Memory and Faith Part IV

o-come-o-come-emmanuel

source: byronytaylor.com

Advent is concerned with that very connection between memory and hope which is so necessary to man. Advent’s intention is to awaken the most profound and basic emotional memory within us, namely, the memory of the God who became a child. This is a healing memory; it brings hope. The purpose of the Church’s year is continually to rehearse her great history of memories, to awaken the heart’s memory so that it can discern the star of hope…It is the beautiful task of Advent to awaken in all of us memories of goodness and thus to open doors of hope. (Pope Benedict)

Read the other posts in this series on “Memory and Faith” here:

Part I

Part II

Part III

The believer is one who remembers.

As a teacher, I really like this idea.

Maybe it’s because I know how important memory is to being a good student — remembering to study, remembering to do your homework, remembering where you’re supposed to turn it in, remembering your teacher actually loves you and doesn’t want to make your life miserable, remembering the directions given two minutes ago…

But can you really fault somebody if he has a bad memory?

Well, yes, I think you can.

Setting aside the instances where some people through disease or injury lose their ability to remember (something I would like to reflect upon in a later post), memory is integral to human life. And we are responsible for our ability to remember and for our memories.

Not that we all have the same capacity for memory. And for many of us, it’s a big struggle. I know it always has been for me. I forget to do things all the the time. Sometimes I even hurt people when I forget. I forget to call, to text back, to do that chore that really needed doing but for some reason I did not think was important enough to try to remember…

Memory is something like courage. Maybe you weren’t given a big dose of it at birth, but you can cultivate it if you try. Being a good student requires cultivating your memory – and not just your ability to remember certain tasks, either. It’s an ability to remember why you are doing all this work at all. It’s an ability to remember who you really are.

Memory can be a tricky thing, though. Sometimes we think we remember certain people or events more accurately than we actually do. Sometimes we allow our present emotions to invade our memories, to taint what was good and pure with our present cynicism.

Or other times, we let the memories themselves flood us and take over our present peace:

[…] we conjure from the ether of our past a solitary-but-sharply-outlined idea, and then suddenly, one after another, memories begin to fall upon us, like bright orbs called from galaxies far beyond, and much better kept in the distance. Our disappointing families and imperfect parents, our closely held secrets and sins and sorrows and regrets, given too much free reign, begin to dominate us. They wreak havoc on our emotions and then begin to drain our spirits until we are depleted and depressed — all trust, all hope diminished. (Elizabeth Scalia at The Anchoress )

We allow the past to control our present. We refuse the present good because we hold onto our disappointments. But this, too, is a kind of forgetfulness. Holding onto certain memories to the exclusion of others is not real remembering — it’s selective myopia.

Pope Francis (whom I insist really seems to be emphasizing this inseparability between memory and faith) says in his new Apostolic Exhortation:

There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter. I realize of course that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty. Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved. I understand the grief of people who have to endure great suffering, yet slowly but surely we all have to let the joy of faith slowly revive as a quiet yet firm trust, even amid the greatest distress: “My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is… But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness… It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (Lam 3:17, 21-23, 26). (EG 6)

Or other times, our forgetfulness can take a more subtle (and I believe more sinister shape):

We settle into mediocrity–into bland contentment with our books and our friends, our jobs, our homes, even our families–whatever it is that we value. We forget ourselves in the present moment. You see this in obvious ways when people become intoxicated–but there are many things besides alcohol that can intoxicate us and make us forget and live only for the present moment: ideologies, objects, even people.

I suppose that’s a rather controversial thing to say in this carpe diem, live-in-the-present-moment culture. But I would argue that living in the present, to the exclusion of the past and the future, is also myopic and demeans us.

Even Pope Francis, famous for his freshness, his newness, his emphasis on evangelization by prophetic deeds, insists:

Nor should we see the newness of this mission as entailing a kind of displacement or forgetfulness of the living history which surrounds us and carries us forward. Memory is a dimension of our faith which we might call “deuteronomic”, not unlike the memory of Israel itself. Jesus leaves us the Eucharist as the Church’s daily remembrance of, and deeper sharing in, the event of his Passover (cf. Lk 22:19). The joy of evangelizing always arises from grateful remembrance: it is a grace which we constantly need to implore. The apostles never forgot the moment when Jesus touched their hearts: “It was about four o’clock in the afternoon” (Jn 1:39).

How beautiful, and how very curious, that the Gospel writer makes note of the time of day he met Jesus.

There are little details like this sprinkled throughout the gospels, showing some origin in human memory. So much of what was seen and heard about Jesus was passed down by word of mouth, as people recounted what they remembered from days, weeks, and eventually years before.

Before there was the New Testament, there was human memory.

Advent itself is very much a time of remembering.

I feel like Advent, in particular, is a very Jewish time for Christians. From my uninformed and outside perspective, Judaism to me seems to be very much a religion of memory–remembering God’s great deeds throughout history, and imploring God Himself to remember His Chosen Israel. And when Christianity is true to itself, it does the same thing.

In Advent in particular we are steeped in the prophets, especially Isaiah. The Christians remembered different things Jesus said and did, and recognized in those actions the hopes of Israel.

Jesus himself, on the cross, remembered Psalm 22 — perhaps at the sight of his Mother, who taught it to him when he was a little boy.

John the Baptist, this Second Sunday of Advent, reminds the people of his own time, and us, of the Prophet Isaiah: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Isaiah 40:3).

Perhaps these “paths” he speaks of are the paths of our own minds. If our memories are crooked and blocked, than whatever it is we are meant to hear will not be able to get through. God wants to come to us, but we have to clear the way.

How easily we forget who we are. How easily we forget the hole in our hearts, and fill it with other things–sometimes very good things–but things nevertheless which aren’t big enough for our longing. We forget this longing, because it is painful. It is easier to be content than to be in love.

But it is better to be in love.

Advent, I think, is supposed to reawaken in us this longing for God. True waiting means waiting with hope and longing and expectation. Patience does not exclude this desire for–for perhaps we don’t even know what. But remembering our own hearts in this way is an essential part of being Christian–and, I would even say, of being human:

Together with Jesus, this remembrance makes present to us “a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1), some of whom, as believers, we recall with great joy: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God” (Heb 13:7). Some of them were ordinary people who were close to us and introduced us to the life of faith: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice” (2 Tim 1:5). The believer is essentially “one who remembers”. (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 13)

Sometimes music can help us remember. I think this is one of the most beautiful renditions of my favorite Advent/Christmas song I have ever heard.

It helps me remember.

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1 Comment

Filed under Catholicism, Christ

One response to “Memory and Faith Part IV

  1. Pingback: Where memory fails | Watching The World Think

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