RC Diocese of Aberdeen

Memoria Dei

Talk to the Religious of the Diocese.

I’d like to talk about the memory of God. It is a great theme. God remembers and so do we. So, memory is a place where we and God can meet. As consecrated persons we are called in an especial way to remember God, even to be a living memoria Dei. It’s a theme that branches out in many directions.

I

If we were asked what memory is, we’d instinctively say it’s our capacity to remember information and experiences. We’d picture memory as a kind of pot or cupboard or storeroom where different items are kept (or lost) and can be brought out again. A monk I knew used to say, ‘my memory’s going, thank God’. But in fact that’s not a pleasant experience. I suppose if we completely lost our memory, we wouldn’t remember that we had, but the memory of once having known and now having forgotten is distressing. We put our hand in the pot and can’t find what we knew was once there. Memory is a complex thing.

According to Wikipedia, “Memory is the faculty of the mind by which information is encoded, stored, and retrieved”. That is the “pot” theory of memory. But memory is more than this. For example, I remember now what I mean to do tomorrow. Memory serves the future as well as the past. It connects them. It guarantees continuity. And so Augustine understood memory as the source of self-awareness. He called this memoria sui: the consciousness of personal identity. It is thanks to my memory, I know I’m me. I know that the person who went to school in Bangalore fifty years ago is the same person now having lunch in Casablanca. So, for St Augustine, memory is a fundamental faculty of our mind, our humanity. It’s the basis and the source of all else. It is to our life what God the Father is to the life of the Trinity: fons et origo.

So, here are two further images for memory: 1) a cord or string on which beads or jewels are strung together 2) a womb from which life springs.

II

But let’s turn to the Bible. Here, God is the first one with memory. God is the great remember-er. It’s true that there are times when God’s remembering is of the wicked to punish them (cf. Hos 7:2; 8:13 – though that, of course, is something far from simply negative; it’s the redressing of injustice. But again and again, God’s “remembering” is a prelude to something positively good. God ‘remembers and’ … blessing follows. ‘He remembers us, he will give us his blessing; he will bless the sons of Israel. He will bless the sons of Aaron’ (Ps 113:12). When the Flood destroys everything on the earth, God ‘remembers Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark’ (Gen 8:1), and so the Flood begins to abate. As Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed, ‘God remembered Abraham and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow’ (Gen 19:29). God remembers Rachel, Jacob’s wife and opens her womb (cf Gen 30:22). Later, in the same vein, the Lord remembers another childless woman, Hannah, and she conceives and bears a son and calls him Samuel (cf. I Sam 1:19-20). A prophet is born. We begin to see what creative power God’s memory has, what a force for good it is. When God remembers, we are blessed, we are rescued, we become fruitful. Above all, the God of the Bible remembers his covenant. ‘When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh, and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy’ (Gen 9:14-15). At the time of the Exodus, ‘God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites and he took notice of them’ (Ex 2:24-25). After the Exodus, in Leviticus ch. 26, God promises that, when the people repent of their sins, he will remember his covenant with their fathers, ‘and I will remember the land’ (Lev 26:42). ‘I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth’, the Lord says through Ezekiel (Ezek 16:60). ‘He remembers his covenant for ever, his promise for a thousand generations’, says the Psalmist (Ps 104:8). Man forgets, Israel forgets, but God remembers. ‘They forgot the greatness of your love’, says the Psalmist (Ps 105:7). ‘They forgot the God who was their saviour, who had done such great things in Egypt, such portents in the land of Ham, such marvels at the Red Sea’ (Ps 105:21-22). ‘They did not remember his deeds’ (Ps 77:42). ‘They forgot the things he had done’ (Ps 77:11). There is no end to the varieties of human forgetfulness. We can forget our true selves. We can forget what we owe to others. We can even, as in the life of St Josephine Bakhita, suffer such traumas that we forget our original name. We can lose awareness of our identity through dementia. We may feel God has forgotten us. We will be forgotten after our death. We may simply be eminently forgettable. But God remembers. ‘Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me’ (Is 49:14-16). There is something that touches our hearts here. God does not think us forgettable. God’s memory of us pre-dates us. It accompanies us. It will not leave us. It creates our past, our present and our future. It is thanks to the memory of God that we are, we exist. Because of the memoria Dei, there can be a memoria sui.

