Late summer has a particular scent to it. It’s a smell of a core of heat gone cold around the edges, of a fire ready to go to embers, of an aridity struggling to hang on before the rains come. It’s the smell of green leaves and dust, of hot ashes and warming homes, of new endings and old beginnings. That scent brings up many memories for me. I spent twenty falls in a classroom — returned to school at the end of summer for two-thirds of my life. So this smell reminds me of starting over, of friendship, of facing the unknown while working hard to bring it to light. Overall, it’s a series of happy memories, and so the end of summer brings a smile to my face.
Memories are powerful things. Our entire lives can be changed simply by how we remember things. A bad memory, true or false, can determine our attitude about practically anything, really. Grudges, after all, are nothing more than a set of negative emotions held together by memory of a real or perceived slight. We don’t patronize a store or a restaurant based on our recollection of how it was years ago, heedless of anything which may have changed in the interim since that memory was made. On a practical level, memory can make or break you; consider students studying for their exams or a businessman bucking for a promotion. Their faculty of recall, their ability to remember the pertinent data determines their success or failure.
Of course, our identity relies upon memory, too. It’s impossible to live in relationship with other people if we forget who we are, who they are, or how we’re to act towards each other. You can’t perform your job if you can’t remember how. Your past decides the future inasmuch as it made you the person you are as you face the years ahead of you. This is what makes Alzheimer’s Disease and amnesia in its various iterations so particularly insidious (and one of my worst fears). They erode who you are.
One shouldn’t confuse memory with personhood or intelligence, however. Even the amnesiac and the demented are beloved human beings, people made in the imago Dei, people receiving the love of God. They do not cease being human just because their memory fails. By contrast, those of superior memory are not superior humans. Our current society places a premium on raw knowledge. We often mistake knowledge for intelligence, though. Knowledge is not intelligence any more than ignorance is stupidity. Someone may be able to recite an encyclopedia without understanding a word of it. Data must be assimilated, processed, manipulated — and that requires an intelligence beyond a simple capacity for memory.
Having a fantastic memory can be a problem in many ways, too. Remembering every detail of everything makes it difficult to move beyond past hurts. The pain is always fresh, the sharpness never dulled by time. Instead such slights are fully relived and re-experienced at will, and sometimes involuntarily. On the flip side, good memories can become idols. The remembered past, regardless of the accuracy of the remembrance, becomes the goal, the objective for the future. This is the fatal flaw of Jay Gatsby, so astonished Nick Carraway should believe one can’t repeat the past. We can’t, of course. The past has passed, and we can’t hope to recover it. But when memory dominates, when we try to recreate it instead of moving forward in new directions, we turn the past into a god instead of letting God be sovereign over our past.
This power of memory appears as a common motif in Scripture. God casts our sins “into a sea of forgetfulness.” “Love keeps no record of wrongs.” God “remembers” His promises to and covenants with His people. But the greatest instance of memory comes in anamnesis, in enacted memory — the memory we experience each time we celebrate the Table. The Eucharist is the ultimate expression of memory. It is the perfect obedience to the command to remember Christ. The Great Thanksgiving calls to mind the mighty acts of God’s redemptive work in history, of His salvific deeds recorded throughout time. When we proclaim the death of Jesus in bread and wine — and true proclamation it is — we remember the sacrifice of our Lord at Calvary. What’s more: we recreate it in effigy, in symbol, breaking the bread of his body and pouring out the cup of his blood. This enactment (not reenactment, for we do not sacrifice Christ anew each Lord’s Day) of memory is the ultimate remembrance. Here we remember Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. Indeed, this shared memory, this common remembering, unites us to God and to each other — perhaps even for the first time.
Thus is the freedom and the tyranny of memory. The tyranny to unmake us, to hold us captive to the remembered past — and the freedom to recall and enact the gospel of Jesus Christ.