Catholics are often accused of subscribing to man-made traditions
. Indeed, Catholic traditions such as Ash Wednesday, fasting, abstinence from meat on Fridays, making the sign of the cross, pilgrimages, use of holy water, and other pious practices are often seen as acting against scripture.
On the surface, this accusation appears to be backed up by scripture. After all, Jesus Himself appeared to have belittled the Jews’ strict adherence to the traditions of their ancestors, such as the ritual purifications required before meals. When the “Pharisees and scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not respect the tradition of the elders but eat their food with unclean hands?’ He answered, ‘It was of you hypocrites that Isaiah so rightly prophesied in this passage of scripture: This people honours me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me. The worship they offer me is worthless, the doctrines they teach are only human regulations.”
In the context of Jesus’ saying, it is true that the practice of religion alone cannot bring us to God. Religion is certainly not faith, nor is it spirituality, unless we imbibe the spirit of the traditions. If, like the Jews, we simply perform the rituals without the correct motives or intentions, then such practices cannot bring us closer to God. We would be making use of religion to soothe our selfish motives. Indeed, some of us think that just because we perform certain religious practices, we are holy. Rather, such practices are meant to help us grow in holiness and purity.
Yet, spirituality cannot be separated from religion. If we claim that we have the Spirit of prayer and worship, then there is no other way to express that Spirit other than to express it in words and gestures. Such embodiment of the Spirit is what we call ‘traditions’. To pray in spirit, we need to express it in traditions. We are embodied spirits. We must be careful of a disembodied spirituality. Religion is the expression of spirituality. The traditions of the Church are expressions of the One Tradition. It is important that we make a distinction between traditions and Tradition. Traditions are how we express the one Tradition we have received. Tradition refers to the essentials of the Faith, the Spirit or truth of the gospel. Traditions which are expressions of this faith and thus man-made, can be changed. But one cannot avoid traditions, otherwise faith will live in the abstract.
Thus, we must reject the separation of spirituality from religion. It would be a serious dichotomy for one to say: “I’m not interested in religion; I’m interested in spirituality”. This is because spirituality is a way of seeing and a way of living. The way we live out the Spirit is by expressing it in shared traditions and expressions. Culture is therefore the expression of the collective values or vision of a community. So long as there are human beings, there is culture. Culture is the collective expression of the values of a community. Christian tradition or Catholic tradition therefore is the expression of our faith beliefs in worship and religious symbols.
Even Christians who claim to worship in spirit cannot do without tradition. The way they pray and worship is part of tradition. Coming to church to worship is tradition. Scripture is tradition. In many ways, the way they pray are traditions inherited from the Jewish and Catholic Faith. If they were without tradition, they could simply stay at home and pray without scriptures, like the Zen Buddhists. But even Zen has tradition because they meditate in a certain way. Thus, there is no such thing as a neat and pure spirituality without traditions.
Indeed, King Solomon recognized the inadequacy of the Temple to contain God, since God is greater than the temple. He asked, “Yet will God really live with men on the earth? Why, the heavens and their own heavens cannot contain you. How much less this house that I have built!” We cannot put God in a box since the whole earth is His footstool. Realizing this however did not prevent the Israelites from constructing a temple for the Lord because they knew that they needed the Temple more than God, for they needed to be reminded of His presence. Hence, Solomon prayed thus, “Day and night let your eyes watch over this house, over this place of which you have said, “My name shall be there.” Listen to the prayer that your servant will offer in this place. Hear the entreaty of your servant and of Israel your people as they pray in this place. From heaven where your dwelling is, hear; and as you hear, forgive.” So traditions and rituals can be helpful. When used properly they can lead people to experience God. They are means to encounter God.
Hence, we must say that there is a distinction between religion and spirituality, but there is no separation. That Jesus confronted His Jewish peers for allowing some of their religious traditions to distract them from the essential spirituality of their Jewish faith, does not tantamount to attacking the Israelite religion as a whole. He was trying to reform it. What is really important in worship is that we have a clean heart and a clean mind and not simply clean hands or body. We must go into the heart of the traditions and its intentions. A hypocritical observance of such external practices will give the false impression that we are fulfilling the laws of God.
Yes, Solomon, and Jesus sought to us teach us that religion without spirituality has no soul, and spirituality without religion has no body. Religion and spirituality go together. Nevertheless, it must be said that true spirituality is expressed in traditions. However, traditions need not always express the true spirituality.