Histories of Transmission

Before I entered the Society, my daily life often felt history starved. I have always taken an active interest in Church history and the history of art and ideas, and I am on meaningful terms with my personal history, but there was some integral potential in my relationship with history that eluded me. Looking back, I can now say that I longed for direct participation in a way of life infused by the presence of the past – a living presence in dynamic relationship with the present and the future. This living presence is a foundational element of monastic life. It roots, stabilizes, and nourishes the life in the midst of much contemporary change and discontinuity. It orients our movements like a transpersonal lodestar. That is the authentic power of tradition.

“Renewing Our Foundations” has awakened or refreshed our sense of how valuable it is to know our Society’s history, as we live a history-saturated way of life. I want to share a few thoughts about what I’ve come to call “histories of transmission.”

Our calling to steward and safeguard a tradition requires that each generation of Brothers receive the inheritance of our tradition, which includes guidance in making meaning of it. Each generation must interpret that tradition so that it speaks a living Word. Finally, each generation must arrive at a sense of agency in relation to that tradition, acknowledging that sometimes interpretation entails modifying or even abandoning some elements of what we received. And then the cycle repeats itself as a generation takes up its responsibility to impart the tradition – with its own fingerprints all over it – to the next generation. 

As new members enter and are initiated, as established members grow stable in the life, and as elder members impart their knowledge and wisdom but also age, all of us have differing degrees of access to the collective memory at the core of SSJE. Acknowledging this, we’ve been reminded in these conversations of how valuable it can be – and in the long term, how necessary it is – to make time to impart our histories of transmission. Knowing the history of a practice, a custom, a perspective, or a regulation inspires a sense of confidence: good tradition is not fragile or monolithic, but malleable and supple. It is meant for our thumbprints as much as for the thumbprints of our elders and our successors. Some loving interrogation brings oral histories of transmission to light. Updated records can augment the abundance of non-verbal, kinesthetic teaching by which monks have learned how to “monk it” for centuries. 

Our consultant Jay has also used the phrase “the wisdom of ‘why.’” Reconnecting with exactly why we engage with some traditions will be a vital part of how we explain their significance to newer members, perhaps especially those with less formal churching. It will also help our own engagement remain fresh over the long haul. 

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