So, as we reflect on the principle of memory, we are drawn into what lies at the center of it all, Christ and his words in the institution of the Eucharist: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19; 1 Cor.15:25).
No Ordinary Pilgrimage
In the winter of 2007, I got in a car with a close friend of mine, and we made the three-hour drive to the third annual “Walk for Life West Coast” in San Francisco. As I explained to my friend, this trip was not just about going on a “three-hour” pilgrimage to “Assisi by the Bay” (as it was coined by then Archbishop Levada) to witness on behalf of the unborn, but it was also to be a journey into the past. During my adolescence, I lived in the East Bay, and up to that point, I had never gone back to spend any significant time in my old neighborhood. So, it was after the conclusion of walking down Embarcadero Street, and praying on behalf of the unborn—which in itself was a profound experience—that we then set off for my old neighborhood, San Ramon, California.
Initially, my plan was to spend the late afternoon and evening in a few spots where I had a great deal of fond memories growing up. My plans quickly changed. As we drove onto the highway, I was thinking about my childhood, and surprisingly, the first thing that had come to mind were the many days I spent at the local junior college running track. Consequently, we decided to take a pit stop at Chabot Junior College. As we drove up to the college, and I looked over to see the same set of bleachers that were there 25 years ago, something happened to me, quite unexpectedly. I immediately remembered particulars of my time at Chabot that I had not thought of in a very long time—and there was more. As I walked through the entrance into the stadium, and smelled the fresh cut grass, it was almost as if the grass remembered me: calling out to me, as it were, “Do you remember me?” Once again, I remembered details of things that had happened to me long ago at Chabot Junior College. These moments left me overwhelmed, and I dare say, emotional. I could not help but ask myself—what is happening? Why am I being filled with so many memories and emotions, at the sight of a stadium, and the smell of grass? Such an experience was all very new to me. It was then that I started to think about the life of Pope John Paul II, and his reflections on the meaning of a pilgrimage.
John Paul II once spoke of the power of going on a pilgrimage, but not the conventional pilgrimage in which we journey to a holy destination with the hopes of being refreshed and experience renewal. His reflection was more about the kind of journey man takes when he encounters Christ within. In particular, about those moments in which we go back into our past, and by way of memory and hindsight, we are then able to see more clearly how God has worked in our life. This reflection by John Paul II was an outgrowth of his first return trip home to Wadowice, Poland, after being installed as Supreme Pontiff. John Paul II was compelled to critically reflect upon his days as a teenager, when World War II was on his doorstep. A pilgrim of his past, the Supreme Pontiff was moved to tears, appreciating the greatness of God in all that he had done for him. Essentially, by being physically present in his old home in Wadowice, he was properly disposed by way of his memory, to see how God made him new in Christ.
It was in this sense that I was on a pilgrimage, traveling into the past and gaining a profound appreciation for all that God had done for me. As I stood there in that stadium, looking out at the bleachers, and smelling the grass, I was asking new questions about what was bringing on this emotional experience. Behind these questions was the larger question of memory, and how God uses this faculty to draw us deeper into the mystery of his life and love. So my quest to understand this principle began in earnest.
