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For the Love of Tradition, Don’t Fetishize It

I let out an audible groan when I came across an opinion piece in The New York Times a few weeks ago titled “Christianity Gets Weird.” The accompanying grainy graphic of a pair of praying hands and the label-maker tags “GOTHIC ARCHITECTURE! VEILS VEILS VEILS! WEIRD CATHOLIC TWITTER!” threw me back to the era of pre-internet ’zines and hand-drawn flyers for punk shows that were held, of all places, in church basements.

It was in a church basement, actually, at a hardcore punk show in the mid-nineties, that I had my first encounter with the Holy Spirit. I was seventeen and knew next to nothing about Christianity. I worked as a waiter at an upscale retirement home with my best friend, who was a devout, youth group–attending Presbyterian. There was also another guy we worked with who played bass in a Christian hardcore band called “Benevolent.” I knew the frantic and sweat-soaked mosh-pit energy of hardcore music, but the “Christian” part seemed an unlikely appendage. When he invited me to a show, I went…for the music.

A funny thing happened at one point though during that evening. A bearded and tattooed preacher-man came on stage. As I stood panting and sweating with my hands on my knees, waiting for the next set, he said a few words and then raised his hands…and prayed over the crowd. We were a bunch of punk kids. But that night I never forgot, because when he began to pray, the Holy Spirit showed up on the scene.

It felt like a rush of wind cutting me at the knees. I don’t know what the preacher man prayed or the words he used, but by the end my sweat mixed with tears; I was convicted of my crimes; and I wanted to know more about this Christ, who was the answer to a longing I had not yet known. I spoke with the preacher-man afterward, and he shared a distilled intro to the gospel message: our slavery to sin and the Savior who has the power to set us free.

It seemed strange that it was the tenets of Straight Edge — a kind of secular moral code in the underground Hardcore scene that rested on the three pillars of No Drugs, No Drinking, and No Promiscuity — that would eventually lead me to the doors of the Catholic Church and to discern a monastic vocation for the next ten years. But God writes straight with crooked lines. The strict discipline of Straight Edge ethics developed as a movement in response to the nihilism and debauchery of the previous decade’s punk scene. Adherents — who proudly marked their hands with black Xs (in the vein of underage club-goers who were “Xed” to keep them from being able to buy alcohol) — wanted to live for “something more,” even if they didn’t know what it was.

But the Holy Spirit ransomed me and showed me there was a greater code for living that was based not in arbitrary secular rules for right living, but in Truth itself. It was Truth that attracted me and not its accoutrements, and it was to be found in the Catholic Church, who is the Bride of Christ herself. After becoming Catholic at the ripe age of 18, I spent the next twenty years or so navigating and floundering in the tepid seas of liberal Catholicism. There were some warm pockets of orthodoxy, but I knew nothing of Tradition until a few years ago when a friend invited me to my first Latin Mass.

Admittedly, it wasn’t love at first sight. Sure, there were veils and reverence. I wasn’t a bells-and-smells guy, as I was exposed to traditional liturgy from a young age (my dad being an Eastern-Rite Catholic and my mom a high-church Episcopalian), and it was more normal than exotic. When I encountered the Latin Mass for the first time, I was a family man approaching middle age and in survival mode: how do I pass on the Faith to my children? How do I ensure that it doesn’t die out with me? What are our best odds for doing this? For a while we attended the Latin Mass once a month and our neighborhood suburban Novus Ordo parish for the remaining Sundays until the schizophrenia began to be too taxing. We jumped in feet first, registered at a different parish that offered the traditional Latin Mass, and haven’t looked back.

I’ve been through more trends and movements than I can count in my life. Though I have managed to hang on to my faith (by grace alone) through the choppy seas of heterodoxy and faulty catechesis that should have shipwrecked me years ago, Catholicism was never something I considered a trend or fad in my life. It went deeper than a community or an aesthetic, because it concerns itself with Truth as its cornerstone. Truth is timeless, indifferent to fads and fashions.

At this point in my life, I don’t want weird, trendy, or avant-garde. I don’t need a movement to belong to. My attraction is to what is stable, normal, and rooted in liturgical common sense. The attempts by well-meaning young orthodox believers, like those written about by the author of the NYT opinion piece, to be countercultural in embracing tradition can be forgiven. It also wasn’t lost on me that they attempted to slide in things like “Rite I traditional Episcopalianism” and allusions to more enlightened political agendas (for instance, the American Solidarity Party) as if they were part of the package of traditionalism, the way House Democrats slip in their own set of concessions into a stimulus bill.

The experiment of modernity has not born the promised fruits, and so it’s time to try something new. Of course, there is nothing new under the sun; what is “new” is actually what’s old, a beauty so ancient that doesn’t need to be repackaged. It doesn’t need to be branded. It doesn’t even necessarily need to be advertised. Truth has a way of attracting people in spite of itself. If a young man is “into” a young woman, he will do whatever it takes to be with her. If he’s “just not that into her,” he’ll find excuses not to.

I see the momentum of our parish — more young families and singles are joining each week and discovering Tradition and the Latin Mass. Many of the young women wear the veil. We have a great schola. Many know their faith well and raise their children intentionally in it. There is hope here, a rock for the future. This is not something we should be keeping a secret, and we are called to evangelize and employ modern technology, but let’s not repeat the mistakes of the post-conciliar church in just a different color of wrapping paper. The Faith is weird enough as it is without the Millennial branding. To pitch traditional Catholicism as “good weird” or punk or trendy-kitsch is to do the Mass of Ages a disservice, because all of the above are temporal. If you want to withstand the onslaught of the age, you need a Rock to stand on, and rocks don’t move. Trends come and go, but Truth, and the Mass of Ages, will remain when everything else washes out to sea.

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