small contingent of men to go up into the caves on the mountain once a year and clean them all out in exchange for a small stipend. By the 20th century the action was seen as honorary, a quirky custom that the villagers enjoyed but which served no practical purpose.

In the years of the Depression after World War I, however, with the economy in trouble and local governments watching their purses, it was decided that the village would no longer expend public money for the annual cleaning of the caves. It had been a fun tradition, but really the expense could no longer be justified, especially since the clearing of the caves above the town provided no practical benefit to the villagers. Thus, the cleaning was omitted and the caves began to get clogged up with debris and brambles.

Well, it was not long after that - perhaps a year, perhaps more - that the town was suddenly hit with a series of mudslides and floods. The village had never suffered from anything like this in living memory, and a prompt investigation was made into the source of these disasters. It was quickly determined that the calamities had come from the mountain, and the villagers made a surprising discovery. As it turns out, the clearing of the caves was not pointless. Every year, when the snows melted, the waters flowed down into the mountain caves and off into various rivulets here and there. However, when the villagers ceased clearing the caves of debris, the passages the water ran through became clogged, and the melt off was diverted, causing a flood of water and mud to rush down upon the village. The annual clearing of the caves was necessary to prevent these sorts of natural disasters. Local historians did some research and found that the annual clearing of the caves had been going on since Roman times. The Romans, consummate engineers, understood the relationship between the caves and the floods and made sure they were kept clear, and at public expense. The Romans disappeared, but the villagers continued to clear the caves, though they had long forgotten the rationale behind the practice. As they learned, the thoughtless jettisoning of so ancient a custom proved to be disastrous in a way they had not foreseen.


And what lessons do we derive from these two tales? Both stories strongly suggest to us the power and importance of tradition. In the story of the Austrian wall and the mosaic of Our Lady, we see how the tradition preserved a valuable core of piety even despite the people who had forgotten the rationale for it. Tradition is the best preservative available to humans. Catholic Tradition preserves important elements to our faith and hands them on, and it is capable of doing this even if people forget the reasons. A great example of traditional ecclesiastical architecture, which hands on a certain core of spiritual and liturgical principles, even if the average pewsitter is ignorant of them. When tradition is junked, we lose the ability to preserve elements of our religion and culture and wind up drifting loose.

In the second story, we see the other side of tradition - not as something that preserves a valuable core, but as something that defends us from evil, even an evil that we might not be aware of. The clearing of the caves was to keep the village safe, even though the villagers themselves did not understand the nature of the evil. Similarly, ecclesiastical traditions are in place for the purpose of protecting us from certain deadly errors, even if modern man thinks the tradition serves no "practical" purpose. Or, to put it another way, "Do not take down a fence if you don't know why it was put up."

Sources: I heard the story of the Austrian wall from a priest in a homily, while the tale of the French cave was related to me by my co-blogger Anselm during my last visit with him on a cold snowy night back in February.

3 comments:

pie said...

When the villagers stopped clearing the cave they learned a very important lesson that they won't forget for a long time. Is was a very costly lesson, though

I was wondering why God permitted the current pontificate.

Now I know.

PHILOTHEA said...

Chesterton's fence is the principle that reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is understood. The quotation is from Chesterton’s 1929 book The Thing: Why I am a Catholic, in the chapter entitled "The Drift from Domesticity": "In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

cyrillist said...

Chesterton knew:

"In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, 'I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.' To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: 'If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.'"