The Catalyst of Memory
So what can we say of this towering faculty of memory? Memory is the most prolific catalyst of the human spirit with a “vast and immeasurable sanctuary.” 1 For St. Augustine, as we are created in the image and likeness of the triune God (cf. Gn 1:26), our soul possesses three faculties: the intellect, the will, and the memory, the greatest of these being memory. 2 Essentially, without our memory, we would effectively cease to be ourselves as we know it. I could no longer make a phone call to a loved one, no longer be able to make a quick run to the store, or no longer call a brother on his birthday. In other words, I could no longer be the father, husband, brother, son, uncle, and so on, that God has called me to be. Essentially, memory is the soul of our relationships, and routes our whole being, and interpersonal communion, with the larger family of God. 3 It is no wonder that St. Augustine teaches as he does on memory as the supreme faculty of our soul. Everything we touch, smell, see, and act upon is filtered through this “immense womb we call the memory.” 4
Furthermore, as Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa reminds us, “memory is not reduced just to individuals, but also to human groups—family, tribes, clans, and nations have a collective memory.” 5 Reflecting upon this relationship between memory and national identity, it should be no surprise why a figure like Adolf Hitler would set out to take over the world by making every attempt to systematically stamp out the cultural memory of the people he sought to rule. Hitler thought that by stripping the people of their sense of religion, social structures, workforce, and so on, he would diminish the spirit of man. And while he was somewhat successful in this destructive endeavor, history books remind us of his failed attempt to conquer the world. I speak of Hitler here, because it was the undertaking of another man during this time that teaches us an important lesson about memory and identity. It was the young and spirited Karol Wojtyla (viz., John Paul II) during the onset of World War II, who sought to keep the Catholic faith, and the spirit of the Polish culture, alive through the medium of drama. By establishing the underground Rhapsodic Theatre, Karol Wojtyla would do exactly that. We should remember that, long before Karol Wojtyla was bishop, cardinal, and pope, he was poet, writer, and actor. His plays were a resounding success, stirring the hearts of the Polish people with a fond sense of who they were as individuals before God, and what they were about as a nation (many people who know his story well view this as one of the lesser known examples of his saintliness). So what we have in the case of Karol Wojtyla’s theatrical underground is the successful story of one man bringing together a larger group of people under the banner of remembering for the sake of keeping one’s identity and moral compass.
In the end, human groups do not find their collective wealth and communal identity in stocks and bonds, but the way in which they remember where they come from. This is why we see, at a national level, the celebration of such days as Independence Day and Memorial Day. Remembering the birth of our nation, and those who have been lost on the warfront, is essential to the fabric of any nation, no matter how big or small. 6 By celebrating particular events in the past (this can also include such things as birthdays and anniversaries), we are doing more than just matting a picture on the wall; we are making present the past to gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of who we are in the present. How many of us have been a part of a recent celebration where there was more than just remembering going on, but storytelling that was life-giving. Within our circles, we have accumulated and inherited all sorts of customs and lore that stir the heart. Quite simply, we do these things because there is purpose and reason. Once again, memory is about a whole routine of identity, because “memory is more than just a psychological exercise of data retrieval,” but the “faculty that tells us who we are.” 7 We have traditions because they link us to our ancestors, and in so doing, we carry on this kind of conversation with them. 8 There is a certain dynamism that comes with being able to identify where we come from so as to better understand who we are, and where we are going.
On this point of being able to converse with our ancestors, it was an assignment I gave to my sixth-grade students that opened my eyes to the power of knowing where you come from. I was asked to teach on the topic of “Early Man.” One of the ways I thought would pique my students’ interest was to assign them a homework project in which they would research their family history. “Remembering Our Ancestors” was the name of the assignment. Invariably, the assignment also interested their parents. In fact, when it came time to present their research, most students were accompanied by one of their parents (if not both), because of their fascination with their family pedigree. For each family, it was more than just another homework assignment, but an opportunity to discover their roots. To this day, parents are still coming up to me, and wanting to talk about their great grandparents, great-great grandparents, and so on. They speak of their family background with pride. By gaining an understanding of the tenacity of their biological forefathers, it is clear they have been encouraged to make their own lives worthwhile. Essentially, to know the past is to enrich the present, and knowledge gained of our family tree is just more reason to live a purpose-driven life. We come to appreciate the gift of who we are, and where we come from, that simultaneously stirs within us a greater conviction to be more task-oriented in building up the Kingdom of God.
