Big T, little t

One of the more interesting concepts I got out of RCIA (Rites of Christian Initiation for Adults) was that of Big T-little t. Don’t worry, this isn’t mathematics. The T stands for Tradition. And goodness knows, the Catholic Church dosen’t hold with that (please note-I’m not being serious. I mean really, it’s the Catholic Church). Tradition is a huge factor for people around the world. It shows up in cultures, societies, and religions. In RCIA they talked about Big T being those traditions that do not change, those practices or beliefs that are immutable. Little t stands for those traditions that do, have, or can change.

For example: that Catholics take communion has not changed but how they take communion or what is allowed as part of communion has changed. I was taught to hold out my hands, right hand over left, to accept the wafer and then put it in my mouth. I was told chewing was permissible. If I wanted to I could hold my hands over my chest and open my mouth for them to place the wafer into my mouth. It used to be that the wafer was always placed directly into the mouth and that one was to allow it to dissolve on its own. Also, communion wine is a little t. At my old parish the women that took care of the alter cloths got tired of getting red wine stains out and they changed to white wine. At least this is what I heard- third hand at least- as to why we didn’t use red wine. This can also be seen in the wider Christian practice as many churches use juice instead of wine or even juice like product (I’m refraining from a kool-aid joke. I’m not that horrible a person.)

Why talk about this concept? I’m going to start with an anecdote. I was at a youth group meeting in a parish far away from the one where I was baptized. I ended up explaining this concept to the group because during discussion several of the young adults got caught up in “why doesn’t the Church just tell everyone to do it like X”. I do not recall what exactly they were getting caught up on. The priest seemed to be struggling to find the words to explain to them that that the specific way of doing it was not the point. This differentiation between static and dynamic traditions allows for differentiation between regions and cultures within the Catholic Church. This was what some of the members of the group were missing the point about. The intention of the tradition does not always translate everywhere and to everyone in the same way. If the tradition is made static you risk losing the intent in the long run. And, at least to me, religion is in the intent. Otherwise it is just empty or automatic gestures.

I know interpretations on traditions factor heavily into my practice. Where I think a tradition comes from along with what I consider to be it’s intent and purpose factor into how or if I choose to go along with it.

Another big reason to talk about this concept is that I don’t think many people think about traditions enough. They take them at face value. “Because it’s tradition” is a phrase used to explain away or justify a lot in life. But if you don’t assess your individual, familial, community, cultural, and religious traditions periodically you get stuck. It used to be accepted tradition to leave newborns to die of exposure, to cut off hands for theft, to throw people into prison for debt, to hang or burn those accused of witchcraft. Among other traditions. Only when people assess traditions in light of current situations and in terms of their intended purpose and impact can they determine if a tradition will allow people to flourish, if it needs modification, if it is still fulfilling the desires of a deity, or if it is time to let it go. In religion especially people tend to get caught up in the minutiae as being Big T. I believe that most deities, however, are more focused on the larger picture. It’s the why we are doing, not as much the what, that is the point. Yes, as people, we establish ways of doing things to fulfill what we or what the Gods consider important whys. But so often we end up losing the why and cling to the ways, to the traditions, when they no longer fulfill their original intention.

If you have a question or if you need some clarification feel free to leave a comment!

©Brightest Twilight 2019

One comment

  1. Yewtree · July 13, 2019

    Big T, little t is a super-helpful way of explaining it to people who don’t get why sometimes traditions need modifying. I love it.

    I always say that things become a tradition because they worked for a group of people, who then passed them on. So if they stop working, or don’t work for a different group of people, then they need to be modified or stopped.


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