Is Tradition Important? On Church’s Customs and Rules – Fr. Bedros Shetilian

Fr. Bedros Shetilian – OCP Articles – 6/3/2020

As we are started the Great Lent, I thought I would write about tradition, customs, and rules of the Church. Where do they come from? How important are they? Is it possible to have a religious life with no rules and customs?

First of all, I would like to point out that every church or denomination, even the most liberal ones, have their rules and customs. The differences are in the ways, scales and meanings of how these customs and traditions are implemented and practiced.

To start, we know that Christianity came out of Judaism. Since Judaism is a religion with its customs and traditions, then it is natural that Christianity followed Judaism regarding this aspect. I think this is easy to understand since the Bible and history clearly show this reality.

Why tradition is important? But indeed why is tradition important? Is it important because we have to follow it? Or because it makes the Church’s services look beautiful. Surely, all these facts have their roles. But I think there is something else that makes tradition to have the important role that we know, and that it is rooted and connected to who we are as human beings. We know that we are not only souls, we are also material creatures, we have bodies.

Our bodies are an inseparable part of our identity. Accordingly, regardless of how much we say that faith is a spiritual reality, we are also material beings. Concrete, visible and touchable realities are important to us. For example, we express our love to our beloved ones; family members, friends not only by words but also by touching them; hugging them, kissing them. We kiss pictures of our children when they are away and we miss them. This is natural. In religion also, in order to be in touch with metaphysical religious realities, we need visible and material means to help us to be transferred to that spiritual and not visible world. I think this is the main reason to understand why the Church’s customs and traditions have been playing a major role in Christianity. Churches’ hymns, churches’ unique looks, icons, all these and other things help us to break the boundaries that limit us and help us to be in touch with the spiritual world.

These aspects of the Church’s tradition are like doors that open to us the other, transcendent world. We need this means. For instance, people may say we can pray individually and have the same feelings. This is right, this is a must that any individual should be able to do, but besides our individual experiences, a comprehensive religious life requires to have an experience based on customs and traditions. Why? Because nothing is a coincidence in the Church.

These rules and customs were created by accomplished people; saints, Church’s fathers who presumably had higher achievements in their religious lives in comparison to average people, and what they did was a result of their extraordinary experiences. For example, when we pray, we know that we repeat the same words over and over again which is fine, but it is also important and more authentic in addition to our spontaneous and personal prayers to memorize/read prayers that are part of Church’s tradition. These prayers are the result of great experiences and have been improved during centuries. These prayers are the result of the effort of great people, people who were closer to God.

Coming to fasting, it is crucial to understand that fasting is not an aim, but a method and that is a training of our bodies as a premise in order to improve our spiritual life and our behavior. By restricting ourselves from some foods we actually train ourselves of self-control having the final goal to control our instincts and to get rid of our weaknesses. Once the fasting becomes self-aimed it turns to be only a diet and loses its real purpose.

What role can tradition have? Personally, being a musician and performing sacred music created by great composers had a major impact on me. Such moments made it easier for me to experience the presence of God. I can’t imagine my religious life without these moments. I had similar feelings when back in Russia, I went inside Orthodox Churches with beautiful frescos. I also had such feelings each time I entered Armenian medieval Churches because of the mystery created by the play of light and shadow. But when I became a priest I started experiencing something much deeper and real, something I believe that many other clergy experiences. This “something” is the Divine Liturgy (Holy Mass), and if it is celebrated with real and sincere faith, then it can be an experience incomparable to other spiritual moments that we may experience.

It is interesting to mention that the renowned Russian theologian Fr. Pavel Florensky (Armenian mother) called the Liturgy a Spiritual Opera, where all elements of opera; a story, singing, acting, moving and proper dressing preside. But in difference to opera, the feelings in Divine Liturgy are religious. And most importantly, the Liturgy is more than just feelings, it is a sacrament where not only man but mainly God is a part of that reality. In appearance, the Liturgy is a number of actions, but in reality, it is a Divine action, an action that helps us to feel God’s presence. This doesn’t mean that laypeople cannot have real moments of living their faith during Church services. It all depends on their faith and what is going on in their hearts. I believe that if a layperson has real and deep faith and also is familiar with the Divine Liturgy, then such a one can experience the same feelings that a clergyman can experience during that sacrament. My point of saying all this is to show what major role different aspects of the Church’s life and tradition can play in the life of the believers.