When we cross the threshold of the New Covenant, we see this divine remembering taking flesh in the person of Christ himself. He, his life, his memorial the Eucharist, his death, his risen-ness – he in his whole self is the effective sign, the sacrament, the assurance of God’s inability to forget us. The Son of God has united our humanity to himself for all eternity, remembering his covenant for ever. We have become unforgettable. ‘He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, mindful of his mercy’, says Mary (Lk 1:54). He has remembered his holy covenant, says Zechariah, ‘the mercy promised to our fathers…that free from fear and saved from the hand of our foes, we might serve him, in holiness and justice all the days of our life in his presence’ (Lk 72, 73-75). There is a fullness now.

On the basis of Scripture then, no wonder then that the praying Israelite so often asks the Lord to remember. ‘Remember your mercy, Lord, and the love you have shown from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth. In your love remember me’ (Ps 24:6-7). ‘Remember me and take care of me’, says Jeremiah (Jer 15:15). ‘Remember me and strengthen me,’ prays Samson (Judg 16:28). ‘Remember me, O Lord, I implore you’, begs Hezekiah in his illness (2 Kgs 20:3). So, heir to all this, the Church too, at the Eucharist, asks the Father to remember: ‘Remember, Lord, your Church, spread throughout the world, and bring her to the fullness of charity…Remember also our brothers and sisters who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection…welcome them into the light of your face’ (Eucharistic Prayer II). When we say or hear these words, let’s remember the full, pregnant content of God’s remembering: its full potential, its creativity, its transformative power. It’s not passive, it’s active and mightily so. Think of the ‘good thief’: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’, and of the Lord’s response: ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’ That’s the kind of thing that happens when the Lord remembers.

So, to say it again, what a beautiful thing God’s memory is, what a beautiful thing it is to be in God’s memory! It’s not a filing cabinet with one file among millions named me. It’s my creation and re-creation. St Augustine says that my memory of myself is, in a way, the source of my identity and my mental and spiritual life. But beyond that, and more all-encompassing, is God’s memory of me. It’s a kind of maternal and paternal, parental reality, that guarantees my existence and recreates it again and again. ‘What is man that you remember him, mortal man that you care for him?’ (Ps 8). We are so forgettable, and yet we’re remembered.

III

This leads on. We are created in the image and likeness of God. God’s remembering of us is to be reciprocated by our remembering of him. And so biblical man, the biblical person, ‘does’ memory. The wicked, by definition, do not think about doing mercy, take no thought for the poor, have no interest in wisdom. They are forgetful. But the wise person remembers their parents with gratitude (Sir 7:28; 23:14), remembers they themselves will die. ‘I remembered God with all my soul’, says Tobias (Tob 1:12). The person of faith remembers their Creator in the days of their youth and the story of God’s mercies. ‘My soul give thanks to the Lord and never forget all his blessings’ (Ps 102:2). And the biblical people Israel, especially in the book of Deuteronomy, is constantly summoned not to forget, to keep the fear of the Lord before her eyes, to remember: to remember her election, her liberation from Egypt, the way of life mapped out for her in the Law and the promise of the Land. She does this publicly and corporately in the liturgy, the annual Passover, for example, reminding her again and again of the Exodus from Egypt. ‘This day shall be a day of remembrance for you’ (Ex 12:14).

