Memories Make the Future

The community of faith throughout the entire biblical tradition has been called to tell its story to others. Jesus affirmed that those who love him will keep his word and share it with others (Jn 14:24)…

 Old Testament prophet’s inspirations; Christ’s “Do this in remembrance of Me”;  St. Peter preaching Christ’s words.

Remembering is essential to the life of the people of God. The eucharistic worship of the Christian community is a response to the imperative of divine love: “Do this is commemoration of me” (Lk 22:19). The eucharistic celebration reenacts Christ’s sacrifice and expresses the Church’s remembering: “This is my body which shall be give up for your; do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11:24-25; Heb 10:3). The accounts of the institution of the eucharist indicate that the saving power present in the past event is operative each time that event is “remembered” (anamnesis) in a cultic reenactment that bespeaks the dynamic communion of God and his people.

The community of faith throughout the entire biblical tradition has been called to tell its story to others. Jesus affirmed that those who love him will keep his word and share it with others (Jn 14:24); that the Spirit, whom his Father will send us in his name, will teach us the meaning of his life story and remind us of it (Jn 14:26). Loving the Lord means remembering his story and making it our own through the gift of his Spirit. In fact, our communicating his Spirit in word and deed tells his story and witnesses to his presence (Jn 16:27). Loving him means keeping his commandments to love one another (Jn 14:15), sharing with others what God has done for us, and is continuing to do for us through the gift of his Spirit, which motivates and impels our telling of God’s goodness. Remembering and telling the story is our sharing of God’s goodness in compliance with the commandment/law to love one another. The lex narrandi obliges the community of faith to tell of God’s wonderful deeds; it demands that their goodness be shared and communicated.

The Psalmist summons the community of faith to tell this story because of its God-given responsibility for the faith and hope of future generations:

Listen to this law, my people…
what we have heard and known for ourselves,
and what our ancestors have told us,
must not be withheld from their descendants,
that is: the titles of God, his power
and the miracles he has done.

When he issued the decrees for Jacob
and instituted a law in Israel,
he gave our ancestors strict order
to teach it to the children;
he next generation was to learn it,
and children still to be born,
and these in their turn were to tell their own children
so that they too would put their confidence in God,
never forgetting God’s achievement,
and always keeping his commandments. (Ps 78:1-7)

We must remember the story of God’s saving deeds, and tell it because we are responsible for communicating our God-given faith and hope to others. We are summoned to collaborate with God in sustaining and cultivating the basic faith and hope of the community that God is creating from generation to generation. We must remember that we are called to be with God in doing what God is doing for all humankind. We share in and benefit from the good that God does throughout the entire tissue of historical relationships that constitute the life of the community of faith that God calls into being, and sustains from generation to generation. Our personal reality is identified and interwoven with that of his community; it transcends the temporal limits of our individual life story. Telling the story of our God, therefore, reflects the maturity of the believer who accepts responsibility for the past, present, and future of the community that God is creating and sustaining. Such maturity entails the believer’s vision of a universal story under the sovereignty of God’s love.  That God is the Origin, Ground, and Ultimate Meaning of that story is not the private insight of a solitary individual, but the shared vision of a believing community which, even now, experiences a goodness, beauty, and love unbounded by spatial or temporal limits. The community of faith must both remember and share its story of their God who is actively encompassing both their own lives, and that of all generations, within the goodness of his own life.

We participate in the life of our community of faith by calling to mind the meaning and value of our story. We collaborate in the activity of calling it to mind, and finding our unity in the activity of memory, awareness, and anticipation that orient the community to decision and action. Communion in calling to mind, and taking to heart the meaning and value of our story/tradition, constitutes the common good of our community’s existence. The life story of a community is actively shared as a common good in calling to mind a tradition (memories, stories) that entails what its members are to believe, what they are to become, what they are to do. The community recalls its story in the present because of its hopes for the future.          

