How We Discover the Meaning of Traditions

Joseph Serwach

Your writing, storytelling, testimony give meaning to family, traditions, society, culture Photo by Jennifer Latuperisa-Andresen on Unsplash

We share our story so you can better understand your own story.

Every family, faith, and movement starts this way: eyewitness testimony, someone telling a tale of something they saw or experienced. The greatest ones inspire traditions that live beyond mere lifetimes.

How one story corrects or reaffirms our understanding of traditions

Step 1: Sharing your testimony, a story starting something new

The word “testimony” comes from the Latin word testis, meaning “witness.” Eyewitness stories — always the most vivid — move us. We instinctively need interesting narratives to start, shape, and guide new traditions.

“Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.” ― W. Somerset Maugham.

This morning, I looked at my Facebook feed and read a beautiful and hilarious story from our friend Adam. He wrote in detail about the time his then-8-year-old (one of seven kids) got nauseous when their whole family was packed into a very crowded Mass.

The boy couldn’t make it to the bathroom. Adam concluded, “And that’s why I don’t cook spaghetti anymore.” The start of a new habit or tradition? The Greatest Story Ever Told still shapes Western Civilization, but countless smaller stories within stories shape the way we live.

Step 2: Comparing the testimony to our own traditions

The word “tradition” comes from the Latin word “traditionem” or delivery, surrender, a handing down, a giving up.”

“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”
Gustav Mahler.

A record 77 percent of Americans just told pollsters their nation is having “an existential crisis,’’ where we question the meaning, purpose, and value of everything. “That’s the way we’ve always done it’’ might suffice for a while, but it’s the broken stories — the changes of narrative — that give meaning to traditions.

For example, my brother and spiritual director love “It’s a Wonderful Life’’ because the film asks what life would be like without you? If everything changed?

That story literally removes the traditions connected to one man’s life to show how the world would change without his having lived. In 2020, the world removed all sorts of traditions. Those changes will allow us decades from now to use science and stories to compare life with X to life without X (through new stories and studies).

Step 3: Discerning the traditions worth continuing or rejecting

Adam’s story of a little boy getting sick and “exploding” in Mass made me instantly understand, appreciate, and value a few family traditions I never gave a lot of thought to:

  1. Polish Catholics have a tradition of not eating meat on Christmas Eve as part of an Advent-related “sacrifice’’ of fasting, reminding us our life is better with Jesus than without Him and of the Eucharist's importance. I never truly valued these meatless Christmas Eve traditions until Adam’s story gave me a new appreciation for this habit I started in childhood.
  2. A very related tradition my mother taught me was the old Catholic Way of fasting between the time you went to bed and morning Mass, not eating anything before Mass. Most Catholics ignore that tradition today, but Adam’s story of the little boy vomiting in Mass gave me another reason to appreciate and carry on my fasting before Mass habit.

In Orthodoxy, Catholic author G.K. Chesterton warned, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”

Mark Twain similarly wrote, “The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.” That’s why we need storytelling to justify the tradition.

I’ve always loved stories and writing. Both mean even more knowing my father (today is his birthday) is universally regarded for his storytelling ability and that both his father and grandfather worked for newspapers. A family tradition?

The “why’’ question is the essential question of religion (and marketing). When we know and learn why traditions began and continue, their value and meaning soar exponentially.

Step 4: Activation, the start of a Reset — or a Great Reawakening?

Every Thursday, the men of Catholic Men’s Fellowship gather to do three things:

  • We share readings from our Catholic traditions going back 2,000 years.
  • We open up and share our own stories or insights.
  • We learn, and we discern taking these lessons back to people we influence.

On Christmas 2020, we will see fewer relatives than we have on any other Christmas in memory. Our governor is telling us not to see anyone because of the pandemic.

So each of us has to decide which traditions we need to preserve and which can wait until next year. What global leaders call a Great Reset and what religions call “another Great Reawakening’’ can start when we begin again.

Our friend Butch, who turned around companies as big as Audi, teams, families, and communities, reminds us that “a reset” is the chance to do what our families and our Church have done again and again over 2,000 years: “You take something that seems like an impossible task, change your mindset, use the tools that you really do have, and create a completely new reality.’’

“Our reality is that our Catholic Church is more relevant today in this society than it has ever been in the history of humanity,’’ he taught us. “We need to be strong Catholics in front of everybody and carry forth that message of agape love in a way that’s never been done before and to use the skills and talents that we’ve been given.’’

Then he added this prayer asking the Father to: “Take skills and talents of our highly digital society. Press the reset button. We’ve been working for this moment for years. Lord with your grace, let us be the activation force.’’

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