We […] forget that in the Book of Job at the end of the drama God declares Job to be righteous–Job, who has hurled the most outrageous accusations at God–while he rejects Job’s friends as speakers of falsehood, those friends who had defended God and had found some kind of good sense and answer for everything. […]
Observing Advent simply means talking with God the way Job did. It means just seeing the whole reality and burden of our Christian life without fear and bringing it before the face of God, as judge and savior, even if, like Job, we have no answer to give about it at all, and the only thing left is to leave it to God himself to answer and to tell him how we are standing here in our darkness with no answers. (Pope Benedict, What It Means to Be a Christian)
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:
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.
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.
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 Romereports.com)
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!)
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. (Romereports.com)
“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. (Romereports.com)
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 .
I just graduated yesterday from the University of Notre Dame Alliance for Catholic Education program. These past two years have been, by far, the most challenging experience of my life. But I’ve been having trouble thinking about it all, or making sense of what has happened to me. Yet graduations are times for memory and telling people all the wonderful things you have learned and all the amazing ways you have changed.
During our commencement retreat this past week, Father Lou DelFra, our ACE chaplain, gave us a beautiful homily to help us process our experience. For our retreat, he chose one of my favorite Gospel readings, the story of the two disciples walking to Emmaus.
As you know, the two bewildered disciples are leaving Jerusalem, overcome by the horrific events they have just experienced. The Lord was crucified. All of their hopes have been dashed. They are struggling to interpret their experience of the past three years with Jesus. When the Lord, whom they do not recognize, begins walking with them, they are shocked to discover that He hasn’t heard the latest news. He begins to interpret these events for them in terms of the Scriptures, and, fascinated, they beg him to stay with them for the night. Yet they only finally recognize him “in the breaking of the bread.”
Father Lou reminded all of us that our experience on retreat, which involved the famous ACE “paired walks,” was very much like that of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. We were likewise trying to make sense of all that we have experienced, and perhaps we were having some trouble doing that.
Because for every triumphant teaching story I can tell you, there are a dozen more that do not involve visible triumph. For every miracle I saw, there were a dozen more crucifixions that had no apparent resurrection. Let’s be real here. One of my students was involved in some kind of attempted murder, and is on the run, and I still don’t know what happened to him. There was another I struggled with my entire first year, who suffered terribly from psychological challenges, whom I was never really able to reach and who is gone now. I don’t know what will happen to her either. There are kids who failed my class and who, despite my efforts, did not really seem to improve over the two years. And then there are the kids I know I did not try hard enough with, who slipped through the cracks.
As much as graduation is about our accomplishments in ACE, and the stories we love to tell each other, and the students we love to remember, it’s also about all the failures and the situations we would rather not recall.
But Father Lou’s message to us was simple—don’t be afraid to remember them. Don’t be afraid, over these next weeks, months, and years, to try to make sense of it all. Father Lou seemed strangely confident that we would find Christ there if we looked for Him—that we would see He had been walking with us the whole time, even when our “eyes were prevented from recognizing him.”
I love that in Pope Francis (and Pope Benedict’s) encyclical, they express how closely tied together faith and memory are:
Yet this remembrance is not fixed on past events but, as the memory of a promise, it becomes capable of opening up the future, shedding light on the path to be taken. We see how faith, as remembrance of the future, memoria futuri, is thus closely bound up with hope. (9, Ch 1)
Faith as memory is therefore linked to hope that sheds “light on the path to be taken.” Father Lou, as well, seemed to suggest that if we had the courage to remember our experiences—all of them, the good and the bad—that we would find Him there and He would tell us where to go next.
The two disciples on the road to Emmaus tried to remember and understand. In the Eucharist, their eyes were opened and Christ showed them the real meaning of what had happened—and thus they were able to run back to Jerusalem to share their memories with the others. And the Church has been doing this ever since. She shares her memory of Jesus with us, and because Jesus gave her the Holy Spirit and the Eucharist (“do this in memory of me”), we can trust her memory of Him.
Obviously my thoughts are still forming on all of this, so I’ll just end with the beautiful words of the encyclical that I recognize not only as applying to the universal faith, but to my own personal faith that He has been there with me in ACE—even if I still cannot recognize Him.
Language itself, the words by which we make sense of our lives and the world around us, comes to us from others, preserved in the living memory of others. Self-knowledge is only possible when we share in a greater memory. The same thing holds true for faith, which brings human understanding to its fullness. Faith’s past, that act of Jesus’ love which brought new life to the world, comes down to us through the memory of others — witnesses — and is kept alive in that one remembering subject which is the Church. The Church is a Mother who teaches us to speak the language of faith. Saint John brings this out in his Gospel by closely uniting faith and memory and associating both with the working of the Holy Spirit, who, as Jesus says, “will remind you of all that I have said to you” (Jn 14:26). The love which is the Holy Spirit and which dwells in the Church unites every age and makes us contemporaries of Jesus, thus guiding us along our pilgrimage of faith. (38)
Today – March 25, The Feast of the Annunciation (and, fittingly, The Incarnation) – is Flannery O’Connor’s birthday. I just love her.
Here are a few reasons why (in her own words, because no other words will do):
1. “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.”
2. “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his sense tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.”
3. “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”
4. “Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it.”
5. “I come from a family where the only emotion respectable to show is irritation. In some this tendency produces hives, in others literature, in me both.”
6. “There is no excuse for anyone to write fiction for public consumption unless he has been called to do so by the presence of a gift. It is the nature of fiction not to be good for much unless it is good in itself.”
and most of all, because:
7. “I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do. […] What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God. ”
Here are some audio recordings of her reading her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and her essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.”