I’m still chewing over the idea of ‘tradition’ and ‘traditional’ from yesterday and I am getting closer to the kernel of it. Talking about the difference between traditions as historical entities and traditionalism as an attitude definitely puts me on the right track. The notion that there is an attitude at the heart of my attraction to the term gets me even closer.
I can start to put on a better name on that attitude, too. Respect.
One of the things that you tend to find among the traditionally-minded is a sense of respect. I can’t speak for all of them, just myself, but the next obvious question becomes a respect for what. Here is where the discussion can easily become deformed and distorted. I have tried to answer the question with things like teachers, elders, specific ways of doing things, specific spirits. Those have never been able to bear the weight of respect. They are things through which respect passes, like points on a journey, but a respect founded on them is partial and inadequate.
Why? I can’t answer that fully. My partial answer, though, is that such a respect is one-sided. The connection moves from me toward them, but without a clear avenue for the return of the respect. We can have a long talk about the need to ‘earn’ such respect, but I think that is a red herring that leads us back into a place where respect is always on the other side of us and which we are always struggling to prove ourselves. That effort to ‘prove ourselves’ can become pretty toxic, because it is often about accepting a foreign conception of who and what we should be that derives from something that is itself partial and inadequate.
For respect to pass through and back to us, it must have a destination that is beyond any specific person or tradition. For the lack of a better term, respect find its proper destination in mystery, in the mysteriousness of a life and of existence. Respect becomes healthy, becomes unifying, when it joins things together in a movement toward a mystery and wonder. Though this is surely an unpopular view, when I talk about God, it is God as the home of mysteries, the mystery of mysteries in which comprehension is exhausted.
To genuinely respect someone or something, it is to appreciate them as a station toward and within this well of mystery. And if they are to return that respect, it is by acknowledging our own place within that same movement. Respect unfolds around a movement that favors gentleness, a movement that explores our common capacity to move toward the mystery in common, but leaves the way open for us to go toward the mysteries in isolation. Respect lacks force.
In the hurly-burly of life, force inserts itself easily into our life and we respond with force protectively, lest what comes with force violates the mysteries that we hold dear. I won’t deny the necessity of this sometimes, but I want to highlight the dangers of it. The movement of protective force can turn into a force that mistakes itself for respect and the operation of respect. When force becomes a demand for respect, respect is deformed and along with it our capacity to experience the mysteries.
The mysteries can manifest with and through force, but we cannot fully engage with them without an open attitude of respect for them and our place before them. We make ourselves subject to them and we must take care not to usurp their force and attempt to make others subject to them through us. It is a razor’s edge, but it is the edge we must walk, cutting ourselves with our mistakes and learning to hold the line more keenly yet.
I hear a lot of things said about what this or that spiritual community needs, with answers ranging from prayer to seriousness to humor to magic to animal sacrifice. But all of that strikes me as utterly secondary to respect for the mysteries and our place as a mystery among mysteries. What we really need is a respect that is both profound and overflowing.
More than a little bit.