So we have this rich human background tied to the faculty of memory. What does this have to do with our Christian faith? Everything. It is to remember that the very soul of the Church possesses this faculty of memory. Recall the words of Christ himself when he said to the apostles that he will send them the Holy Spirit to teach them all things, and he will do so by bringing to their remembrance all that he has taught them (cf. Jn 14:26). 9
The Church Remembers and So Should We
The Church remembers, and she does most profoundly in the liturgy, because the liturgy is the Church’s memory. The Liturgy is the Church’s daily conversation with the ancients; it is where we converse with our spiritual family history. 10 We encounter this on a daily basis when we remember the saints who have gone before us in our liturgies. From the great feast days of the Apostles, to those of Sts. Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Dominic, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Society of Jesus); as in the 20th century, the feast days of Sts. Therese of Lisieux and Maximilian Kolbe we remember because it is what the Church does best. We devote days to these figures in our liturgy because we are called to reflect on what made them so great, and how they ought to inspire us in our own lives. We should never forget that the principle role of the Church is to bear witness to Jesus Christ, the Incarnation of Truth—and, ultimately, she has, in the lives of the aforementioned men and women who have kept alive, with every “yes” to God, the memory of Christ.
So, as we reflect on the principle of memory, we are drawn into what lies at the center of it all, Christ and his words in the institution of the Eucharist: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19; 1 Cor.15:25). The Greek word for remembrance is anamnesis, which literally translates as “recollection,” or “memorial.” The best understanding of this word points to the “re-actualizing or re-presenting what Christian Tradition calls the Real Presence.” 11 In the Sacrifice of the Mass, Christ’s saving death is re-presented, made present on the altar, to intercede on behalf of men in the presence of the Father (cf. CCC §1341, §1362-64). Christ has come as the new Passover, 12 extending himself into our temporal reality. Essentially, the God of history is made present, time and time again, on the altar, (Interestingly, we can properly say, in every second of every day.) There is a most fascinating truth that emerges when you take the number of priests in the world, and divide that figure by the number of seconds in a day. If each priest is saying Mass every day, and the latest estimated total of priests is accurate, 346,000, then there are approximately four hosts being consecrated every second. In its truest sense, the eternal banquet, where God is made present on the altar, is a perpetual banquet).
Moreover, what is crucial to this reflection is the understanding that we are called to abide in the Eucharist. In this way, we abide in the memory of Christ, which is the threshold of our identity in Christ: the way in which we conform our whole identity to the Person of Jesus Christ on the cross and, thus, participate in his own life (cf. 2 Pt 1:4). This conforming is a personal encounter, and from this encounter, we are then sent forth to become missionaries for Christ, in word and deed. In effect, all that we are and do is to be an offering to God, a reflection of what takes place on the altar—our “spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1-3). In this way, we begin to “actualize” the memory of Christ, becoming, as it were, living icons of Christ crucified.
This reality of conforming our whole life to the Eucharist has shaped Catholic history as we know it, especially in the area of martyrdom. Tertullian once said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the faith.” Ultimately, martyrdom is the most complete expression of what it means to be Christian. Our imitation of Christ is to include this dimension of embracing the cross. It was in this vein that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said, “Throughout history the martyrs continue Christ’s self-oblation; they are like the Church’s living altar, made not of stones, but of men, who have become members of the Body of Christ and thus express a new kind of cultus: sacrifice is humanity becoming love with Christ.” 13 This is the realm of redemptive suffering, and the reason why St. Paul states: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col 1:24). 14 Christ did not suffer on the cross as an antidote to human pain and agony, but to give us an example of how to suffer—with God. Interestingly, the word “excruciating” comes from the Latin ex-cruce, which literally translates “from the cross.” Essentially, it is when members of the body of Christ live and pray in one accord, “we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come again,” that the memory of Christ lives on.
What’s more, this imitation of Christ leaves a profound impression upon the world. In other words, our witness to Christ crucified can have a deep impact on others. The aforementioned words of Cardinal Ratzinger go to the core of how our sacrifice embodies the call to witness to Christ. Certainly, Ratzinger is steeped in the ancient law of sacrifice: that through death, new life is waiting to spring forth. 15 For it is in death that we find the riches of God (cf. Is 53:9), and begin to shape culture into the image of Christ. Catholic culture is the outgrowth of our many sacrifices, little and big.
