... we must carefully distinguish between tradition and convention. Convention and tradition may seem on the surface to be much the same thing. But this superficial resemblance only makes conventionalism all the more harmful. In actual fact, conventions are the death of real tradition as they are of all real life. They are parasites which attach themselves to the living organism of tradition and devour all its reality, turning it into a hollow formality.
Tradition is living and active, but convention is passive and dead. Tradition does not form us automatically: we have to work to understand it. Convention is accepted passively, as a matter of routine. ... Tradition really teaches us to live and show us how to take full responsibility for our own lives. ... But convention, which is a mere repetition of familiar routines, follows the line of least resistance. One goes through an act, without trying to understand the meaning of it all, merely because everyone else does the same. Tradition, which is always old, is at the same time ever new because it is always reviving – born again in each new generation, to be lived and applied in a new and particular way. Convention is simply the ossification of social customs. ... Tradition nourishes the life of the spirit; convention merely disguises its interior decay.
Finally, tradition is creative. Always original, it always opens out new horizons for an old journey. Convention, on the other hand, is completely unoriginal. It is slavish imitation. It is closed in upon itself and leads to complete sterility.
(Thomas Merton, No Man is An Island, Boston: Shambhala, 2005, pp. 158-159)
The problem, according to our guest speaker, is that we tend to lose the distinction. I readily include myself among the guilty. There are those expressions I cling to, and others I sneer at and roll my eyes. More and more I feel like a dinosaur with more than a toe in the tar pits. Conventions behind me, conventions before me; conventions both claimed and eschewed. If "one man's meat is another man's poison," so is "one person's tradition another one's convention." In which category, for example, is Sunday School – or hymnals, or pews or clergy or worship on Sundays at 11:00 am? The Lord's Supper is almost certainly tradition, but what about the juice thimbles and pasty Chiclets? What about functional committees and church boards? Tradition, or convention? My sad observation is that we hardly know the difference.
But even if we were clear, my hunch is that conventions would rule the day. Why? There are harsh answers – they relieve us of the need to think; they are comfortable; they are habit. But there are surely more benign explanations. Conventions rather seamlessly intertwine with sentimentalities, keeping handy precious memories from our past. Why else would people feel so strongly about – and love so dearly to sing – hymns with such bloody, sappy and miserable messages? Think:
"Come to the church in the wildwood, Oh, come to the church in the dale, No spot is so dear to my childhood, As the little brown church in the vale."
"There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel's veins; and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains."
It isn't, I would posit, because those hymns reflect one's theology – one's belief system -- but because they evoke echoes of the singer's childhood and favorite experiences. Fine, I say. Sing away. Make yourself hoarse. But don't go to the cross – or kill the church – over the "The Church in the Wildwood." Surely we can find more substantive altars to die on – or live by – than that.
What would it mean to recover tradition's creative spark? What would it look like to "open out new horizons for an old journey" as Merton suggests tradition can accomplish, as opposed to the "slavish imitation" and "sterility" of convention? I'm not quite sure, but I'm intrigued by the possibilities.