One of the great tragedies of modern times is to think of tradition as something cumbersome, insensitive, or even oppressive—something that prevents each new generation from finding its fulfilment. Belloc would say this is a hasty misdiagnosis of the situation. Those who love tradition understand that it is not cold and heartless, but rather full of warmth and life. He writes,
This, which I have just described, is not in a novel or in a play. It is real, and goes on as the ordinary habit of living men and women. I fear that set down thus in our terribly changing time it must sound very strange and, perhaps in places, grotesque, but to those who practice it, it is not only sacred, but normal, having… a sacramental quality and an effect of benediction: not to be despised.
According to Belloc, the continuity and timelessness of traditional practices is like life-giving nourishment to the soul. Have you ever watched children’s reactions when ornaments are brought out to decorate the Christmas tree? They will often say things like, “Look, I remember this from last year! Oh, and this one is my favorite… Mommy, this is my favorite time of the whole year!” The fact is, traditions such as this are memorable and uplifting, and we naturally long for them, especially as children. They give us a reason to look forward to the future, even when we know the passage of time will inevitably bring with it the pain of separation.
For Belloc, change is a “perpetual series of lesser deaths” which accompany our mortality (4). Time forcefully separates us from people we love, things we treasure, and events we wish would never end. Kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament on Christmas morning comes to mind, or perhaps singing Christmas carols alongside the ones you love. As time passes, all we are left with are fading memories. Change involves loss, and watching the things we cherish slowly slip away from us is diametrically opposed to our immortal souls, making it a “shocking and intolerable” thing (Belloc 4). The remedy to the violence of change, Belloc argues, is found in tradition. Speaking of his boyhood home, he writes,
This house where such good things are done year by year has suffered all the things that every age has suffered. It has known the sudden separation of wife and husband, the sudden fall of young men under arms who will never more come home… But its Christmas binds it to its own past and promises its future; making the house an undying thing of which those subject to mortality within it are members, sharing in its continuous survival.
Tradition is a bright beacon of hope guiding our course in an endless sea of change. We are not alone. Others have passed through these same holy seasons and endured these same trials. Tradition is like a prayer, uniting us to those whom have gone before us and reminding us that we will see them once again. It is a common memory shared with people from past years, easing the pain of their absence. Tradition reminds us that although our bodies are mortal, we each have an immortal soul.
We are drawn to tradition because it unites us to the past and reminds us of our immortality. Yet tradition is more than just a memory. It is, as it were, a real and living thing. Tradition is not only timeless, magnificent, and immovable, like the interior of Belloc’s boyhood home. It is also youthful, vibrant, and full of hope, like little children opening their stockings on Christmas morning. The solemnity and dignity of traditional practices, including the Traditional Latin Mass, attract and inspire younger generations. Their rich history and continuity throughout the centuries fill those both young and old with a sense of awe and reverence. Yet the enthusiasm and energy of youth is what truly brings tradition to life and makes it all the more beautiful. Youthful souls long for beauty, goodness, and truth—and a love for tradition is a natural product of their childlike trust in God. Tradition gives life to our faith, but it also lives through us!
I have been blessed to grow up in a devout family with a very strong Catholic faith. When we began attending the Traditional Lain Mass about six years ago, I came to an even deeper appreciation of our Catholic heritage. The treasury of tradition contained within the Catholic Church is stunning. Ancient Christian ceremonies, doctrine, rites, prayers, liturgies, and even the Holy Bible itself are all preserved within its walls. It only makes sense, then, that the authentic tradition Belloc describes and praises is inseparable with the Church. After all, has not our faith been passed down to us from others? Is faith not a tradition itself? The apostle Paul reminds us, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast; and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word, or by our epistle” (Thessalonians 2:13 DRB). In other words, Sacred Traditions are channels of God’s grace that uplift our spirits and turn our hearts to him. The timelessness of tradition and its supernatural beauty reminds us that there is something more than this fleeting life and guides us towards our final destination.
Tradition is a bridge between our own generation and the wisdom of the past. It is an open doorway to all those things from past centuries that were good, true, and beautiful. The continuity of tradition protects and sustains us. It reassures us that we are on the right track, holds us fast to sound doctrine, and drives us onwards towards the truth. Hilaire Belloc envisions tradition as an ancient home during Christmastide, protecting innocent, hopeful youth from the harsh storms of winter. Its ancient architecture and solid foundation allow the great fireplaces within to warm the countless rooms and light the cheerful faces of expectant children. Tradition gives us hope; it keeps us sane. Its timelessness fills us with a childlike wonder and humility. Its continuity unites us to those who have gone before us. Sacred Tradition gives us shelter on the way to our eternal home. It should never be despised.
Belloc, Hilaire. A Remaining Christmas. London, 1900. Reprint, Worcester: Stanbrook Abbey Press, 1976.