Can the tradition be changed? Saying all this, it is important to understand that the Church’s customs and traditions cannot be static, but changeable realities. Tradition dies when it becomes self aimed and loses its main purpose and that is a way to help us be in touch with the other transcendent world. Once any of Church’s rituals stop inspiring people, it means that there should be an evaluation of that ritual. But it is also very important to understand that changes in any aspect of the Church’s life should be done with utmost care.

The Church in its essence is a conservative institution and any changes should be done after detailed and comprehensive studies. How to do such changes are not easy tasks, especially nowadays since it is not easy to understand why people are not inspired by the Church’s rituals. In some cases that happens because of a lack of education in the Church’s customs and tradition. For traditional churches, this issue is more pressing in the West, since many people did not come from the countries where these churches originated and had no chance to be educated and to be familiar with the Church traditions and customs. Church leaderships often face a dilemma of what to do in order to keep a balance between the realities and not losing the Church’s authenticity.

For example in the Armenian Apostolic Church, one of the most discussed issues is the language of the Liturgy, whether to continue using Church’s Classical Armenian (krapar) language which laypeople barely understand or to translate the Liturgy to the modern Armenian or to the local languages so that people may understand in different countries wherever they live. It is not a secret that there are large numbers of Armenians who don’t speak and understand Armenian, especially in the Western world. Myself, I have no answer to this particular issue and what makes it more challenging that besides its religious aspect Church’s tradition is also looked upon as a source of national culture and identity, a sensitive issue for the Armenians in Diaspora.

However, in my opinion, the main guidance in order to change anything in the Church’s ritual is to make it play its main role, and that is to create an atmosphere that inspires people to be uplifted and emotionally participate in different services and most importantly in the Divine Liturgy. In this case, I am not sure that changing the language could be the right answer. There might be other balanced solutions. Continuing the aspect of Church’s rituals we can see that sometimes long services may have a little impact if there is no understanding and no emotional participation by the people. People get bored; people start looking at their watches and what happens that the services lose their purpose. As I said this is a difficult issue and only can be resolved when there is a long term, a wide vision and a willingness to make difficult but wise decisions.

The importance of having different traditions: In the aspect of different traditions, it is natural that each nation and culture has its own ways to celebrate its services and rituals. These different ways are relevant to each nation’s history, mentality and culture. Spiritual Songs of African Americans are the best way for this group of people to express their faith, Russian Icons are relevant to the culture of Russian people, and Armenian religious hymns are rooted in Armenian culture and consciousness, etc. Any expression that works and serves its purpose and that is to connect people to God is good. There are no good or bad traditions, there are different traditions. Having said that, I think each nation should stay with its own tradition, but at the same time, this should not stop people from knowing and appreciating the religious traditions of other nations and churches.

All these different traditions enrich civilization and also show what major role Christianity had in the history of humanity. It is hard to imagine civilization and culture without the works of arts created as a part of the Church’s tradition; like poems, musical masterpieces, buildings, sculptures, paintings, icons that came out of Christianity. Also, it is impossible to imagine Michael Angelo, J.S. Bach, Dostoevsky, and other geniuses out of Christianity. I think the whole western culture up to the middle of the last century was created directly or indirectly under the influence of Christianity. Even in the case of people who didn’t have faith, willingly or not the works of such people were influenced by Christianity since everybody was raised and educated under the umbrella of the Christian culture dominant in the West up to the 1950s.

To finish I would like to emphases again that when it comes to the Church’s tradition, it is very important to keep a balance between the content and the form, to make the form follow the content and not the opposite and to do it in a way that it will serve its main purpose which is to create a heaven-like atmosphere during the services in the Churches, to make sure that we follow the tradition not because we have to follow, but in order to improve our faith and our religious experiences.

Fr. Bedros Shetilian – OCP Articles