The Burden of Tradition

Of all the wonders in the city of Rome, the Borghese Gallery is perhaps the most underappreciated. Outside the city walls to the north, it is tucked into a beautiful garden, and houses a smaller but impressive collection of art that once belonged to the 17th century Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V.

Some might visit to see Raphael’s vibrant paintings, or the chiaroscuro works of Caravaggio, but the pieces for which the museum seems indeed to have been built are the sculptures, especially those of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Many by other artists can be found throughout, some of which might even seem improper for the collection of a Cardinal, yet Bernini’s works stand out as centerpieces in every room in which they are found. David, Apollo and Daphne, The Rape of Proserpine, each comes alive as you walk around it, defying belief that they are made of stone.

One that is perhaps less dramatic, but nevertheless awe-inspiring (especially as he completed it at twenty years old), is his Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius. The image captures the moment in the Aeneid when the three figures escape from Troy to make their way to Italy, where they will eventually become the heroic progenitors of Romulus, Remus, and the Roman people.

Aeneas bears his father Anchises on his shoulder, Anchises carries a vessel with the ashes of their ancestors and figures of their household gods, and behind follows Aeneas’ son Ascanius carrying the eternal flame of Troy. Three generations, all carved from a single block of stone, united as an image of past, present, and future.

What jumps out immediately is the weight of Aeneas’ father, which bears down on him as he seeks to escape. The burden of the old man, whose skin appears, even in stone, to hang loosely over atrophied muscles, shows itself in Aeneas’ bent posture and taut muscles. He must carry his father, who in his piety keeps his gods and ancestors close at hand, while also protecting and leading his son.

The image is all the more striking, though, as it is one that can speak so powerfully to our own times, as we too are struggling under the weight of our past.

One of the great challenges facing the Church today seems to be exactly that: how do we move forward, how do we engage our own world, burdened by the baggage of centuries gone by?

Much of the contemporary effort has been to jettison the accumulated traditions of the medieval world so foreign to us, whether in devotions or art or liturgy. Many theologians and even ecclesiastics seek to overcome the weight of doctrine, hoping to pare down, simplify, and “develop” ideas in such a way that we can subtly leave behind much of the burden.

We cannot transform the modern world and evangelize modern man, they believe, unless we act and dress and think as he does, and we cannot keep up with him while so much of the past is dragging us down.

What Bernini’s statue reminds us of though, is that the burden we bear is not some meaningless sack of baubles. He carries his father who gave him life, who raised him up, who made him the man he came to be. More than that, he carries the man who gave him faith in his gods, who taught him respect for the divine protector, who taught him to value the long line of ancestors, who shared that faith and handed on from time immemorial the way of life by which he has persevered.

He carries a burden of tradition, but a burden which is also the source of his strength.

Perhaps today our Church needs that reminder. The weight of tradition, as burdensome as it may be, is not something to toss aside lightly. Over 2,000 years, men and women of faith have studied, prayed, taught, and sacrificed much, even their very lives, to build up and hand on that burden we bear.

It is this rich tradition that has carried our Church through the trials of the past and allowed her to emerge triumphant against seemingly impossible odds, whether in the catacombs of Rome, at Lepanto, or under the shadow of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.

As much as in our youth we may resist the wisdom of our elders, as we are all inclined to do, we can only truly take our place in this procession of history when we surrender in humility and take up that gift and burden being offered to us.

It is essential we do so, not only that we may persevere ourselves, but that we may have something to hand on to the young people on our heels who carry that eternal light forward into the future. Yes, the traditions of the past must be “brought up to date,” but only so that they may be received in their entirety by our children who so desperately need them.

How many young people are so lost today because they have been severed from a tradition, because they have been denied that wisdom of the past, by a generation who benefited so greatly from it?

The ongoing challenge of the Church is to trust the words of the Lord, “My yoke is easy, and my burden light.” Like Aeneas, we must bear up on our shoulders the past, not as a regrettable burden, but as a gift that guides us and gives us strength for the battle.

We do not cast away that which makes us who we are, but we embrace the Catholic tradition that grounds us and is the means to draw others to the truth we live by. Rather than allow in the Trojan horse of the times that betrays, we must, like Aeneas, bear up our parents and lead our children in the truth.

We must take part in that perpetual refounding of Rome in holiness, by which she sanctifies each age unto the end of time.

Fr. Joseph Scolaro is a priest of the Diocese of Rockville Centre currently studying for a license and doctorate in theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.