One of my favorite TV shows was one called Keeping Up Appearances. It was about a woman named Hyacinth Bucket (she pronounced it bouquet) who spent all her time trying to prove that she and her family were more “proper” than any of her neighbors. But try as she would; nothing ever went the way she wanted. We are all like Hyacinth. We all try to put on appearances. Just look at the ads on TV. We want the best cars, the makeup that has us looking flawless, the scent that attracts the perfect mate.
Jesus criticized a portion of his community for paying God lip service, exalting human precepts, abandoning divine commandments. Then, like a beam of laser light, he cut through to the real issue: their hearts are far from God.
Rather than practicing a spirituality that changed them through grace, the Pharisees tried to impose rituals that made other people conform to their hard-and-fast principles. Their concern was not God’s purposes but their power and control. Such misuse of religion remains even today.
The entire apparatus of Catholic devotion from rosaries and revivals, statues and incense, contemporary music and Gregorian chant, public liturgy and private prayer, holy water, and sacramentals in its diversity and complexity serves one purpose. They must help us gain and maintain a new heart, a heart of flesh rather than a heart of stone, a heart that is alive, not dead, a heart that is compassionate, not selfish, a heart that is large, not small, a heart that is hospitable, not judgmental. Catholic devotion in its myriad forms is all about softening the heart, preventing it from becoming hard, keeping it tender. It’s about, in a spiritual sense, having a healthy heart, a heart of love.
All too often, we get caught up in arguments over rituals and miss the meaning behind them. I think a story about the ashram cat told by the late Anthony DeMello illustrates this. When the guru sat down to worship each evening, the ashram cat would get in the way and distract the worshipers. So he ordered that the cat be tied up during evening worship. After the guru died, the cat continued to be tied up during evening worship. And when the cat died, another cat was brought to the ashram to be duly tied during evening worship. Centuries later, the guru’s disciples wrote treatises on the religious and liturgical significance of tying up a cat during the liturgy.
How many cats do we tie? When we look at the use of some element of tradition, the question is: Does this practice, in this circumstance, contribute to a living, healthy, compassionate heart, or does it not? Is it tradition or traditionalism? Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition is the living faith of the dead, the saints in glory.
We are mired in traditionalism when our spiritual practice does not open our hearts to become more compassionate. That is the dead faith of the living. But when we use that spiritual inheritance left to us by preceding generations for its true purpose, then tradition lives and flows and opens us to greater life. Our hearts become larger, more loving. We can say we have the living faith of the dead—the faith of those saints who dedicated their lives to the care of others.