“Sacred Pathways: The Traditionalist”

September 21, 2014


Robin McGonigle

University Congregational Church

Sept. 21, 2014


“Sacred Pathways:  The Traditionalist”

Luke 4: 16-20


Growing up in a small and informal church, I hadn’t ever been exposed to “high church” – with emphasis on liturgy, ceremony, and Anglican-style worship.  That is until college.  I chose Bethany College in Lindsborg with all the sense of a 17 year old – because of a guy I liked who went there.  It really didn’t matter that I had never stepped foot in a Lutheran church.  But chapel services were required for first year students, so there I stood with absolutely no idea what all the pomp and circumstance was about.


Picture it with me:

  • A loud organ prelude with interludes and key changes between the verses
  • A long processional with acolytes to light the candles, a large cross being carried in, singers, and the minister decked out in vestments and robes
  • A ritual of worship that was foreign and mysterious to me – with a whole book of liturgy and responses
  • Stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down and lots of voices responding automatically to the things the minister said.


I was completely out of my league in that foreign expression of faith. It seemed as different from my Christian tradition as Buddhism or Islam.  Yet, over the three years I was there, I grew to love that tradition.  I can still sing some hymns in Swedish, “Trig-a-rae kon enginin” and tingles go down my back imagining my favorite Lutheran hymn “For All the Saints”.  The majesty and the beauty of Lutheran worship still elicits a feeling of awe in my soul.


We all have different ways to relate to God ~ sacred pathways.  As I’ve said, no particular path is better than another, and we tend to have a dominant path with several secondary paths.


So far, we’ve explored 2 sacred pathways ~ the Sensate, who relates to God through the senses and likes worship to include vivid sights, sounds, smells, and tastes.  We’ve discovered that Naturalists prefer the out-of-doors for their spiritual connection.  Today, we’re talking about the Traditionalist and their spiritual journey with God.
Traditionalists are fed by what are often termed the historic dimensions of faith: rituals, symbols, sacraments, and sacrifice.  Traditionalists tend to have a disciplined life of faith.  Some may be seen by others as legalists, defining their faith largely by matters of conduct.  They frequently enjoy regular attendance at church services, tithing, keeping the Sabbath, and so on.


Traditionalists have a need for ritual and structure.


Rod Dreher, a reporter for the Washington Times, is a traditionalist.  Rod grew up attending informal Christian worship services.  The emotional fervor of these services attracted him to the faith, but they weren’t able to hold him, and his commitment fell off during his days in boarding school.  A brush with some modern-day Christian writings eventually led Rod back to the faith, but this time he found himself craving more established ritual and structure.  Much to his surprise, he soon found that liturgies weren’t confining and dead – as he had supposed they were – but rather carried a depth and historicity that added new aesthetic to his worship.  “It was more beautiful than anything I had ever experienced,” he said.


Rod was drawn by the ritual, and he was moved by the fact that he was praying prayers that had been prayed by many Christians in earlier centuries.  The structure of the services brought more discipline to his personal life.  Experiencing the same ritual week after week has deepened his understanding of the faith and his commitment to it.  Now Rod says, “I live more liturgically in my everyday life.  It’s created a greater depth and texture to my Christian faith.”


Many of you may have read some of Kathleen Norris’s books, such as “Amazing Grace” and “Dakota”.  Kathleen describes herself as a “Presbyterian Benedictine.”  Although a theologically moderate to liberal person theologically, she is a traditionalist.  She said:

“I think I’m typical of a lot of people in my generation.  I simply stopped going to church after high school.  I really can’t explain what it was that ten years later drew me back.  Ironically, I think it was the Benedictines that kept me at it.  I’m married.  I’m not a Catholic.  But when I started attending their liturgy, they would sing or recite psalms, have a Bible reading and some prayers four times a day.  Being able to say and hear poems out loud was a whole new approach for me, even though it’s about 1,700 years old.  It really nourished me and made me a better Presbyterian.”


There are numerous Biblical accounts of the Traditionalist methods of relating to God.  Abraham, for example, expressed his faith by building altars.  When God appeared to him at Shechem and told Abraham that the Canaanites’ land would one day be his, Abraham “built and altar to the Lord.”  When he moved from there and pitched his tent between Bethel and Ai, Abraham built another altar to the Lord.  Abraham followed the same practice when he moved to Hebron.  By doing this, he was expressing his faith and finding his soul’s path to God.

