BY JUDITH LYNCH
One of my favourite stories is The Guru’s Cat.
When the guru sat down to worship each evening the ashram cat would get in the way and distract the worshippers.
So he ordered that the cat be tied during the evening worship.
Long after the guru died, the cat continued to be tied during evening worship. And when the cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the ashram so that it could be duly tied during the evening worship.
Centuries later learned treatises were written by the guru’s disciples on the essential role of a cat in all properly conducted worship.
Like the guru’s cat, we get tied up by rules that originated in an everyday situation, then stayed put.
The story calls to mind wedding traditions, judges in 16th century wigs, liturgical vestments, pancakes on the Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday and so on… things we do and wear , buildings we erect, that have their origins in the needs and necessities of another time and place.
By its very nature tradition seems to become embedded in the way we do things long after the reasons for so doing have faded away.
Questioning traditions can be seen as subversive and somehow disloyal to the past as well as the present, like a son who chooses to live in a city instead of carrying on the family tradition of farming. I’ve occasionally got into hot water for questioning the way something was done: “But we’ve always done it this way.”
People roll their eyes and I can almost see the speech bubbles over their heads: “Here she goes again! Questioning everything”.
Jesus did it. He had no time for traditions that had lost their way and their focus. The Jewish emphasis on hand washing possibly stemmed from the need for clean hands around food, but over centuries had been given a religious focus, protected and hemmed in by rules.
So the Pharisee keepers of the religious traditions seethed while they mouthed their polite questions and Jesus as much as said, “Listen fellas, God’s not interested in whether hands are clean or dirty. God wants to know your heart is in everything you do.”
It was this spirit that prompted Vatican II in 1962-65 to loosen up some Catholic practices that had become burdensome and irrelevant. Mass and sacraments were able to be celebrated in the vernacular, evening Masses freed up timetables, the rules of fasting before Communion were eased, meat could be eaten on Fridays, restrictive religious habits were able to be replaced by simple everyday clothing.
Being proscriptive and dictatorial about traditional practices, like the way sacraments are integrated into our lives, can provide us with a refuge from the present. There’s not only comfort in traditional practices, but there is power.
Sometimes, though, I get the feeling that the clothing worn by the celebrant, the gestures and movements, the way our sacraments unfold, have assumed an importance and meaning that flows out of practices common in past centuries, practices that have lost their relevance, but are labelled as rubrics, with the power of rules.
I believe we need to continue the work of Vatican II, to dig and sift to discover the meaning and the heart that lies beneath our traditions, then integrate them into our 21st century.
Judith Lynch is a writer who lives in Melbourne. More of her writing appears at tarellaspirituality.com
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