Memory and Faith Part IV


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.

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)


Forgetfulness – Or Memory and Faith Part II

I wrote a post a little while ago on Memory and Faith and I’ve found this theme appearing again and again.

My school, being the awesome place it is, had a retreat for all of the faculty at St. Mother Cabrini shrine. Even though it was only for one day, it was one of the best retreats I have ever experienced.

The speaker, a Franciscan graduate (and I confess, I am always a bit wary of Franciscan ‘charismatic’ spirituality – not because it is bad but because sometimes it makes my reserved, New England self a bit uncomfortable) did a fantastic job. He said many things that stood out to me, but the one I’ve been thinking most about is this: that sin is more often than not a matter of forgetfulness, and faith is a matter of remembering.


Wouldn’t Socrates be pleased? He similarly seemed to think that “sin” was often the result of lack of knowledge, or ignorance, or I suppose the sort of momentary ignorance that comes from forgetfulness. Didn’t he go so far as to say that “the only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance” ?

Yet I, and many other Christians, take issue with this because we know that sin is primarily an act of the will. An action is sinful precisely because we DO have knowledge of the good and yet we reject it.

Moreover, that whole “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” thing…

But our retreat speaker insisted that sin very often results from forgetting what we know – or what we ought to know. For example, Eve did not eat the fruit of the tree because she thought to herself, “I hate you God and I deliberately reject you and your rules” — but rather because she had turned her back on all of the other beautiful fruit trees in the garden and forgot God’s generosity. She was completely absorbed in how “ the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom” (Genesis 3:6). She forgot who God really is, and so she chose herself instead.

And how many times do the prophets in the Old Testament tell the Israelites to remember! “Remember how I brought you out of the land of Egypt!” Remember all of these ways that I showed you that I love you.

And how much of the Jewish faith is tied up in memory? The Passover, Hannukah, Tabernacles.

And what does Christ say at the last meal He shares with his disciples before He dies? What does He ask them to do? “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19, 1 Corinthians 11:25). Remember me! Don’t forget me!

And, sitting there, I realized I am one of the most forgetful people ever. How many times do I forget what God has done for me? In all of my anxiety about choices I need to make, I forget how He has been there for me in all of the difficult decisions I had to make in the past. Choosing the University of Dallas was a very tough decision for me, and not a decision that “felt really good” at the time. Choosing to do ACE was very similar. (“What did you say? Where in the world is Plaquemine!?”) Even choosing to move here to Denver was another stumbling into the dark… “Why are you moving to Denver? Do you have family there?” “Uh, no, but… well… it kind of seems like a good idea…”

And yet God was there for me in that uncertainty. He is here for me now and will be in all of my decisions.

So often, the reason we sin, and make bad decisions, is because we forget who God is. We forget how generous He is. We forget everything He has done for us, and out of fear and forgetfulness we choose ourselves.

I see this EVERY day when I teach.

I mean, really. So much of being a good student is just about remembering stuff! Remember to do your homework, remember to study, remember to turn in that paper, remember these due dates. And although laziness can be a big factor in doing poorly in school, I think forgetfulness is often the bigger culprit. Students are distracted. They forget what their chief vocation is. They forget what God is asking them to do. They forget that doing their school work actually MATTERS – not just in terms of grades and college, but in terms of what God wants – He wants us to do whatever task is set before us to the very best of our ability. Doing our “jobs” — in their case, being a student — glorifies Him.

So we are all high school students. We are those kids who forget to do the most basic things. “Uh, Ms. Shea, I forgot my pencil. Can I go to my locker and…?” or “Ms. Shea, I totally forgot we had a quiz today…” “What? That stuff was written on the board?” “Wait… we had to read that last night?” “Ah Ms Shea I’m so sorry, I forgot to come at lunch today to make up that test!”

I had a great conversation yesterday on the phone with one of my dearest friends from UD about this as well. In Lumen Fidei, the Pope emphasizes how much faith is tied up in memory:

Faith, received from God as a supernatural gift, becomes a light for our way, guiding our journey through time. On the one hand, it is a light coming from the past, the light of the foundational memory of the life of Jesus which revealed his perfectly trustworthy love, a love capable of triumphing over death. (Lumen Fidei, 4)

As a response to a word which preceded it, Abraham’s faith would always be an act of remembrance. 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. (Ibid, 9)

In this regard, though, we can speak of a massive amnesia in our contemporary world. The question of truth is really a question of memory, deep memory, for it deals with something prior to ourselves and can succeed in uniting us in a way that transcends our petty and limited individual consciousness. It is a question about the origin of all that is, in whose light we can glimpse the goal and thus the meaning of our common path. (Ibid, 25)

So, so true. We all suffer from “a massive amnesia.” We forget who we are and who God is — and it is this forgetfulness, this inattentiveness, this distraction, that leads to sin.

As an English teacher, a lover of words, I particularly love this section of the encyclical:

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. (Ibid, 38)

And John tells us that Jesus IS “THE Word,” the Logos. He IS the Word that we need to remember, and repeat, and tell to ourselves and to each other over and over again. As Pope Francis indicates, this is indeed what the Church does, and what Tradition really means. Scripture is part of the Living Tradition of the Church, Her very memory, which has been passed on from the apostles to us. That’s why Paul says,

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,k that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread,24and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”25In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”l26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

Memory and Faith

Photo credit:

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.

ImageBecause 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.

ImageThe 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)