Tradition lies at the root of many stories we have come to love and cherish. Especially when we’re young, we love to be fed on the narratives buried in the annals of our family lore. We seldom ask, especially when we’re young, whether they’re true or not. We simply love to hear them recounted by the elders in our family. They are nourishing.
It’s true, of course, that, in the course of time, with their countless re-telling, they tend to grow with these repetitions and acquire details added by various generations of the family story-tellers. When we grow up and start delving into these traditions, we may come to see that they’re not all verifiable. There may be an addition here, or an emendation there. Sometimes it may disappoint us to learn that there was no family member at the Civil War battle of Bull Run, or at least not the specific individual that the story conveyed to us mentioned. Still, this discovery does not substantially disillusion us. We simply drop that piece of information from our family history.
The role of tradition, of course, moves beyond family background, into other areas of life. Every nation, such as the U.S., has its folklore of heroes and heroines of decades ago, from every area of the country: north, south, east and west. Some are urbanites, others are country folk. Once again, we cherish these “heroes” and “heroines” and tend to become upset at legend-breakers, those who debunk and demythologize what has come to mean so much to us.
Religion too has its share of tradition(s): all religions, Christianity included, and so, Catholicism. As learned theologians remind us, there are Traditions and traditions. What is important for our relationship to God is the Tradition. What is of less significance, perhaps, is tradition. In all of this, we have to be careful in describing tradition, whether religious or secular folklore, as false, meaning untrue and unhistorical. Maybe yes, maybe no. But what is special about tradition is that it is “of a piece” with Tradition, meaning that, if it is not precisely as described, it should have been, because it in harmony with the original situation. It is like a copy of a famous painting, so similar to it that only an expert can tell the difference.
It’s something like a snowball. We can pack some newly fallen snow into a small compact ball-shaped projectile fitting neatly into our gloved hand, and we can accurately throw it a considerable distance at some target. But we can also drop it back into the loose snow and, if it’s on a hillside, give it a little boost so that it starts rolling down the hill, gathering speed and mass as it moves along. When it comes to rest at the foot of the hill, it is considerably larger than it was when it was at the top and just a snowball. Should we be asked whether what now rests at the foot of the hill is the same thing that started off as a snowball, how do we answer that question? We likely respond: sort of. Like tradition relative to the original event, it is certainly larger. But at the same time, it is not completely different. In fact, the original still lies deep within the huge mass of snow—at its heart, so to speak.
And so with the boy-now-become-a-man, or the girl-now-become-a-woman: is the man no longer that boy, or the woman no longer that girl? And so the stories of our religious faith, originating in the bible and, with the passage of time, gathering stories (traditions): are they fabrications? Or are they scriptural accounts that have “grown up” and gathered mass and weight: are they true, or are they false? Perhaps this is the wrong question. Rather, we should ask: does one see the original lying hidden in what lies before our eyes today? Can we visualize the snowball in the massive accumulation of snow, or the boy in the man, or the girl in the woman? Sometimes the additions to the original enhance and improve it: the great snowman is an impressive dimension of the diminutive snowball; the bearded gent is an enhancement of the little trouble-maker, the shapely model is a welcome improvement on the pudgy baby girl. The Christmas story of the baby Jesus improves with the passage of time, and the addition of small details a very charming story.