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Not worshiping ash, but preserving fire

Let me tell you a story. A couple of months ago, I was at an establishment at the Duncan Student Center that definitely shall not be named, securing a late lunch of chicken nuggets and waffle fries one Tuesday afternoon. Unfortunately, one of said chicken nuggets was exceptionally crispy, so much so that it chipped one of my teeth! And thus I was required to schedule a dentist appointment to get that taken care of. Eventually, once all was said and done, in early November I was able to get in to have my teeth X-rayed, and the dentist arrived at the conclusion that the cavity that had formed would need a root canal. So a couple of weeks later, I returned for the dentist to prepare my tooth for the root canal process, only for the dentist to find that the situation was not as bad as she had anticipated. I would only need a crown to handle the problem with that tooth. She placed a temporary crown over my tooth, and by the time you’re reading this, that crown will have been replaced with a permanent one.

You might be thinking: “Devin, where’s the ‘Law’ and ‘the Lord’ in this story?” I propose to you, dear reader of this column, that my dentist’s process in fixing my tooth serves as an allegory for how we should treat our traditions, both in the Church and in our law. Since the Dobbs decision, much ink has been spilled criticizing the Court’s reliance on “history and tradition” in key cases from issues ranging from abortion to gun rights and everything in between, but I contend that most of this commentary is suspicious of tradition less on the principle that tradition as a general matter is suspect, but rather on the content of our nation’s traditions themselves. Thus, whether one supports the Court’s formulation of the “history and tradition” test or not, there is something to be gleaned from these critiques of being too quick to defer to traditions we haven’t examined for whether or not they hold up to the contemporary scrutiny that even those of us who tend instead to hold the idea of tradition in high regard can keep in mind.

I’ve been privileged to be a part of the Notre Dame Chorale this semester, and we had our two performances of Handel’s Messiah last Friday and Saturday at DPAC. Before the Friday concert, our esteemed director, Alex Blachly, imparted words of wisdom upon us as we took the stage, quoting Gustav Mahler (who may have himself been quoting St. Thomas More?) in saying that “tradition,” properly understood, “is not the worship of ashes but the preservation of fire.” But then how do we tell the difference between ash and fire in the traditions onto which many of us hold so dearly? Building upon the story of my recent dental work, I think there are three things we should take to heart in examining our traditions.

The first requires a bit of explanation. My mother encouraged me to be just a tad more scrupulous than normal about how the dental procedures for placing my permanent crown were unfolding. She explained that if I’m not careful to make sure on my end that the bite feels natural, it’ll be a similar feeling to when a grain of sand is stuck between your teeth – sure, it’s small, but in your mouth it feels quite big indeed. In other words, while it may be necessary to fill the hole in my tooth or even put on a crown to restore said tooth to its former form, if the dentist were to try to use that as an opportunity to reshape my bite, the results would be incredibly annoying. So too with our traditions: while sometimes our traditions require re-examination, especially with an eye to restoring something from which we have gone astray, we should be careful about how we go about it. Over-innovation may be as small as a grain of sand, but when all’s said and done, it could make the whole difference.

The second is this: my dentist did not simply jump to making me go through a root canal surgery. She was careful about how much of my tooth she drilled and filed away, and when all was said and done the root canal could be avoided in favor of just a crown. The point? Sometimes it doesn’t take reinventing the wheel to fix a problem, a fact that we only realize if we’re careful enough about how much of the old we get rid of at any given point in time.

Third and finally: the dentist gave me a temporary crown a couple weeks ago to get me through until they had the permanent crown available. That temporary crown was meant to ensure that my teeth didn’t move around in the time between my first and second appointments, and it succeeded in doing that job quite well. So it is, too, with how we handle traditions that need to change: sometimes it takes time to craft the new well, and we need something to fill the gap between the old and the new. In such situations, we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, because having something in place to get us by is just as important as having something better and more permanent down the road. So as we continue to think, individually, in the communities in which we find ourselves a part, and in our nation, about the traditions that shape us and how we can shape those traditions in turn, let’s let our amendments to those traditions not stick out like a grain of sand in our mouths. Let’s take care not to put our traditions through a root canal surgery when a crown would do just fine, and let’s make sure that when we go about changing things when that change is necessary, we think about what “temporary crown” we need to get from A to B.

Have a blessed rest of your Advent, and if you weren’t able to catch the Chorale’s performance of the Messiah, you can listen to our live-stream video on Facebook!

Devin Humphreys is a 3L at Notre Dame Law School. When he isn’t serving as the sacristan at the Law School Chapel or competing at a quiz bowl tournament, he’s sharing his thoughts on the legal developments of the day with anyone who will listen. For advice on law school, hot takes on Mass music and free scholarly publication ideas, reach out to Devin at dhumphr2@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.