God Reminds Us to Remember

The Church’s biblical pedagogy is grounded in the divine and human remembering that is one of the forms that God’s creative and transforming love takes. God’s remembering of his people is in his loving/preserving/saving them. We exist and survive because God remembers us. God’s remembering us is his self-giving, always a gift (gratia operans), a divine initiative enabling our reciprocity (gratia cooperans) in self-giving remembering, or communion with God. God’s remembering is one of the forms that his freedom takes in securing both our freedom from oblivion, and our freedom for fulfillment in communion with him. No one forces God to remember, to love, and to care for us; nor does God profit from remembering us. God’s remembering is always his self-giving grace and call to friendship, enabling our response-ability. God reminds us to remember him. He calls us to recall him; God’s remembering/love is universal, embracing all humankind without exception. We remember and love God as the Common Good of the universe, the Origin, Ground, and Fulfillment of all created goodness. The unity of all in a “universe” is rooted remembering, and loving all together within his all-encompassing love, the common good in which all created goodness participates for its existence, development and fulfillment. (Luke implies that God’s love forgets nothing when he has Jesus recount three stories in chapter 15 of persons seeking what they have lost. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42), the words of the Good Thief, which also imply the saving and loving remembering of a God who forgets no one.)

Through faith, Christians share the same memories, the same history. Their sacred memories unite them as a people. The way of recalling the past is essential for its continued existence as a community of faith, whose future is promising because it remembers  past promises: “Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise him up on the last day” (Jn 6:54). Memories make the future. Only those can anticipate the wonderful works of the Lord who remember them. If they are not already seen as a part of our history, they cannot be seen as a part of our future. We share in the life of the community of faith if we share its memories. We belong to a chosen people only if we remember that God has chosen us; we live in a promised land only if we remember that God had promised it.  To forget this, to view the past in a different way, is to have a different history/life story; it would be to separate ourselves from the community of faith, and its future, in the fulfillment of the promises made to it. The cohesion of the community perdures in shared historical memories created and sustained by faith.

There is a sense in which our memories possess us, and determine what we are. An immigrant coming to the United States, for example, has really become an American when he or she inadvertently remarks, “In 1776, we defeated the British.” This new way of remembering the past indicates that he or she has become different: he or she has become American, because he or she now shares the memories of the American people. Similarly, Abraham becomes the father of all who, after the gift of the Spirit, share his faith (Mt 3:9; Lk. 13:16; 16:24; 19:3; Act 13:26; Rm 11:1; Gal 3:29), whereas his sons and daughters according to the flesh may be disinherited (Mt 8:11-12; Jn 8:39). Even though the ancestors of most Christians had nothing to do with the history of the Hebrew people, they have been incorporated into it through faith in and adherence to Christ. The God of Israel “swore an oath” with Abraham, sealed with promises (Lk 1:73; Acts 7:5-6) so that Christians are “the children of the promise” (Gal 4:28) and its proper heirs (Gal 3:29). Their God is the “God of Abraham” (Mk 12:26; Acts 7:32). This same God acts on behalf of Christians; he has “glorified his servant Jesus” (Acts 3:13). Abraham is an essential part of Christian history: “Merely by belonging to Christ, you are the posterity of Abraham, the heirs which he was promised” (Gal 3:26).

Spiritual Amnesia

The psalmist believed that the dead inhabit the land of forgetfulness (Ps 88:13), where they have lost their memory. God no longer works wonders for the dead (Ps 88:11). The dead are no longer capable of remembering God’s wonderful works because their relationship to the living God has been severed. Sadness reigns in the world of the dead (Dt 34:8). Qoholeth describes the dead as those who  have forgotten everything, and who have been entirely forgotten (Si 9:5).

Because of their inability to remember God, the dead fail to share in the joyful praise of God which characterizes Israel’s worship (Ps 88:11; Is 38:18). The psalmist assumes that only where there is death there is no praise of God; where there is life, there is praise. There is no real life where there is no praising God, and there is no praise where there is no remembering God.

Amnesia entails an identity crisis. Individuals forget their past, their story, and their relationships. Inasmuch as individuals are interpersonal and relational realities, amnesia deprives them of their identity. They forget who they are in the fullness of their interpersonal and social reality. Amnesia is a form of personal disintegration in which persons lose or “forget” themselves. Amnesia threatens communities, societies, and cultures as well; for they can forget their story, traditions, and identity. The liturgy of both Israel and the Christian community is a form of remembering that unites and preserves the community of faith. To forget their story of God, their common heritage, would entail their destruction as a people. Recounting the wonderful deeds of God for his people, Moses warned his people never to forget them (Dt 6:10-13). Remembering is the law of survival: “Remember how Yahweh your God…”(Dt 8:2); “Be sure that if you forget Yahweh your God … you most certainly will perish” (Dt 8:19). The Lord’s Supper entails the same liturgical imperative of remembering for the life of the Christian community: “Do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24).

