The Church, the Mother of Memory

When Mary and Joseph found Jesus in the temple discussing with the elders the ancient law of Israel, they did not understand what they had seen, nor what He meant when He said, “Did you not know that I must be about my father’s business?” Yet we are told that His mother “kept all these sayings in her heart.” It was more than that she could recall them if asked. A computer stores bits of data electronically; man, even forgetful man, does infinitely more. She treasured that moment, she pondered it, she searched out its meaning, or she waited patiently for its meaning to be revealed to her. She did what the Psalmist rejoices in doing, as he cries out, “O how I love thy law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps 118:97).
Mary was no theologian. She was better than that. She pondered upon the life and the person of her Son; she received what truth might be given to her, in the fullness of time. She remembered, in the rich sense of the Latin word — for someone who is memor is mindful, allowing the truth to take root within. When the priest on Ash Wednesday says, “Remember, man, that thou art dust,” he is not asking us to recall a fact, or to compose an essay on what we can make of the punishment in Genesis. He is asking us to keep that truth in mind, to let it shape our comings and goings, to receive in gratitude the severe and salutary lessons it may come to teach us.
The Church herself, over all the centuries, has emulated the mindfulness of Mary. She returns to the words of Scripture, to the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, to the brave witness of her early saints, to the great Fathers and the creeds, to the incisive theologians of the middle ages, even to poets and painters and half-mad mystics to ask, again and again, the question the apostles asked in wonder: “What can this mean?” That is not to say that she rebuilds her theology anew with every age. She is confident that what has been revealed can never be retracted; but also that the Truth is like an infinite sea of ever profounder and more glorious beauty. She ponders, she waits; and because she remembers and ponders, she is ever old and ever new.
I have said in previous essays that we postmodern men have lost a sense of culture. We are the prisoners of noise — not, let’s say, the boisterous cries of men on a fishing boat, doing what their fathers had done before them, and doing it in an earthy and healthy and human way. The noise that afflicts us also isolates us one from another and each of us from the ground of our being. We never hear the still small voice: the blitz of lights and busy-making and unceasing news prevent it. We turn even the past into a political agent, whose electoral numbers are tallied up on the ticker at the bottom of a screen, after the football scores. We hardly remember how to pray, because we hardly remember what it is to remember, and we look with smug contempt upon those who do remember a little.
The Church has the promise that Christ will never forget her; therefore the Church herself will never be lost to forgetfulness. From her, then, we may learn again how to have a culture, which means no less than how to be fully human, dwelling in time past and present and to come.
Consider, for example, the words to a magnificent piece of polyphony by one Felice Anerio, a protégé of the great Palestrina. I will translate them from the Latin:
Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened, and I will give you refreshment, says the Lord. The bread which I will give you is my flesh for the life of the world. Take and eat: This is my Body, which will be given up for you. Do this in remembrance of me. He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.
I have no idea whether Signore Anerio was an amateur theologian. The point is that, dwelling in a culture, inheriting centuries of meditation upon the words of Jesus, he did not have to be. He has sewn together, in one striking yet seemingly artless paragraph, two separate verses from the Gospel of John and a verse from 1 Corinthians, and placed them after a verse from Matthew that, in context, appears to have nothing to do with the Eucharist at all. That verse ends with the Latin refrigerium, usually and appropriately translated as “rest.” But Anerio provides it with a different context. What is that refrigerium that Jesus promises to those who learn from Him?
The verses that follow tell us, picking up the metaphor hidden in refrigerium, of restoring one’s strength by food and drink. The restorative will be Christ Himself, His flesh and blood, given for the life of the world. We labor, but achieve nothing by it; let us rest, then, and Christ will bring us health by His labor. All we need to do is to unite ourselves with Him, spiritually and physically, in the miracle of grace that is the Eucharist. Then, as the hymn reminds us, unfolding to its magnificent climax, we will abide in Him, and He in us.
There is nothing of the narcissist in those lyrics; what we find is a calm receptivity to the word of God, a receptivity that is not slavish but humble, and therefore exalted. That receptivity is the lifeblood of culture. For consider how many things made the writing of this hymn possible: Anerio had learned the art of polyphony as a boy, singing in the choir led by Palestrina, the man who became his teacher. Such choirs were to be found everywhere in Europe, for hundreds of years; the polyphony that they developed, and whose excesses Palestrina had to restrain for the sake of the liturgy, was as subtle as any form of art we have known since, and yet mere boys, many thousands of them on a given Sunday, made that art real for the ordinary people at Mass. As for the lyrics, they presuppose a theology at once profound and, as it were, easy of access. Anerio did not need a course at a university to conceive of that juxtaposition of verses, and the people who heard them did not need one to understand why he had done it.
Outside of the Church, we have nothing comparable now. Within the Church, we do. But it is often relegated to an ecclesial basement. More next month on one most precious thing to be found there: the art of praying.

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • Deal Hudson

    Thanks for bring the composer Palestrina into the conversation on Inside Catholic. His motet “Sicut Cervus” is surely among the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. I hope you will write a column sometime on the challenge issued to Palestrina by Pope Marcellus, to write a polyphonic setting of the Mass in which all the words could be heard clearly. Polyphony, as you know, had gotten a bit out of control, with the many contrasting melodic lines blurring sounds of the words, e.g. Tallis’s “Spem in Allium” (I cite this an example of polyphonic complexity, not sure about the date in relation to Palestrina).

  • Scott Johnston

    Thank you for this article, Dr. Esolen.

    “Remembering” is surely a vital core of what an authentically human culture does.

    Your point about the composer who could tap into deep veins of meaning through a careful yet not overwrought juxtaposition of Sacred Scripture (without having to be a formally trained Scripture specialist) is helpful. I suppose it is the living memory of the Church, woven into Christian culture, whose spiritual significance inspires artists and is that without which such a work of art as you mention is not likely to have been made.

    It seems to me that the decline of the presence of a living Christian memory in our culture has had a degrading effect on theology itself. It is puzzling and unfortunate to witness theologians, with many years of study, decline to attempt any serious exposition of Sacred Scripture primarily on the grounds that they are not Biblical scholars (i.e. expert in ancient biblical languages and knowledgeable in the latest methods and theories of hermeneutics). Sometimes one is prompted to wonder how it became standard that a Catholic academic would presume he has no business attempting any significant reflection upon Scripture unless in possession of specialized training in Scripture studies. Now, contemporary Biblical scholarship certainly does provide very helpful and important advances that benefit the Christian community. But, it seems things are not as they should be when only a relatively few specialists are given any particular deference by Catholic academics at large when it comes to interpreting Scripture.

    I think there are glimmers of hope that this is slowly changing in a better direction. But, does this not raise a question for us: What is the best way in which Catholics might foster the growth of a culture in which Catholic theologians (and ordinary laymen) will not feel they are usurping some hidden and immutable cosmic plan if they are not always completely dependent on scriptural specialists as the sole wellspring from which they try to draw living waters from the Word of God?

    Perhaps this is a similar query, as I have heard others ask, as to why there seems to be no theologian-Saints in this day and age? So, how best to promote a culture that births theologian-saints who pray deeply, know the catechism, and also do theology? Maybe theologians (and all of us) should look more to Mary not only as their mother, but as their model for how to live with the Word of God? [Mary, who both breathed deeply of the spiritual riches of Judaism (especially through praying the Psalms), and embraced the living God-incarnate under her own roof].