Memory and Faith
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.
So my thoughts here are largely inspired by Father Lou’s words and a few passages from Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Lumen Fidei.
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)