The leaders of the community of faith function as reminders of the people, recalling their story, and its meaning in Scripture, tradition, and worship, proclaiming and manifesting its true goodness for all in both word and deed. Liturgical, catechetical, and evangelical reminding is the task of the community’s leaders. As servants of the poor, they remind the people of the mission of Jesus, calling them to share in his life of service for the wholeness of all humankind.

Inasmuch as there is no true understanding of anything taken out of context, there can be no true self-understanding that prescinds from our Ultimate Context, our Origin, Ground, and Destiny. To guard against the malady of spiritual amnesia oblivion to our true and God-given identityChristian worship entails an ongoing process of reminding us of and recalling us to our story of God.

Our remembering God in the cognitive-affective, self-transcending activity of prayer is, even now, an experience of our ultimate meaning, perfection, and destiny. We are most fully ourselves when we are in prayerful communion with our divine Origin and Destiny. As relational beings, we most experience absurdity, meaninglessness, and frustration when we are out of touch with, or oblivious to, Ultimate Reality/God. Our prayerful remembering of God is implicitly our experience of God’s remembering us; for our prayer is always a graced response to God, who is reminding us to remember him. The Spirit of God is where it acts, where it is actively reminding us to remember “Abba, Father; for God sends the Spirit of his Son into our hearts for this purpose” (Gal 4:6).

God has given us the Spirit of his Son to do what we could not otherwise do: “He will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you” (Jn 14:26). Jesus’ gift of his Spirit reminds us to forgive others, and calls us to be reconciled with them (Jn 20:22). God’s gift of the Spirit of his Son transforms human life, making all things new (e.g. Jn 1:30; Mt 3:16). God reintegrates our lives through his Spirit of reconciliation. God alone actually loves all persons. Apart from the gift of God’s Spirit, it is humanly impossible to love all persons, especially our enemies. Peacemakers communicate the Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ, renewing and reintegrating the human family. The Lord’s Prayer reminds us that we cannot know our Father apart from our willingness to be reconciled with all others; for the sons and daughters of God are born of his reconciling and reintegrating Spirit.       

Devastating Hate Memories

We become what we will to remember. Among some there is an ineluctable tendency to cherish only the ugliest elements that the past can offer. No degree of courtesy, friendliness, or any other form of positive change in a formerly unpleasant relationship outweighs their bitter memories because the past they choose to remember blinds them to any good the present might offer. Their minds are filled with a past vision of wickedness, and the goodness and beauty of the present is inaccessible to them. Their hate-memory focuses on the worst of an individual’s, a group’s, a nation’s past as a rationalization for the incapacity to love others. It is a rationalization for the inability to befriend people of different races, religions, classes, and nations. It takes the form of the one-word definition, the unnuanced viewpoint, perpetuating hatreds for centuries, and misery for millions. For this mind, “German” means “Nazi,” “Italian” means “mafia,” “Christian” means “pogrom,” “Jew” means “deicide,” “Muslim” means “terrorist,” “Catholic” means “Inquisition.”

The hate-memory would absolve us of responsibility for accepting the possibilities of guilt for the evils of one’s own life as individuals and societies. The hated person, or society, becomes a receptacle in which we can jettison the unacceptable parts of what is lacking in what it takes for ourselves to be fully human.

When times are out of joint, we are especially disposed to cross-examine the pas,t to discover why it did not usher in a better state of affairs. The past is a kind of screen upon which each generation projects its vision of the future.  Historians, for example, were creating the history of the 20th century in the very act of writing history in the 19th century. Similarly, each generation’s judgment of the past expresses an attitude existing in the present, and perduring in the future. Consequently, if the past is merely a collection of hatred, the future can promise nothing more than the perpetuation of these hatreds. Consequently, our vision of the pastwhether it be of our own personal history or the history of other national, racial, religious, or social groupadumbrates the quality of our individual or collective future. We are, therefore, responsible to future generations for the way we choose to remember. The determination to remember only the crimes of others, is to prepare for a future of vendettas, reprisals, and recriminations or, at best, of tranquil hostility. Harboring hate memories perpetuates their lethal power

