Today, I am thankful for tradition.
Tradition means many different things to many different people. To some, “tradition” is merely the best part in The Fiddler on the Roof. To others, “tradition” means following incredibly difficult things, like not eating pork. To me, however, “tradition” has most recently referred to my participation in a legal hazing done at the delightful time of two o’clock in the morning.
For the record, I’m being constantly reminded that what took place early this morning was not a form of legal hazing, but rather an “initiation”. However, I’m also a skeptic, and am quite sleepy. So you be the judge of this.
Since I had never gone to bed, I was every bit as drowsy, confused, and grumpy as the freshmen who had bandannas wrapped over their eyes. I felt as though I too, were being legally hazed. We banded together and led the Freshmen rank and file down the stairwell out into the crisp early morning air. Rounding them up, the people in charge separated the, ahem, victims into small groups of three or so and loaded them into cars. From there, we drove around in circles for a bit before taking them out to a wooded area.
Don’t worry, this doesn’t end too badly. Aside from the fact that none of us went to bed until nearly four in the morning.
We then proceeded to have them walk in a straight line for a little over half an hour. Several volunteers, who were not blindfolded, shone flashlights on the path before us and narrated the dark, treacherous journey before us. The narrator gave some remarks about the need for people to “band together” and so on. If any of this sounds a bit juvenile and like a scene from every reality television show you have ever watched, it’s because it essentially is.
Eventually, we had passed the wooded area into an outdoor prayer chapel, which looks less like a collection of wooden benches and more like Lord of the Rings. Sitting the Freshmen down, our group leaders took a bowl and filled it up with water. Despite the fact that blindfolds still covered their faces, we ordered them to take off their shoes. Then, as we allowed them to remove their blindfolds, several of us grabbed towels. Several more stepped forward to get down on our knees before the legally hazed. Then they washed their feet.
I know this all probably sounds terribly cultish and silly. But something at that point struck me. I’m not sure if it was the fact that my brain was hardly functioning due to the fact that it was nearly four in the morning, or if it was something in the air. I thought about tradition, and all of the things that we blindly follow because those before us have followed them. I like to be inquisitive, so I tend to let myself get obsessed with the purpose of things. This has, on more than one occasion, made me miss the point of tradition. I thought to myself, what if we must first follow tradition to understand the reasoning, if any, behind it?
As I thought about these things, we took a step back to have a word with the Freshmen. While they were most likely focusing on their cold, damp feet, and how many hours away their first morning class was, we muttered vague offerings about community, involvement, “getting plugged in” and so forth. I’m sure that maybe five percent or so of it actually stuck.
In the car on the way back to the dorms, I thought about Roman Catholicism, Southern Baptism, and basically every single “ism” that came to mind. I thought of the buildings, the stooped heads, pamphlets, and organized rituals. I thought about the oyster crackers and Welch’s served in American halls beneath PowerPoint slides, and of the wafers and wine served in European halls beneath stained glass. And it all started to make a little sense.
It is one thing to read about the Last Supper. It is another to experience it. It is one thing to read about the washing of feet. It is another to experience it. There is something unexplainable about reliving the things we hold to be important. I’m not saying that it does anything magical, necessarily. But I am saying that there is a hint, a whiff, a spark of something when you participate. It’s usually strange, and almost always inconvenient, but tradition, when followed, connects you. To God, to your peers, and to generations of people whose names you have never spoken, whose figures you have never embraced.
That said, I’m tired, bleary eyed, and have been falling asleep all day. So you might say that I’m not really the biggest fan of legal hazing, “initiation”, or whatever you would like to call it. But I’m growing to appreciate this and other traditions like it. There’s a kind of beauty in following things that don’t necessarily make sense. It’s part cognitive-dissonance, part awesome.
And it is for all these reasons that I am thankful for the things I follow but don’t always understand. I am thankful for the chance to reach back into the past towards my ancestors. I am thankful for finding wisdom in what looks like foolishness. For finding God in-between the lines. Today, I am thankful for tradition. What are you thankful for today?