by Jill Baker.
Over this coming weekend we are called upon, nationally and in churches, to remember – specifically to remember those who sacrificed their lives in war. The idea is that by remembering ‘the fallen’ – by name or as unknown human beings – we somehow give lasting value to their sacrifice – their death is not in vain. Such an understanding, lodged as it is in the national subconscious, gives huge significance to the act of remembering, to our powers of memory.
Memory is a powerful force – memory can bring us to tears, make us laugh, fill us with anger, or love, or passion. Memory can significantly affect the way we deal with the here and now – indeed, that is part of its purpose. Any child who remembers how it felt to touch the cooker will make sure they don’t go so close again.
In the excellent book “Play It Again”, Alan Rusbridger,[i] former editor of the Guardian and a competent amateur pianist, describes the year in which he made it his goal to commit to memory Chopin’s (demanding) Ballade No. 1 and perform it. The book contains a fascinating chapter on memory which suggests that, whilst it had been thought for many years that musicians were people who naturally had good memories, further research now indicates that it is the other way round; that musicians develop good memories by using that part of their brain more vigorously than many of us. Memory as a muscle to be exercised is a captivating thought.
Memory plays a significant part in faith too. In church life, memory can work both for and against us – it can be positive, it can be negative. It is to the institutional Church’s lasting shame that there are many who have experienced discrimination, trauma and even abuse within the life of the Church, and whose memories are consequently tarnished and damaged. As well as doing all we can to provide a safe future in our churches, there is also work to be done in the realms of the healing of memory.
Others may have very happy memories of earlier days growing in faith as we grew to maturity in the church, but if memory leans too far toward nostalgia, it can also hold us back. We remember days when pews were packed, Sunday Schools were overflowing and, as Colin Morris put it once in an Advent sermon, “mighty preachers stormed our pulpits.” Looking back, especially if the looking back is through rose-tinted glasses, can prevent us from finding the path to the future. “Remember Lot’s wife,” as Jesus declares in Luke 17:32.
That particular bible story, from Genesis… is the subject of one chapter of “The Shattering of Loneliness; On Christian Remembrance” by Erik Varden.[ii] Varden is a native of Norway, now Abbot of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire and a member of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (OCSO). As well as the instruction of Jesus to remember Lot’s wife, the other chapters are explorations of five other Biblical charges to remember; ‘Remember you are dust’ (Genesis 3:19); ‘Remember you were a slave in Egypt’ (Deuteronomy 5:15); ‘Do this in memory of me’ (Matthew 18:22), ‘The counsellor will call everything to mind’ (John 14:26) and ‘Beware lest you forget the Lord’ (Deuteronomy 6:12). I recommend the book warmly. As the title perhaps suggests, the basic premise of the book is to describe how, as we regain connection with our individual and faith-community memory – memory of who we are, of where we have come from, of how we have been loved – we will be able to counteract the aching loneliness which, in many guises, pervades the stories he tells and the experiences he shares.
Our developing understanding of dementia, where memory of how to behave and navigate the basic demands of life begins to fail, adds another layer to our gratitude for memory. Thankfully more churches are recognising the need to improve accessibility for those with memory loss.[iii]
Memory is a gift; a bewitching, sometimes troublesome, always fragile, often ephemeral gift. Memory can imprison us, but memory can also set us free. I finish with words from Erik Varden; ‘To remember, really remember, is to slip our moorings and set sail on the open sea, with all that entails of peril and exhilaration.’[iv]
[i] Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible Alan Rusbridger, published by Jonathan Cape 2013
[ii] The Shattering of Loneliness: On Christian Remembrance Erik Varden, published by Bloomsbury Continuum 2018.
[iv] The Shattering of Loneliness: On Christian Remembrance Erik Varden, published by Bloomsbury Continuum 2018. p11