Memory

The third installment of guest essays on the Convivium Principles is by Dr Hannah Matis, assistant professor of church history at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia.

For the Christian, the eucharistic feast is always an act of memory: called to “do this in remembrance of me,” the sacrament unites us in fellowship with each other, with those who have honored Christ’s command in the past, and those with whom we shall celebrate the wedding-supper of the Lamb.  We should be reminded that to remember Christ is not the exclusive prerogative of one age or generation but is a continuous, evolving practice.

The Christian theologian most fascinated by memory, St. Augustine, used to refer to memory as a storehouse: the collective memory of our own lives, of the past, of our countries, of an individual religious community, or of the Christian tradition as a whole, are all precious resources on which to draw, valuable ballast in a turbulent world.  By contrast, a community that has excised or forgotten its own traditions, is, like an amnesiac, extraordinarily vulnerable to manipulation from outside.

Memory may be a storehouse, but that does not mean that its contents are either simple or static.  Augustine wrestled with the shifting nature of human memory, not only with our capacity to forget, but also how events happening in the present can alter our perceptions of the past.  To the occasional exasperation of historians, Augustine’s Confessions are not a dispassionate account of his childhood but an ongoing conversation in prayer about how he should remember his early life, in particular, how God’s grace was mysteriously working in ways Augustine was not aware of at the time.  In his much later masterpiece on the Trinity, Augustine locates the image of God in us in the integrated relation of human memory, understanding, and will.  Neuroscientists remain perplexed by the sheer complexity of memory and how memories can be created or altered in our brains by shifting networks of neurons.  Memory is not an object we hold, but a living ecosystem within us, and between us.

Like all ecosystems, memory, whether of a single person, a community, or even an entire society, requires tending and nurture.  We are far more alert today to the effects of trauma and post-traumatic stress syndrome on an individual: a refugee, a soldier, a child, a battered spouse, can carry prisons inside their own minds, sometimes for the rest of their lives.  While how little we know is humbling, the act of narration, of articulating a story or changing an existing narrative, seems to play a crucial role in restoring agency to people who have been, and are being, crushed by their own memories.  Likewise, the act of interpretating the past is necessary for any community to develop a coherent and rooted identity, but particularly so for a Christian community that desires to be formed and shaped by Christ’s example while carrying with it the burden of its own past failures.  To engage honestly with a rich, complex, and not always edifying history, while aspiring to live “in remembrance of me,” can be an impressive act of Christian witness.

Augustine lived to see the last days of the greatest empire his world had ever seen.  It is ironic that Augustine, who of any of his contemporaries was perhaps the least flabbergasted by the fall of Rome should, in the end, have had perhaps the greatest impact in preserving its cultural legacy.  In the face of purists who claimed that the entire heritage of classical Greece and Rome was tainted by its paganism, Augustine argued that Christians were like the Israelites who, as they left Egypt, plundered the riches of the Egyptians: they could continue to benefit from their past without spiritual harm.  Communities of nuns and monks in the early medieval West laboriously copied by hand the great classical writers, saving texts for future generations.  They were not, and did not set out to be archivists and librarians in the modern sense, but they were members of Christian communities acutely aware of their role as guardians of the memory of their community and society, and of a past that they deemed worth preserving. In our world, where memory is treated so carelessly, that events or “facts” can be deleted with a few keystrokes, don’t we have a lesson to learn from the labors of a fifth-century bishop?

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