In the opening pages of the New Testament, Mary is shown as someone who remembers: ‘she kept all these things, pondering them in her heart’ (Lk 2:19, cf. Lk 2:51). But there are at least two interesting shifts in the New Testament. God’s active remembering, after the praise of Mary and Zechariah, is hardly mentioned. Why? Is it because God has now so surpassingly remembered? And secondly, the ‘memory of God’ becomes a ‘memory of Christ’. So, before his Passion, the last command Jesus gives his disciples is to do the Eucharist ‘in memory’. His last command to us is ‘to remember’, and specifically to remember him: ‘Do this in memory of me’. ‘Remember Jesus Christ, St Paul tells Timothy, risen from the dead, descended from David, as preached in my gospel’ (1 Tim 2:8). According to the Gospel of John, the function of the Holy Spirit is to teach the disciples ‘all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you’ (Jn 14:26). When Christ rises from the dead, his disciples ‘remember’ what he has said (e.g. Jn 2:22). The angel reminds the women at the empty tomb that Jesus had predicted he would die and rise. ‘And they remembered his words’ (Lk 24:8). From the New Testament, a pattern emerges: God the Father wishes his Son to be remembered and sends the Holy Spirit that he may be. The object of memory is Christ, the agent the Holy Spirit. He is the Church’s memory.

Nor does New Testament remembering end there. In the light of Christ, it expands. Converted Gentiles should remember what life was like ‘without Christ’ (Eph 2:11); this helps them to be faithful. The recipients of the Letter to the Hebrews are encouraged to ‘recall’ the suffering they endured for being Christian, and so restore their confidence and capacity to endure (cf. Heb 10: 32-36). Disciples should remember one another in prayer; St Paul excels at this. They should ‘remember the poor’ (Gal 2:10), remember their fellow-Christians in prison and those being ill-treated (Heb 13:3). They should remember their leaders, ‘those who spoke to you the word of God’ (Heb 13:7). None of this means merely ‘recall’; it means take steps, take care, just as God’s remembering is not passive, but active and beneficent. Indeed, the first task of the Christian community in the world is precisely to remember, to remember Christ’s words, Christ’s death and resurrection, and to keep that memory alive in the world – ‘lest we forget’, so we know we are not forgotten. This why she reads and comments on the Scriptures, why she celebrates the Eucharist, why she tries to embody the charity of Christ: it is all to keep his memory alive, to stir the human memory into life. This is why the summit and source of the Christian life is the celebration of the Eucharist: it’s the memorial of the new Covenant.

“We must show people the beauty of memory, the power that comes to us from the Spirit and makes us witnesses because we are children of witnesses; we must make them taste the wonderful things the Spirit has wrought in history; we must show that it is precisely Tradition which has preserved them, thus giving hope to those who, even without seeing their efforts to do good crowned by success, know that someone else will bring them to fulfillment; therefore man will feel less alone, less enclosed in the narrow corner of his own individual achievement” (St John Paul II, Orientale Lumen, 1995, n.8).

IV

How might this affect our own lives?

In the belly of the whale, Jonah prayed: ‘When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord’ (Jon 2:7). That is the spiritual life, surely: a pattern of fainting and remembering, falling and rising.

The early monks and nuns took to heart what Tobit said to Tobias: ‘Remember the Lord your God all your days, my son’ (Tob 4:5).

The ‘memory of God’ became a central concern of the monastic life. It was really a definition of prayer. We know how popular ‘mindfulness’ has become as a practice and a therapy. But the monks were there first and with clear ideas.

Allow me just some quotations:

According to St Gregory of Sinai (14th c.), the commandment to ‘remember God at all times’ is the first commandment and what helps us keep all the others.

According to St Benedict, mindfulness of God also comes first. It is the first step on the twelve-runged ladder of humility. The monk should ‘completely flee forgetfulness’, be ‘always mindful of God’s commandments.’ This keeps us from sin and makes us whole.

So, says Ps-Macarius, ‘a Christian should always conserve the memory of God, because he or she should love God not only in church, but also while walking, speaking and eating.’ So life is unified and everything is Eucharist.

According to the contemporary Rule of the Community of Jerusalem (57), ‘Aim at living perpetually mindful of God in the light of his presence with a burning desire to meet him, gladly giving up anything that could separate you from him so that you can repeat: I kept God in mind and was filled with joy.’

