But a love for tradition is not nostalgia.
I’ve been teaching Flannery O’Connor in an online course, The Catholic Imagination , and in her gruesome story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” the characters of the grandmother, Red Sammy, and the Misfit indulge in nostalgia, the belief that the past was better than the present. For instance, the grandmother says, “In my time . . . children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else. People did right then.” Red Sammy says, “A good man is hard to find . . . Everything is getting terrible. I remember the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched. Not no more.” The Misfit remembers fondly his father’s words and deeds.
This nostalgia is not healthy; it keeps the characters constrained in their inauthentic ways, as they believe the present is a time when virtue and transformation is simply too difficult.
As one who treasures the past, and who does believe that many things were better in the 50s — I mean the 1250s — and who values tradition in religion and culture, I was struck while thinking about this. Those of us who value tradition are often accused of nostalgia, of seeking greener pastures in the irrecoverable past.
Nostalgia is a sin, a form of sloth, and engaging in it enervates discipleship and devotion. But tradition is different; tradition is not the dead faith of the living but rather the living faith of the dead, as Pelikan said. To live within and out of tradition is not to daydream about days gone by most of us never experienced anyway, but rather to ride the crest of the wave of God’s redemptive story as we live out our own stories within its broader plot.
We have no other time than the present in which to live; all of us were called for such a time as this, this time, here, now, Today, as long as it is called Today, wherever and whenever we are. But we do not stand alone; we stand locked in arms not only with our sisters and brothers today in time and space but also in spirit with those gone before — St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Hildegard — indeed, the entire company of all the angels and saints, the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant.
Where is this encounter to be found? Where meet heaven and earth, past and present, I and Thou? In the liturgy, in the Mass, borne forth by tradition and bearing tradition forth, in which together we encounter Christ our God in the Eucharist, the sacrament of all unity, the source and summit of Christian life. Here, the Church teaches, is the highest form of prayer, upon which daily prayer, devotion, and discipleship draw, and thus here, the crest of tradition, is whence we draw wisdom and courage for meeting the challenges of our present age.
Nostalgia is a sin. Tradition is not nostalgia.