Commemorating Martyrs

If, for Jews and Christians alike, a martyr is one who dies giving witness to the one true God of all, then the six million victims of the Holocaust are martyrs of our time. For those who believe that the very identity of the Jewish people consists in their being the people of the Messiah, then, in some way, the six million killed for no other reason than their identity as Jews, died giving witness to the one true God, and his Messiah. They are the people whom God has “identified,” chosen, called into being. Like the Messiah, they were falsely accused, and killed without cause. In reverencing them, we reverence not only the image of our common Father, the One Who Is (Yahweh) for Jew and Christian alike, but we reverence also the likeness of the one who sprang from them, and whom God has made both Lord and Christ.

Like the Messiah, whom Christians accept, the six million were killed because of who they were, because of their identity.  They died, therefore, because of the God who had identified them as his people. And their deaths, in turn, bore witness to the one true God who, as Paul tells us, still identifies them as his people, and who will never turn his face from those whom he has eternally chosen (Romans 11).

Perhaps, it is truer to say that persons are martyred because they were saints, rather than to say that they became saints because they were martyred. Martyrs are remembered because of that to which they gave witness. They are not what the world wants, but what the world needs. We remember our martyrs in a way that inspires us to construct a far more human future for ourselves, and future generations. Hate-memories will cease to produce their lethal effects only when we learn a new way of remembering, the way the Christian community of faith recalls its martyrs. This is the way the Holy Spirit enables us to recall, and to immortalize only what was, is, and forever shall be, worth remembering.

Our History Starts from Our Quest for the Future

Existentialist insights into history help us to understand the importance of our memories, and lead us directly into the heart of history as a constituent of human life. Both Gabriel Marcel, and Martin Heidegger, have written about the meaning of care within the economy of our existence. Historians who care about history organize their material around principles and events, persons and crises, that they care about. Historical time is structured around what interests them. For Heidegger, history takes its start, not from the present, nor from what is real only today, but from the future. The selection of what is to be an object of history is made by the historian, in whom history arises. Humankind organizes its past around the direction of its future. This insight into the nature of the historian’s craft has obvious implications for the way in which the community of the Judeo-Christian faith recall their sacred memories in terms of the eschaton and the second coming. The Eucharistic commemoration is forward looking: “Until the Lord comes, therefore, every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming his death…” (1 Cor 11:26).

Psychiatry illustrates the Heideggerian insight into time in a way that deepens our appreciation of our sacred history and liturgical commemoration. The existential analyst notes that a sign of mental deterioration and psychic trauma is the patient’s inability to organize the past. Even though the patient is often aware of what actually happened, and capable of giving an objective account of his or her life, he or she cannot select the important, and ignore the trivial; the patient can record only with a monotonous accuracy. The patient’s past has become a chaos because he or she has no future, no direction, no will to live. Time shrivels to the spatial limits of the hospital, so that real time has departed from the patient’s life, and he or she is tyrannized by all-limiting space. A condition for sanity is the ability to organize the past in the direction of our intentional thrust toward the future, a thrust that is not added to humankind, but that constitutes each of us as the unique being that each is. Just as Israel’s past made sense in the light of its present under God, pointing toward a future that would transcend history, so, too, does the past of every sane person receive its significance in the light of his or her present, which, like an arrow, is aimed at the future. An aimless life is not a human life; it cannot be.

Conversion illustrates Heidegger’s insight into historical time. What was once little more than a chaos of circumstance and events, the bucket of ashes that the secular mind denominates as the past, suddenly coalesces and stiffens into a unity for the person blessed with the gift of faith. All sorts of random events now take on a new meaning in which they are understood as having led this person to this supreme moment in which he or she has received the grace of a new self-understanding. The grace is itself a call to his or her future, which gives meaning to his or her past and unifies life into a significant whole. Our hopes, motives, and ideals stir us into action; they create our style of life, giving meaning and direction to our past.