For St Basil, we come to a lived union with God through a sequence of reading and studying Scripture, then praying. Praying, in turn, ‘has the effect of engendering in the soul a vivid awareness of God’, that is, of God dwelling within us. And this leads to a continual remembrance of him, ‘his shrine set up within us’. ‘In this way we become temples of God, whenever the cares of this life stop interrupting our continual memory of him and whenever unexpected passions stop harrying our souls’ (Letter 2). In other words, the memory of God becomes the inner ‘default position’, the ‘screensaver’ that reappears when we are not surfing other things. So, he says, ‘we want, with a continual pure memory to carry the thought of God with us imprinted on our souls, like an indelible seal’ (St Basil LR 8).

For the monastics, the memory of God means familiarity with Scripture. It means remembering the commandments, death, judgement, hell and heaven – the last things. If we have a particular responsibility in a community, it means remembering that. For St Benedict, the abbot should always remember what he is called and what he is. He must remember he will have to account to God for everything he says and does in regard to the brethren. He should be someone who constantly remembers, thinks, considers – a thoughtful, reflective person with a deep sense of accountability. Memory leads to care.

For the monastics, most of all, the memory of God is the memory of Christ. He/she carries the Gospels with him, perhaps literally. He is mindful of the passion of his Lord. She prays his name constantly. He is aware of his inner presence and prostrates before it, always asking for mercy. She longs ‘to see the King in his beauty’. He yearns for Christ to come again. So, anamnesis becomes epiclesis and faith hope.

Why are we encouraged by our Constitutions to pray, to read Scripture, to take part in the Eucharist, to spend time in Adoration, to open our hearts in the Sacrament of Penance? Isn’t all for the sake of a living memory?

V

It would be good to look at the teaching of the Church on the consecrated life – in Vatican II and Pope John Paul’s Vita Consecrata – and trace the theme of memory there. In our own traditions too. What are we called to remember? Can we even say that we are called to be memoriae Dei ourselves? There would be much to explore here.

VI

One last thought, though, concerns our pastoral, apostolic life, our work with others. Isn’t it our hope to touch people’s memories, perhaps to remind them of what they already know but have forgotten? More specifically, don’t we want to leave people with good memories? This might sound banal or self-centred. But perhaps it need not be. We are not immortal. One day we will no longer be here, or before we die we will move somewhere else. We will pass into memory and only probably for a little time. We will forget others too. But ‘memory’ might be a good place to be. And it is not so much memory of ourselves, but the fragrance of Christ. We must be attentive here. When someone comes to see me and then leaves, what do they carry away? Will they remember good things from their encounters with me? From our liturgies? From our communities? Will they have had, consciously or unconsciously, now or later, a taste of Christ? Recently, I had two experiences of NHS health professionals. They could not have done their jobs more courteously, more considerately, more competently. I went away very impressed, with something fine to remember. Fr Bill Anderson died recently. No-one – absolutely no-one – has spoken ill of him. Memories of him were universally good. I remember my own parish priest of yore. He died in 1982. Between 1971 and 1974 I met him often. Now, those memories are beautiful. They are quite transfigured, and full of Christ. And I long to see the dear man again. We know people can have had bad experiences of Catholic institutions, of religious, of priests, sometimes wounding and embittering whole lives. But cannot the opposite be true? Could this be an intention in our pastoral work and encounters: to leave a good memory, of human goodness, of ‘the Church’ (as people say) and above all of Christ? I wonder if, ‘do this in memory of me’ (literally: ‘for a memory of me’), has a meaning here too.

VII

I’d like to end with something from the last chapter of Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov. His greatest novel, certainly, though its last chapter is not always thought its greatest! It seems an anti-climax. However… Alyosha, one of the three brothers, a monk at heart, a mystic in the world, has made friends with some boys. One of their number has just died, of consumption, Ilyusha. The other boys were cruel to him before he fell finally ill. They threw stones at him, mocked at him, laughed at his father. But with his illness and then his death, and under the influence of Alyosha, a change has come over the boys. A kindness, a thoughtfulness has come to birth within them. Now, it’s the day of his funeral, and Alyosha is walking with them afterwards from the church to the place of the meal. They pass a large stone beside the road, the favourite place of the boy who has died. Alyosha suddenly stops the boys and speaks to them. I’ll end with this and let the passage speak for itself.