In the end, the Eucharist as memory is an actualization of Christ’s self-offering to God, which not only fulfills the Passover covenant, but transforms it, and in doing so, calls us to share in this transformation of history. 16 We must remember that repetition is imperative to memory, and the Church is never short on men and women willing to make present the sacrifice of Christ. The Church will never atrophy like that of a muscle that stops “working out.” So, let us be constant in being properly disposed to receive our Lord, that we may bear its proper fruit, and share in the conversion of history (cf. CCC §1072).
Avoid the Portal of Death
That being said, we must avoid the danger of our memories becoming sterile, leading us into a paralyzing nostalgia: becoming, as it were, prisoners of our own memory. 17 The faculty of our memory can be a powerful tool leading us to the heart of Christ, but it can also act as an agent of evil: where we dwell on the past, and the tyranny of memories. We must avoid “living in the past” to the extent that it removes us from doing God’s will in the present. If we are going to “do” all that we do in the memory of Christ, then we must first live in the memory of Christ in the Eucharist—the past being made present.
This living in the memory of the Eucharist is to also encourage a healing of memories. At some point, most, if not all of us, have been profoundly hurt by a loved one, or have been involved in behavior that we have kept hidden for a long time. Some cases may be deeper than others, but nonetheless, we all share something in common: we are wounded individuals that need Christ’s healing touch. For this reason, we are to invite Christ into those moments in our past that still need his healing power. This kind of healing happens most profoundly in the sacrament of confession, but it is in the Sacrifice of the Mass where we are drawn into the mystery of “do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19; 1 Cor 15:25): where God’s time (kairos) enters man’s time (chronos), and God’s healing power makes all things new (cf. Rv 21:5). While our deep wounds may need therapy and counseling, one cannot deny the intense grace that comes with inviting Christ into our hearts during the parts of the Mass in which we actively participate in God’s action in the Liturgy. We must allow the Divine Physician to perform surgery on our hearts. Once again, our pilgrimages into the past ought to be “sanctuaries” that bear life, not ports that bear death.
The Vast and Immeasurable Sanctuary
On that cold winter day in 2007, when the sight of the stands, and the smell of the grass, made me keenly aware of events long ago, I was awakened to a principle that extends beyond the human realm to the realm of conversion, the realm in which Christ belongs in his infinite mystery. As memory and identity are interlocked, we are made to see that it is the Eucharist that gives them their proper scope and meaning. St. Augustine once spoke of memory as “the vast and immeasurable sanctuary,” because it is in our memory that we are wired for God in the Eucharist, the everlasting sanctuary in Christ.
- Augustine. Confessions (Penguin Books: New York, 1961), 216. In Book Ten (X) of Confessions, Saint Augustine analyzes the faculty of memory in all of its categories and profundity. ↩
- Cf. Augustine Trinitate. Cf. Hahn, Scott. Letter and Spirit: From Written Text to Living Word in the Liturgy (Doubleday: New York, 2005), 129. ↩
- Cantalamessa, Raniero. Do this in Memory of Me. Online at http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/father-cantalamessa-on-memory as of August 1, 2013. ↩
- Cf. Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Cf. Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Cf. Ibid. ↩
- Cf. Hahn. Letter and Spirit, 129-130. ↩
- Ibid, 130. ↩
- Ibid, 92. ↩
- Cf. Ibid, 88-92. ↩
- Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 76. ↩
- Cf. IC, 366. ↩
- Cf. Sheen, Fulton. Life of Christ (New York: McGraw Hill, 1958), 333. ↩
- Hahn, Letter and Spirit, 102. ↩
- Cf. Cantalamessa. Do This in Memory of Me. ↩