A Church of Memory

“He has remembered His promise of mercy,” sang Mary, in a rapture of praise as she greeted her cousin Elizabeth, “the promise He made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever” (Lk 1:54-55). “Remember me, Lord,” said the thief to Jesus, “when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42).
God sees all things in the still-present moment of his eternal being. “One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day,” says St. Peter, warning his fellow Christians not to expect Christ’s return to be imminent, and not to suppose that God has forgotten them (2 Pt 3:8). An infinite stretch of years backward and forward are less than a wink of an eye to the Lord, indeed are as absolutely nothing, since it is He who made time, and all its moments.
Then why should Scripture so often refer to God’s remembering His covenants? That is what the Baptist’s father, the priest Zechariah, says He has done (Lk. 1:72), when his mouth is opened after the naming of John. Appropriately so, since the name Zechariah means “God remembers.” So too the name of the prophet, who foretold the coming of the King who would fulfill all the covenants, riding into Jerusalem “upon a colt the foal of an ass” (Zech 9:9).
God remembers, but has never forgotten. Instead, this “memory” suggests a relationship God has never abandoned, even though man has abandoned himself to sin. God remembers us: He will not let us go. He will have justice from us, whether we like it or not. He will have mercy on us, whether we like it or not. We wish He would not be mindful of us — a wish that is at the heart of every sin, that we should be treated as the witless beasts. We want God to forget us, or at least to overlook us while we are sinning, because we do not want to be reminded of Him.
We want no Savior to warn us that the blood of all the prophets will be upon our generation, “from the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, which perished between the altar and the temple” (Lk 11:51), murdered by the Jews, because he told them what they did not want to hear, or reminded them of what they wanted to forget. To remember what we owe to God, and to our forefathers in the faith, is to set ourselves within the vast sweep of the history of salvation. It is to acknowledge centuries of blessing, without which we would be quite lost. It is to confess our ingratitude and our poor return on that kindness. It is to look forward, with that same thief, to the moment when Jesus may grace us with His memory — may say to us, “Come, blessed of my father!”
But what happens when all the currents of one’s day converge to destroy not our memory of this or that benefit, but memory itself? “History is bunk,” said Henry Ford, as he set about destroying a way of life that rewarded craftsmanship and thrift. “Education,” said the great American flattener of our schools, John Dewey, “[must] undermine and destroy the accumulated and self-perpetuating prejudices of long ages,” including, as far as he was concerned, the hoary old prejudices of religion. Neither Ford nor Dewey was much of a thinker. But we did not need them to tell us that we owed nothing to the past. We required no encouragement to forget. We have been doing that ever since Eve forgot the multitudinous blessings of God and ate of the single forbidden fruit.
We call it “cultural amnesia,” but the odd phrase already suggests how much we have forgotten. It might as well be called a living death, since to the extent that we have forgotten our past, we have no culture at all, amnesiac or otherwise. It is, I suppose, no surprise that a consumer anti-culture, ever on the lookout for the next ephemeral fad, should so detach itself from time and its claims and duties. But how on earth could the Catholic Church have done so?
Take Ford’s quote, and replace “history” with “tradition,” or “the faith expressed in the first creeds,” or “the piety of past ages of Catholics,” and you express the sentiment of any number of Catholics, lay and clergy. Do something similar with Dewey’s challenge: Tack on the name of a chancery director of religious education, and see if the result raises an eyebrow. So thoroughly have we committed ourselves to amnesia that we now hug ourselves for our betrayal of our heritage, as if it were a virtue.
There is no culture without memory. If you do not pass along, from generation to generation, the skills you ply, the truths you revere, the laws you obey, and the feasts you celebrate, you have no culture, but what Romano Guardini called “mass man,” thrall to the central marketers and manipulators.
So too, without memory, you have no Church. You may have thousands thronging the coffee shops at Willow Creek, in the market for the latest therapeutic Jesus promo. You may have 20 people in a little niche chapel in the country, where Pastor Joanne turns Christianity into chicken soup for old ladies. But you have no Church. That is because you have severed yourself from those who came before you, to whom you acknowledge no debt; from those among whom you live now, since you have substituted your personal predilections for the unity-making tenets of the faith; and from those who will come after you, who will follow your own example and forget you, as you have forgotten your fathers.
I stand in the faith of Augustine and Aquinas, not simply because I have been persuaded that they are correct, but because I owe them my allegiance. They are my fathers. I stand in the faith of Lawrence the Deacon, not simply because I admire his brave martyrdom, but because his witness has played its part in God’s design, making possible the conversion of all nations. He too is my father. I stand in the faith of Pope Benedict XVI, not simply because he is the wisest man alive, but because I accept the promise of Christ, that He would send His Church the Comforter, who would teach us all that it behooves us to know. I try, and God knows how often I fail, to remember, to be a loyal son of the Church, because my Savior Himself, knowing how inattentive and vain and forgetful we are, so commanded us all at that first Eucharist.
Said He, looking round upon those twelve who were, otherwise, but men of the passing day, “Do this in memory of me.”

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Anthony Esolen is the author or translator of 28 books, most recently In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John (Angelico Press), No Apologies: How Civilization Depends upon the Strength of Men (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord, a book-length poem made up of 100 poems centered on the life of Christ. He has also begun a web magazine called Word and Song, on classic hymns, poetry, language, and film. He is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts.

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