“Boys, I should like to say one word to you, here at this place.”
The boys stood round him and at once bent attentive and expectant eyes upon him.

“Boys, we shall soon part. I shall be for some time with my two brothers, of whom one is going to Siberia and the other is lying at death’s door. But soon I shall leave this town, perhaps for a long time, so we shall part. Let us make a compact here, at Ilyusha’s stone, that we will never forget Ilyusha and one another. And whatever happens to us later in life, if we don’t meet for twenty years afterwards, let us always remember how we buried the poor boy at whom we once threw stones, do you remember, by the bridge? and afterwards we all grew so fond of him. He was a fine boy, a kind-hearted, brave boy, he felt for his father’s honor and resented the cruel insult to him and stood up for him. And so in the first place, we will remember him, boys, all our lives. And even if we are occupied with most important things, if we attain to honor or fall into great misfortune—still let us remember how good it was once here, when we were all together, united by a good and kind feeling which made us, for the time we were loving that poor boy, better perhaps than we are. My little doves—let me call you so, for you are very like them, those pretty blue birds, at this minute as I look at your good dear faces. My dear children, perhaps you won’t understand what I am saying to you, because I often speak very unintelligibly, but you’ll remember it all the same and will agree with my words some time. You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home. People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving us. Perhaps we may even grow wicked later on, may be unable to refrain from a bad action, may laugh at men’s tears and at those people who say as Kolya did just now, ‘I want to suffer for all men,’ and may even jeer spitefully at such people. But however bad we may become—which God forbid—yet, when we recall how we buried Ilyusha, how we loved him in his last days, and how we have been talking like friends all together, at this stone, the cruelest and most mocking of us—if we do become so—will not dare to laugh inwardly at having been kind and good at this moment! What’s more, perhaps, that one memory may keep him from great evil and he will reflect and say, ‘Yes, I was good and brave and honest then!’ Let him laugh to himself, that’s no matter, a man often laughs at what’s good and kind. That’s only from thoughtlessness. But I assure you, boys, that as he laughs he will say at once in his heart, ‘No, I do wrong to laugh, for that’s not a thing to laugh at.’ ”
“That will be so, I understand you, Karamazov!” cried Kolya, with flashing eyes.
The boys were excited and they, too, wanted to say something, but they restrained themselves, looking with intentness and emotion at the speaker.

“I say this in case we become bad,” Alyosha went on, “but there’s no reason why we should become bad, is there, boys? Let us be, first and above all, kind, then honest and then let us never forget each other! I say that again. I give you my word for my part that I’ll never forget one of you. Every face looking at me now I shall remember even for thirty years. Just now Kolya said to Kartashov that we did not care to know whether he exists or not. But I cannot forget that Kartashov exists and that he is not blushing now as he did when he discovered the founders of Troy, but is looking at me with his jolly, kind, dear little eyes. Boys, my dear boys, let us all be generous and brave like Ilyusha, clever, brave and generous like Kolya (though he will be ever so much cleverer when he is grown up), and let us all be as modest, as clever and sweet as Kartashov. But why am I talking about those two? You are all dear to me, boys, from this day forth, I have a place in my heart for you all, and I beg you to keep a place in your hearts for me! Well, and who has united us in this kind, good feeling which we shall remember and intend to remember all our lives? Who, if not Ilyusha, the good boy, the dear boy, precious to us for ever! Let us never forget him. May his memory live for ever in our hearts from this time forth!”

“Yes, yes, for ever, for ever!” the boys cried in their ringing voices, with softened faces.
“Let us remember his face and his clothes and his poor little boots, his coffin and his unhappy, sinful father, and how boldly he stood up for him alone against the whole school.”
“We will remember, we will remember,” cried the boys.
(From The Brothers Karamazov, Epilogue, Ch. 3).

(St Mary’s House, 2 February, 2018)