Memory and Faith Part III


See Part I here. This was inspired by the Disciples at Emmaus story, and our tendency to be afraid to really remember.

See Part II here. This was inspired by thinking about sin – and sin itself as forgetfulness, a lack of remembering.

Today, October 3rd, the Pope’s homily was all about the relationship between memory and faith – an idea that seems very important to his papacy, as he introduced it in his encyclical Lumen Fidei.

He says:

When the memory [of faith] is distant, when we don’t have the closeness of memory, it enters into a process of transformation, and the memory becomes a mere recollection. (via

The Mass itself, he goes on to say, is very much an act of remembering. It is not a mere “social event.” Rather, it is an act of remembering and re-presenting Christ. “Do this in memory of Me.” Therefore the Mass should not be subject to our own personal tastes and whims, but to the living memory of the Church guided by the Holy Spirit.


Interestingly, my classes and I have begun reading Edith Hamilton’s version of Homer’s Iliad, and one of the things we have been talking about a lot recently is Homer’s memory. How is it possible that 500 years after the Trojan War took place, Homer is able to recount in such incredible detail the battles and heroes? What kind of oral tradition could possibly transmit history in such a way?

One explanation, of course, is that he (or others before him) are making it all up.

Similarly, it’s popular in theological circles to assume that the Gospels make a lot of stuff up too (even though they were written MUCH more recently after the death of Christ than Homer was “writing” after the death of Hector and Achilles). The earliest most scholars are willing to admit Mark was written is around AD 65-70.

One of my professors at UD, who is also on the Pontifical Biblical Council, Denis Farkasfalvy, wrote a book on how the Gospels were created within the cradle of the Eucharst, in the context of oral traditions at the earliest Eucharistic gatherings. (Check it out if you are at all interested in early Church history!)

Opening lines of The Iliad

As researchers have shown, the human ability to remember is far vaster and more wonderful than we think. In 1930s Serbia, for instance, Albert Lord discovered that Serbian oral poets had been passing on remarkably accurate poetic accounts of battles fought hundreds of years before (see this wikipedia article too). The Iliad is far older than Greek writing itself, and was passed down for hundreds of years before it was ever written down. In our fast-paced culture, which suffers from a severe lack of attention, it’s difficult to imagine anyone being able to memorize a 16,000 line poem. But it is possible.

The Iliad does record a profound memory etched into the Greek consciousness, and taken for granted by the ancient world as history. But modern man has difficulty believing that such a thing could have happened. Personally, I think we moderns suffer from short-term memory loss.

The Pope  emphasizes the sacred character of human memory – and its fragility:

This is important not only in the great moments in history, but also in the moments of our life: we all have the memory of salvation, everyone. I wonder, though: is this memory close to us, or is it a memory a bit far away, spread a little thin, a bit archaic, a little like a museum [piece]… it can get far away [from us]… and when the memory is not close, when we do not experience the closeness of memory, it enters into a process of transformation, and the memory becomes a mere recollection. (

“A mere recollection,” he says.

But even just remembering God briefly during the day is a feat in itself!

I was going to say more, but I’ve realized that the Pope already said everything:

This joy is our strength. The joy of the nearness of memory. Domesticated memory, on the other hand, which moves away and becomes a mere recollection, does not warm the heart. It gives us neither joy nor strength. This encounter with memory is an event of salvation, it is an encounter with the love of God that has made history with us and saved us. It is a meeting of salvation – and it is so wonderful to be saved, that we need to make feast.

When God is near, there is feasting. And sometimes, us cristians, are afraid of that feast: that simple and fraternal feast that is a gift from God’s closeness. Life makes us push that vicinity from God away, to keep the reminder of salvation but not a live memory of it. The Church has a memory: the memory of Our Lords Passion. Sometimes we push that memory away and we transform it into a reminder, just a frequent event.”

Every week we go to church, or rather when someone dies, we go to the funeral … and this memory often times bores us, because it is not near. It is sad, but the Mass is often turned into a social event and we are not close to the memory of the Church, which is the presence of the Lord before us. Imagine this beautiful scene in the Book of Nehemiah: Ezra who carries the Book of Israel’s memory and the people once again grow near to their memory and weep, the heart is warmed, is joyful, it feels that the joy of the Lord is its strength – and the people makes a feast, without fear, simply. (

The text, including a video excerpt:


One more thing.

In trying to describe oral tradition to my kids, I gave them the example of the game “telephone.” You know, when somebody says something, who whispers it to someone else, who whispers it to the next person, and on and on until you reach the last person, who says the word or phrase out loud, and everyone realizes a LOT of mishearing or mistranslating was going on. It’s usually pretty funny.

Anyway – I was trying to explain that oral tradition is NOT like the game telephone. Especially if we’re talking the oral tradition of Homer, which is pretty darn accurate .

Unlike the modern news, which is not:

(Click here)


One thought on “Memory and Faith Part III

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