CATALYST SUGGESTION SHEET #23
MEMORY – A MIXED BLESSING
There is a memorable line in Eugene O’Neill’s 1956 play, Long Day’s Journey into Night: "The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us" (2:2). Try as we might, there are some things we just cannot forget – hurts, disappointments, failures, missed opportunities, traumas and so on. In fact, we also remember many things – for better or worse – even when we are not aware we remember them. Thus we might remember how to cook a pasta or drive a car; we might also remember the pain associated with certain people and events, a pain we thought we had forgotten but had simply consigned it to the unconscious.
And there is the flipside of memory’s coin: Try as we might, there are times when we just cannot remember: "What’s her name?" "Where did I leave the keys?" "Why did I come out here into the kitchen?" And so on. In its extreme form, we have the tragedy of Alzheimer’s disease and various forms of dementia. Perhaps one of the most notable things about people so afflicted is their disorientation and confusion. Although we may be haunted and distressed by remembering certain things, it is probably fair to say that it is nothing compared with the distress of not remembering anything.
Consider the situation of forgetfulness from another angle. How do you feel when those who ought to remember you forget you? For example, a number of people have worked very hard for the parish fête – especially you – and they are all thanked by name from the pulpit on Sunday – except you. It is generally affirming to be remembered and distressing to be forgotten. It is almost as if the forgetting means we do not exist. And we feel more or less badly. Just as our remembering or forgetting affects our being in the world, so our being remembered or our being forgotten affects our being in the world. It hardly needs to be added, that our remembering or forgetting also affects others’ being in the world. Our connectedness – with ourselves, with others and with the assorted facts of daily existence – depends absolutely on someone remembering. If we do not remember, others must.
TO BE HUMAN IS TO REMEMBER
We are dealing with a mystery when we begin to explore such questions. We will never understand it. Each human being is a particular instance of the Great Mystery beyond the mystery. Facing such a subject, we ought to be more readily disposed to awe and reverence and humility than rational comprehension and the desire for control and mastery. Every "answer" we produce will contain more questions. So we proceed with deep respect for this remarkable being – this mysterious, tragic-comic remembering being.
In this being, the past, in some mysterious way, remains with us – it is present. The relationship or connection with the past will affect us for better or worse. We are not merely hapless victims of the past either; we can, again in some mysterious way, re-configure that past which is present through remembering. The past as past is unchangeable; the past as remembered is changeable.
We have already noted the impact on our lives when the remembering fails, more or less. What might the impact be when the remembering works well? Consider, for example, the photograph of a loved one you keep near, the gathering with old friends, the thoughts and images and feelings associated with a dear departed parent, the impact of a near-death experience, the long-term effects of a dedicated and fine teacher, the thoughtfulness of a loving spouse. When we are remembering in this way, we are in fact allowing life into us. We are opening to wider horizons. Our better possibilities are awakening and we are inclining towards goodness and truth and love.
Even when we find ourselves remembering painful and perhaps tragic events, we can still experience this as opening us to the greater good, expanding our personal horizons, enabling us to be more merciful and compassionate. There is a remarkable paradox here: The person as remembering is thus, potentially, the person as emerging, coming to be what he or she is called to be, moving into the future in a particular kind of way. It is not difficult to see, then, that the life formation process is essentially dependent on our remembering formatively rather than deformatively. Our freedom from unresolved conflicts, regrets, resentments, grudges and the like, depends on us remembering well. "Forgive and forget" is bad advice; much better to remember and forgive.
AS CHRISTIANS WE MUST REMEMBER WELL
We could think of both the writing and reading of the Bible as an act of remembering. The Bible records the remembering that lies at the heart of the relationship between God and the Chosen People. The Bible is as much about Yahweh’s faithfulness as it is about the People’s struggle to be faithful. In other words, the Bible records the fact that through the Covenant Yahweh has undertaken to remember the People and the People have undertaken to remember Yahweh, and the remembering allows the intimacy to grow. When Yahweh appears, for example, in the burning bush (cf Exodus 3:1-15), Moses is asked to remember what Yahweh remembers – the Covenant of old.
Forgetting Yahweh – ie forgetting the Covenant – is the root of all their sins (Cf Judges 8:34; Jeremiah 2:13; Hosea 2:15). One of the central roles of the Prophets is to call the People back from their forgetfulness, to help them remember once again who they are (Cf Micah 6:3ff; Jeremiah 13:22-25). In their forgetfulness they lose their identity. In a sense, they lose their very existence.
Why do the People celebrate the Passover? Why keep the Sabbath? So that they will always remember, and in the remembering they will grow in the relationship. The celebration of ritual and feast is an act of remembering in itself. That act facilitates living in remembrance. Remembering is a particularly Godly act – it is central to the Covenant and is implied in the emet (faithfulness) of Yahweh. (Eg "Can a woman forget her baby at the breast, feel no pity for the child she has borne?" (Isaiah 49:15).)
The essential place and intent of remembering is maintained in the New Testament and to the present day in the community of the baptised. The Covenantal act of remembering within the community of the baptized focuses on Jesus and the great action of God in and through His Passover. Each time the community gathers and breaks the bread and shares the cup, we give thanks in remembrance of Him (eg cf Luke 22:19). More than that, the very act of remembering in the Eucharist is also a "proclamation" of His saving death and resurrection (cf 1Corinthians 11:23-27).
SUGGESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
Describe your own experience of the pain of remembering.
Describe the pain of forgetting.
Reflect on the dynamics of being forgotten/remembered.
Reflect on the difference between "Forgive and forget" and "Remember and forgive".
In what way is the reading of the Bible an act of remembering for you?
How is the Jewish celebration of the Passover an act of remembering?
How is the Christian celebration of Eucharist an act of remembering?
What do you do to keep the memory of Jesus alive in your daily living?
How do you think remembering well relates to hope?
What might it mean to "live in remembrance"?