We find in the past whatever we seek for the future. If what we seek is trivial, the past we discover will be trivial. If what we seek is noble, what we find will be splendidly human. Thus, the Christian, seeking communion with God in the crucified and risen Christ, finds a past that is sacred and marvelously transcending the merely human with its wonderful works of the Lord, the magnalia Dei. Responding to the grace and call of God in conversion, we cherish our past as the gift of God, a sacred memory of divine interventions in our personal history. The divine gift has enabled us to have this kind of history/life story, of finding this meaning and value for our past. In our liturgical remembering, we recognize both our past and our future as the gift of God, anticipating the resurrection of the just in Christ. Graced with the eye of love that is faith, we are enabled to see a loving God in our past, present, and future.

Memory and Hope

God is the agency that gives us back our memories, because God is the “presence” to which all reality is present. We know that the returning of memory is often far from being a congenial and painless process, because memory is often that of our responsibility for rejection and injury, for diminution of the self and others. And, yet, the refusal or denial of memory is likewise diminution; for if the whole self is the concern and the stage of God’s saving work, then the past of the self must be included in the scope of this work. And this is so because the self, at any given moment, is a made self: it is not a solid, independent machine for deciding and acting efficiently or rationally in response to stimuli, but is itself a process, fluid and elusive, whose present range of possible responses is part of a developing life story. The self is what we might say is what our past is doing now; it is the process in which a particular set of given events and processes and options, crystallizes now in a new set of particular options, responses, and determinations, providing a resource of given past-ness out of which our next decision and action can flow. It is continuity; and so it is necessarily memory—continuity seen as the shape of a unique life story, my story—which I now own, acknowledge, as mine. To be a self is to own such a story: to act as a self is to act out of the awareness of this resource of a particular past.

Our self-transcendence is in our memory, precisely in our recollection now of another reality, a past reality, both distinct from, and part of, the present situation. The return of the wayward son to his father’s house, in Jesus’ parable (Lk 15:17), begins with his remembering how good it was in contrast to his present condition. Our memory affirms that the present situation has a context; it, like the self, is part of a continuity, it is “made,” and so it is not immutable. By learning that situations have wider contexts, we learn a measure of freedom or transcendence of the limits of the present. Things may be otherwise; change occurs.

Memory is my presence to myself, the way in which I constitute and understand myself as a cognitively and affectively conscious subject with a continuous history or experience. I am not trapped and confined in the present moment: as a conscious subject with a remembered past, I transcend these limitations. I can understand them, put them in perspective, move on from, and through them. Consequently, whatever stimulates and nourishes our self-transcendence in this sense has to do with presence to ourselves, and so with memory. Without this, our bondage is complete. So often, persons have felt the need to recover not only their own past, but a whole cultural and religious tradition—a shared past that can genuinely be seen as an alternative and liberating reality. To affirm our identity, value, solidity, reality in situations where this is being systematically crushed, to affirm that we are “spirit” involves our owning and recovering the liberating memory of our true past.

God does not come to us in the abstract; God’s grace does not create an abstract future. The new identity of life in the Spirit is uniquely concrete and particular. Paul explains this in terms of the life of the diversity of the Spirit’s gifts (1 Cor 12:4-30), a vision of complementarity in which common life, and particular vocation, do not threaten one another. The new identity is specified in terms of a community bonded together by the grace-giving and exchange of divine gifts. The community lives in the exchange not only of charisms but of life stories, of memories. Our particular past is in the community of Christian faith as a resource for our relations with others. The gift given me to give to the community is ultimately my self: my story given back, to give me a place in the web of gift’s which is the body of Christ. My self, given to me by the hand of God, as he returns my memory.

Beginning to see and to love ourselves as a gift from God’s hand, we learn how our neighbor, too, is a gift, to himself or herself, and to us. Loving our neighbor as ourselves is the mode that emerges from the past in which we have learned to accept ourselves. To believe in the risen Christ is to trust that the generative power of God is active in the human world; that it can be experienced as transformation and reconciliation and empowerment in the present; and that its availability and relevance extends to every human situation. The community of Christian faith is charged with sharing this vision and this possibility of life in communion, community, and communication under the sovereignty of God’s love with all the world (Mt 28:19, Mk 16:15; Lk 24:42; Acts 1:8).