Jesus also participated in ritual within the Hebrew tradition.  Our traditional word today is about this  (Luke 4: 16-21)

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

  “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. 


The traditionalist expresses spirituality in three basic worship practices: ritual (or liturgy), symbols, and sacrifice.

Rituals.  Ritual can be anything that is a repeated, regular or customary part of the church observance.  When I say, “Peace be with you.”  It is almost automatic for some of you to respond, “And also with you.”  That is a basic ritual.  But rituals can also be subtle and unspoken.  Lighting candles, giving up chocolate, meditating on scripture… these are all rituals.

It might surprise you to know that being a traditionalist is one of my dominant personal spiritual pathways.  In fact, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on ritual and rites of passage.  I think that children are especially dependant on ritual for development.  A bedtime story and prayer are part of many children’s evening ritual.  It was such an important part of my children’s lives that now as adults they have requested for Christmas this year that I make a CD for them of bedtime stories and songs.


Symbols.  How many times have you heard a moving sermon, been almost knocked over by a powerful verse, or been given a great new insight, only to lose its effect because you forgot about it so soon after it was given?  Symbols can help us overcome one of the great difficulties of the Christian life – the problem of memory.

A symbol can be found to meet virtually every need in every situation – cross necklaces, rings, stoles, communion elements, stained glass.


Sacrifice.  Sacrifice is at the heart of Christianity.  Any person who wants to identify with his or her Lord – who gave the supreme sacrifice – understands this.  Sacrifice keeps our idealized and often romantic expression of divine adoration rooted in reality.  The purest sacrifice is ourselves – giving all we are and have to God.


So, rituals, symbols and sacrifice are the three basic elements of what a traditionalist appreciates.  If this sacred path is intriguing to you, I would encourage you to adopt one of the categories I’ve talked about to enhance your spiritual journey.  Make plentiful use of symbols, or develop some meaningful rituals, or find areas of appropriate sacrifice to draw you closer to God.


Last week, I told you that Paul was making homemade bread as one of his seminary assignments.  The purpose is to expand your spiritual expression and learn new ways to connect to what is holy.  One of the most memorable assignments for me (back in the last century when I was in seminary) was praying with icons.  It was a real stretch for me because I had been taught as a child that icons were bad and like worshipping something other than God.  But I was determined to get an A on my paper and I knew I couldn’t fake the experience.  So, for 6 weeks, I used a Russian Orthodox icon for my meditation time every day.


It’s difficult to explain how awkward it was at first and even more difficult to explain what happened over those 6 weeks.  At first, I couldn’t connect with the picture and struggled to even focus on it.  Over time, I became so well-acquainted with this picture that looking at it immediately centered me and I found my meditation time more meaningful.  It was as if this picture became a window through which I experienced being in the presence of God.  Now, 25 years later, I pull the book off of my shelf for the first time in years, and I am drawn again to the picture.


As with any spiritual path, there are some potential drawbacks for the traditionalist.  Neglecting social obligations is one such problem area.  The traditionalist may get so caught up in his or her faith, that he or she forgets the social obligations of faith.  It is not enough for us to cultivate holiness; we also must reach out and care for others.  Another potential drawback is the temptation to judge others.  Religion can powerfully enhance an individual’s faith, but it can also destroy corporate faith if it is used to criticize, measure, or divide.  The third potential drawback is mechanical repetition.  Without careful attention, rituals can become an empty exercise.  No symbol or ritual has absolute value in it.  A symbol represents a hidden reality; it is there to evoke the mysterious.  When the original meaning is lost, the symbol or ritual is of no more value than an expired coupon.


Some noteworthy traditionalist people are:  Kathleen Norris; Walt Wangerin; Clement of Alexandria; Dietrick Bonhoeffer.


I want to recommend the traditionalist pathway to you.  When you are under strong spiritual stress or when you’re spiritually exhausted, traditionalist practices of ritual, symbol, and sacrifice, can offer a tremendous refuge.  You can be carried by their power, nurtured by their truth, and strengthened by their practice.