The discipline of memory
Moore to Ponder
Years ago when I was traveling to private schools on behalf of a ministry I then directed, I stopped in Colorado Springs to visit the Fountain Valley School. The headmaster, knowing that I was unfamiliar with the beauties of the West, one evening drove me out in his spacious brand-new RV to the edge of a remote lake.
There he left me in complete darkness totally alone, with a refrigerator stocked with eggs and bacon, and the injunction: “Enjoy the silence of the evening and be sure to get up in time to see the sunrise on Pike’s Peak.” It turned out to be an unforgettable experience.
He was creating a memory. To this day I can see the brilliant reds, golds, and yellows of the sun rising in a perfectly clear sky to touch the top of that majestic mountain. I found myself thinking of — remembering — God’s glory and goodness. As I walked along the shore of the deserted lake in the brisk morning air, I was thankful for an experience that I would remember all my life.
Contrast that with another experience. Some years ago my brother and I visited our mother in her final rest home in North Carolina. Cheery and warm as usual, at 92 she nevertheless had lost almost all her memory, as well as her ability to speak with coherence.
The hymns we sang her, the stories we told her, and the photo album I had brought to remind her of former days drew a complete blank. Even her acute spiritual awareness had vanished as the tissues inside her brain atrophied.
A people without memory
I recall a comment made about the history of great families. The first generation usually is religious. The second generation tends to be less religious but learned. The third generation tends to be even less religious, and less learned, but affluent. And the fourth generation has no history! (And usually no religion, no learning, and no money either.)
“History is bunk,” Henry Ford so famously said, and who would deny that modern Americans seem determined not only to forget the past, but to deny that it has any importance for the present? For us, memory is a luxury by which we remember what we want to remember.
The cause of our cultural amnesia is the loss of a spiritual center. We have separated ourselves from what C. S. Lewis called “the clear sea breezes of the centuries” because we are at war with those truths that have shaped the past and that demand our assent in the present. The problem is not that we don’t remember the past; it’s that we don’t want to remember.
Or maybe the problem is that we can’t. Without a spiritual center, nothing is really worth remembering. In the words of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (a murderer speaking out of his guilt): “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time, and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.”
So, the question is — does memory matter? Are we poor players who will be heard no more (which is to say, not remembered)? Was I deluded to think that the beautiful mountains had any connection with God? Was my mother’s loss of memory a tragedy or just humanity’s real condition?
In Psalm 137, that most plaintive of the psalms, the exiles in Babylon are forced by their captors to sing spiritual songs. By demanding contrived mirth, the Babylonians forced the Israelites to remember the painful experiences of the past.
And in remembering Zion, as a noted Canadian rector once put it: “The palliative of amnesia was now swept away.” Painful though the memories were, by this means those exiles were brought closer together, and in articulating their common pain they renewed their sense of identity as a people and a people under God.
The result: When they were allowed to return to the land of their fathers, they were stronger and more unified and (for a while) more godly than they would ever have been without it. They had remembered who they had been, and therefore were able, when the chance came, to be again who they were.
For us, of course, the living Word of God in Scripture is the song we are meant to sing. That is the memory that gives us our identity as a people, and a people under God.
Recently, in our church’s liturgical calendar we celebrated the memory of two great English Christians: William Tyndale and Henry Martyn. Both men literally gave their lives to translate the Bible into a language the people could understand.
Tyndale was one of the first translators of the English Bible. He paid for his work by being strangled and then burned at the stake. And Martyn, who burned himself out with fever at 31, translated the New Testament and parts of the Old Testament into Hindustani and Persian.
Their sacrifices brought the Bible alive for tens of millions. Their work gave these people a memory that they would not have had otherwise. The Word changed their present by giving them a new past.
Of course, the Word was not always God’s primary stimulus to memory. People of the Old Covenant erected little piles of stones when they wanted to preserve the memory of God’s mighty acts for future generations (Joshua 4).
Places were endowed with a sense of the holy, and repeated visits to them became part of the disciplines of life (I Samuel 1). Every bit of clothing that the priest wore was a reminder of some spiritual truth (Exodus 28).
But the written word was always central. The Prophets made sure that things were written down for posterity (Jeremiah 36). Parents were to remind children repeatedly of the things that God had said and done (Deuteronomy 6).
Increasingly in the post-exilic period (538 BCE) and by the time of the New Testament, memory was evoked by the written word (Nehemiah 8). And the written word was always intended to give life — even when, through the hardness of the hearers’ hearts, it failed to awaken their souls.
The grace of re-membering
Isn’t this a definition of the way religious people reject their Lord? “You search the Scriptures because in them you think you have life. But they testify of me. Yet, you will not come to me that you might have life,” said Jesus in a stunning rebuke to the Pharisees of his day (John 5:39). They hear — the words enter their eyes and ears — but they will not truly remember.
However, in this new age in which we live, through the Holy Spirit the Word of God is the primary vehicle through which the memory of God’s work in the past becomes a living reality in the present (John 14:25). It is our common and formative memory, the memory that puts all our individual memories in their place and gives them meaning. It is the memory that tells us that life is not a walking shadow and we are not poor fretting players doomed to be heard no more.
Preaching that Word and seeing it reenacted in the sacrament of Holy Communion (St. Augustine called the sacrament a “visible word”) become our primary channels of grace. By them we are literally re-membered into the body of Christ, the Church, and reconnected with our Lord and one another.
Memory, then, is not an optional part of the Christian life, which we are free to exercise or not. The exercise of memory, primarily through the submissive, reflective reading of Scripture, is a discipline essential to the life of faith. It is the discipline through which we remember the Lord and recall who we really are.
“Remember Jesus Christ,” says Paul to Timothy (2 Timothy 2:8). Timothy was not in danger of actually forgetting his Lord. Rather, Paul is telling him that it is by the continual recollection of all that Christ had done and is doing, and of all who Christ was and is, that the Lord would be made real to him, and he would be fortified in his fight for the Gospel.
Like all the disciplines of which I have been writing, the discipline of memory is a very easy discipline, because it brings us such life and healing and peace. Some years ago I revisited the gravesite of my grandparents. For more than 50 years they had “slept” underneath those growing trees while I had busied myself with what I thought were important affairs.
I had managed to re-route my travels to take me past Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York. The cemetery manager helped me find the graves, and for half an hour I stood alone at the place I had stood, surrounded by family, so long ago.
To their simple gravestone had been added words I had never seen before. They had been carved into the stone long after their two funerals: “I am the resurrection and the life.”
I left refreshed.
Peter C. Moore is the scholar-in-residence at St. Michael’s Church and director of the Anglican Leadership Institute. He lives in Mt. Pleasant with his wife. A daughter and son-in-law and two granddaughters live nearby.