By Timothy P. O’Malley
One of the great gifts of homeschooling — which our family began to practice during the pandemic — is time. We have time to wake up in the morning rather than rush out the door. We have time to explore obscure intellectual pursuits, such as my son’s obsessive interest in lemurs. We have time for prayer, integrated into our day-to-day lives.
This academic year, as the University of Notre Dame resumed classes, our family has taken the time to attend weekday Mass at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. The 30-minute Mass ironically takes little time. But after Mass, my son inevitably invites me to explore campus with him, wherever that takes us, for as much time as I will give to his adventures.
Recently, my son enthusiastically dragged me over to the best tree on campus, at least according to the popular acclaim of children. The tree — unidentified by me, a very poor dendrologist — has drooping branches that create something like a Hobbit hole. During football games, gaggles of children find shelter in the branches of the tree, delighting that such a specimen could exist.
During my 20 plus years at Notre Dame, I never entered the tree. After all, I’m not a child. And serious adults do not have time to play in tree shelters.
My son dragged me through the dropping branches into the shelter. At once, I noticed something. On the trunk of the tree, there were hundreds of initials. Some were fresh, recently carved into the wood. Others looked like they had been there since the tree sprouted. Still others had merged into an indecipherable mélange of characters.
Spending time exploring these characters with my son gave me an insight into the word “tradition.” Tradition, as we theologians know, does not consist of abstract propositions. Rather, it is a living process, in which faith in Jesus Christ is handed on again and again in every era.
The thousands of notches in this seemingly ancient tree, nonetheless, attuned me to a further truth about tradition. Namely, the act of handing something has a materiality and “place-ness” to it.
First, think about how material these carvings upon the tree are. Each of the marks in the tree is a particular life, a series of friendships, or a flourishing (perhaps now desiccated) relationship with a beloved. The stories of these lives are passed on through the carvings. Yes, there is an act of interpretation required if we want to ascertain the identity of the carver. But even if we never know who “JS” and “KT” are, we nonetheless stand in their presence as we gather under the maternal embrace of this tree.
Second, to stand under this tree, in this place, is to journey where many others have been before — the thousands of students and children alike who have dallied under these branches, dreaming of love, jobs, or simply a win upon the part of the Fighting Irish. To be under this tree is to stand in a place where others have been and thereby to enter a relationship with those who have come before. I am not the first who will stand here. I am not the last. There will be other notches upon this tree. In this place, this marvelously particular place, others will follow me.
This dalliance with my son has brought me to a new appreciation, therefore, of the materiality and place-ness of the great Tradition in theology.
Tradition, even when passed on through texts, is itself a material reality. It is like notches in the trunk of the tree. To read Origen or St. Teresa of Ávila or St. John Henry Newman is not a disembodied activity. It is to encounter the notches of those who have come before us. They have found a home in the place of the Church, and they have left their marks for our contemplation. Yes, there is an interpretative act required to understand what Origen, St. Teresa, or St. John Henry Newman mean. But part of the attraction of reading these figures is simply to exist in their almost material presence. Here they are, speaking to me across time and space.
And place. Tradition cannot be understood as something outside the Church, as a hermeneutic principle that the individual monad brings to bear when reading Scripture. Rather, in theology tradition means to stand in a particular place, under the branches of Holy Mother Church. This does not mean that every carving is equally true, or that there cannot be developments (or even new carvings). But it is to recognize that if I am to make my notch, I must be in a particular place to do so.
Maybe this is why, if the theologian is to be engaged with tradition, she must be the kind of person who prays in the ecclesial community. She will need to enter the branches of the Church, to find herself encountering not the abstractions of speech but the living presence of the communion of saintly thinkers and doers. She will stand in the Church, despite how difficult it sometimes can be, to make her own mark in communion with those who have come before.
And both materiality and “place-ness” are the vocation of the theological educator. When my students come to class, we are entering under the branches of a tree. We are meeting carvings, ever ancient and ever new. Interpretation is required. Critical thinking necessary, especially when layers upon layers of carvings make it difficult to read. But we cannot forget that this work is fundamentally an encounter with the personal presence of those who have come before.
In the end, what a happy gift it was to follow my son to that tree, to wondrously gaze upon carvings ever ancient, ever new.
And maybe also a gift to learn anew what it means to be both a theologian and a teacher. To invite students to encounter the carvings of ages past, of ages present, and to stand in that place (for perhaps just a bit) and contemplate what it means for me to stand in their presence. And to wonder, maybe, if I have something to contribute.