Each teller of the Christian story is newly created in Christ to live the good life as from the beginning he had meant us to live it. By telling the story, I make myself what and who I am. I am responsible for the shaping of my life story. Only insofar as I am responsible for what I make of my story may my storytelling be judged ethically or morally.  Our freedom shapes both the process and the term of our stories, even though it is always a limited or finite freedom. The making (poiema) of our life story is co-authored by two authors: the human subject and God. Authors (and human subjects of life stories) are free within limits to choose and shape the stories they make their own. Inevitably, they are in search of an ending. That search for an ending constitutes the process of our storytelling with respect to  both the parts (phases, episodes, stages, chapter) and the whole of a story. Turning points, conversions, and shifts of the storyteller’s horizon represent endings and new beginning within the whole process of telling our story.        

Scripture and Tradition: Remembering God’s Promises

The religious tradition of Israel is the historical context for Jesus’ self-understanding, and for that of his community of Christian faith. Jesus interprets his life story and mission within the context of that tradition as the fulfillment of both God’s promise to Abraham, and of the messianic expectations of Israel’s prophets. Christian biblical writers employed the Jewish biblical writings to explain the meaning and mission of Jesus and his community of faith. In Matthew’s Gospel, for example, Jesus is understood as the New Moses of the New Israel.

Mark’s Gospel is called “The beginning of the story of how Jesus Christ, the Son of God, brought the good news to humankind” (Mk 1:1), with the implication that the story is still in process of being told by those who accept it as their own; that the story has not yet reached its conclusion or ultimate fulfillment. The story that God has begun in Jesus Christ and his Church culminates with the fulfillment of the universal story and the resurrection of the just.

If a past-less future means a groundless hope, remembering God’s promises grounds our Christian hope. God, our ultimate past and our ultimate future, is the ground of our hope. Remembering God’s promises anticipates their fulfillment.

The present is the dynamic of the past (traditions, understandings, decisions and judgments, thrusting or tending towards the future. There is an entelechy—an inherent and form-giving cause of direction—directing force that models and patterns existence. Ideas, hopes, dreams, and aspirations witness to its efficacy. The past is not passé: it is the shape of the present, this historical and biological effect of the historical and biological past. The past is the human equipment (traditions) for present judgment, decision, and action. What we find in the past, anticipates what we shall find in the future. A meaningless and absurd past anticipates a meaningless and absurd future; a significant past anticipates a meaningful future. Our moral and intellectual habits witness the force of the past giving shape to the present. Our quest for excellence inevitably occurs within the context of traditions—social, cultural, intellectual, moral and religious—that provides the resources for human development and civilization.

Scripture and tradition assure us that God is faithful to his promises. God is reliable, trustworthy, and responsible; he remembers his commitments. Human existence, development, and fulfillment evidence God’s remembering his promises. The pedagogy of the Church, in the service of ongoing Christian conversion, teaches us that to become the friends of God, living in his Spirit, we must share his trustworthiness, reliability, and fidelity. The community of faith teaches us to pray for the Spirit of the Father and the Son in whose love we can overcome our proclivity to the un-love of irresponsibility, untrustworthiness, infidelity and aimlessness: God’s fidelity overcomes our infidelity. It teaches us to thank God for the gift of the remembering and reminding Spirit of his incarnate Word and perfect image, Jesus Christ, the epitome of divine and human communion.

The New Testament writers depict the community’s response to the call of God, in Jesus Christ, as a life-long Spirit-guided journey, inspired with the confidence recalling the words of the psalmist: “You will show me the path of life, the fullness of joy in your presence, at your right hand happiness forever” (Ps 6:11).

Fr. John Navone, SJ About Fr. John Navone, SJ

Fr. John Navone is an emeritus professor of theology at the "Gregrorian" in Rome, the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he taught from 1967–2010. He is now at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. Pope Francis acknowledged the impact of Fr. Navone's "theology of failure" on his thought in his interview with S. Rubin and E.F. Ambrogetti, Il Nuovo Papa Si Racconta, Milano, Salani Editore, p. 65. Articles published March 29th in both Italy’s Corriere della Sera and Il Foglio also made note of it. Pope Francis had read the book in the Italian translation, La teologia del fallimento, Paoline, 1978). Navone is the author of more than twenty-five books; his most recent is Atheism Today: A Christian Response (2012).