23 November 2010 Ideas

Finding truth through tradition

I was visiting Paris this past weekend, and on Sunday I went to a Catholic mass for the first time. Now, I’m more comfortable in a casual protestant crowd, but since I was in Paris, home to some breathtaking cathedrals and a healthy Catholic culture, I wanted to experience mass for myself. So on Sunday evening, I found myself sitting on a wicker chair at Saint-Germain-des-Prés, a beautiful old cathedral in the 6e arrondissement.

The liberal protestantism that I identify with doesn’t ascribe much importance to clerical garments, relics, or rosary beads. I tend to dismiss them out of hand as a materialistic distraction from spiritual growth. But I decided to put my prejudice on hold and experience mass with an open mind. What I found was a new perspective and a deeper respect for tradition.

Through the haze of incense, I couldn’t quite make out the priest’s face. That annoyed me, because I like to see people when they’re speaking. By tilting my head slightly to the left, I could barely get a view of the altar through the sea of heads in front of me. I’m used to seeing an energetic pastor speak from a well-lit stage, accompanied by easy-to-follow PowerPoint slides. For a moment, I felt disappointed. But then I realised: it must be intentional.

Once I stopped judging the mass based on my own expectations, I saw the good in this setup: by not being able to see the priest, I was concentrating less on the man and more on the words he was speaking. The white robe he was wearing served to further blur the identity of the man. His individuality had been stamped out by religious symbolism. Ironically, this made me feel as if God’s word was being spoken to me more directly.

I say ironically, because one of the main criticisms of the Catholic church is that it ignores the “priesthood of the believer” - that is, it appoints specific intermediaries between God and people. But in this situation, I felt like the intermediary was far less present than a typical Pentecostal pastor.

When a preacher of God’s word is an identifiable human being, I find that I interpret his or her message as “Pastor so-and-so’s commentary of Luke Chapter One”. On the flipside, this Catholic priest’s identity was shrouded in ritual and symbolism. Since I couldn’t relate to him as a person, I saw him purely as a messenger of God. Funny how that works.

Sam Nabi


Andrew Noble 23 November 2010, 21:41

I think it’s always good to have a healthy curiosity and check things out like you did. Props.

I also think that churches can overdue the entertainment of a preacher… rather than the telling the actual Word of God and the worship and growth (head, heart, hands) that comes with it.

However, I don’t think the best answer is tradition & clothes.

I would prefer speakers to speak more clearly out of the actual text of God. The best preachers are the best plagiarizers - simply copying what God has said/written. The trick is the best preachers must also be the best translators, from the original language to our own. So a preacher must be completely retelling the text, but also in the context of the audience. In this way, God speaks through the necessary dialect of the time and place - but always with the same message that is straight from God.

As proof - Jesus likely spoke in Aramaic, but all the original gospels were written in Greek!

I feel like I may be going on a tangent here - since you talked more about clothes than anything else. I think what the pastor/priest wears is a secondary issue. Whether you wear a rob or the “cool” ripped jeans, there’s a danger of “I’m wearing this because I’m better than you”.Also, keeping the speaker hidden goes alittle against my opinions of pastors being transparent and authentic. I think looking at 1 timothy 3 you can see a pastor needs to be pretty open about his life in order to be a pastor. (in the Bible elder/shepard/pastor are synonymous terms)

Side note: Tradition is wonderful - but it goes underneath Scripture (google search “sola scriptura” for what I mean in detail). See the first part of Mark 7 for Jesus’ thoughts on tradition - he’s not a big fan when people make a big deal about it lol.

(this was a fantastic distraction from studying btw - thanks Sam!)

Paula 23 November 2010, 23:31

Hmm… well I grew up in the Catholic church so I’m much more familiar with that. In my youth I did spend some time in more contemporary churches and at the time it did appeal to me more. At that age, and throughout my childhood, I thought that Catholic Masses were boring and I didn’t understand them.

Nowadays I find Catholic masses to be refreshing. While your description of the various “adornments” (ie. robes etc) is accurate, I don’t find Catholic masses to have as much distracting elements to them. One: I’ve never been to one with incense, two: because the things with which they are adorned are more traditional, I actually find them to be less flashy.

A Powerpoint isn’t flashy per se, but somehow Powerpoint, upbeat music, and a less formal setting just make it seem as if they’re trying to cater to a more popular appeal, and while that’s not inherently wrong, I feel as if a Catholic mass is more simple, simply because the rituals are so traditional and embedded in the culture.

Okay, I feel like I’m just kind of repeating myself.

I like the traditional approach better, and I do feel less like I’m listening to just somebody’s interpretation of the message as opposed to message itself, having said that, to each their own, I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other.

Something else I appreciate about the Catholic approach, not having to do with shrouding the preacher’s identity, but I feel the Catholic church encourages more discipline in terms of both the faith and the behavior of people at the mass, and that I kind of like, there are no kids crying or running around, you sit, stand, and kneel, and that’s the way it is.

But you know me… I’m a conservative. And I don’t mean politically, I just like tradition and am scared of change. :)

Sam Harding 24 November 2010, 00:10

Hey Boy-Sam,

Thanks for tagging me in the ideas. Toronto misses you!

Glad you took the time to absorb some Catholic church—especially in Paris! In the historic locale of the French Revolution, I find your word choice (“healthy Catholic culture”) humourous.

I think one of the more difficult things for Protestants to appreciate about the Catholic church is the importance placed on both Scripture and Tradition (even more so than you’re point on the priesthood of all believers). Although, I am not all that keen on the Scripture-Tradition dogma, I think there is deep value in understanding the traditions of our forefathers and mothers as I believe God works through his creation in time and history.

The worship traditions of the Catholic church are very sensual and deeply rooted in symbolism and meaning — looks like you’ve encountered that! The struggle with any religion is looking and acting beyond the surface of traditions and making sure your heart is in the right place. All the church structures we can imagine are only as good as they are able to shine the Gospel of Christ, the Kingdom of heaven come near. Next step, find some Catholics and ask them questions about their traditions…

La paix du Christ soit toujours avec vous, mon frère.<br>Sam

Goaliedave 24 November 2010, 17:23

well you’ve come a long way since 2006 in your great-grandmother’s Anglican church in Liverpool, eh?! Open mind and perspective is the key to life so awesome that you explored. You know me… I think both the Catholic and Pentacostal extremes and everything religious in between are unnecessary distractions for a person of faith. God is great, church is ok, religion sucks :)

Sam Nabi 4 December 2010, 12:29

You’re right that tradition should go underneath scripture - I think in this case it was my own tradition that was being challenged, which made me see scripture in a new light.

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