In Remembrance of Me: A Meditation on Human Memory and the Deepest Things

In Remembrance of Me: A Meditation on Human Memory and the Deepest Things March 31, 2016

Eating the living germs of grasses
Eating the ova of large birds
the fleshy sweetness packed
around the sperm of swaying trees
The muscles of the flanks and thighs of
soft-voiced cows

the bounce in the lamb’s leap
the swish in the ox’s tail
Eating roots grown swoll
inside the soil
Drawing on life of living
clustered points of light spun
out of space
hidden in the grape.
Eating each other’s seed
ah, each other.
Kissing the lover in the mouth of bread:
lip to lip.

Gary Snyder

As it happens it was on this day in 1717 that Benjamin Hoadly, the Anglican bishop of Bangor preached his famous sermon before the king, George the 1st, and a small group of courtiers. The sermon was basically a response to another Anglican divine George Hikes, who had posthumously published the “Constitution of the Catholic Church, and the Nature and Consequences of Schism.”

All of this was pretty inside baseball for Anglicans and very much a manifestation their spiritual tension living as both Catholic and Protestant. The bishop’s rejoinder to Father Hikes was a full on broadside in defense of Erastianism, asserting that the church has no worldly authority, at all. Now, while this could be a heartfelt theological principal, that it was preached to a king could also be seen as, well, as convenient.

Small wonder that Queen Anne was said to have remarked that the bishop would be an ideal candidate for archbishop of Canterbury, if only he were a Christian.

Me, I’m more interested in his eucharistic theology, something I stumbled upon in my seminary years, and which I found compelling. The good bishop explored the value of the rite of communion as a purely human ritual, without any need for appeal to divine intervention. For Bishop Hoadly the communion was a celebration of the power and beauty of human memory.

No doubt our human minds and hearts are complex things. Events happen and we order them, we give them meanings. At the very center of this is the mystery of our human memory. What we give our attention to and how we shape it creates the narratives of our lives, tells us where we come from and points to where we can go.

An example. My people are the Irish. While my direct ancestors came here at the turn of the last century almost certainly fleeing poverty, the majority of my people came to this nation fifty years earlier, fleeing something even worse, the great hunger. There’s a memory. Fleeing horrors, we came to a country that was reluctant to accept us. Within the mad rush forward of course we wove stories about ourselves. Some of these were useful, others, not so much. For many the stories were little more than maudlin inspirations for tin-pan alley. Green beer once a year is a sorry remembrance of a lost nation.

Other memories were of past deprivation and oppression and out of those came dreams of new hope and possibility. Irish Americans are second to none in our patriotic fervor for our adopted nation and the opportunities we claimed. And, and this is an important point. What we weave together as our stories are always mix of truth and fantasy. And what we deny or forget may be just as influential on future events as that which we remember.

Which raises the other issue for us to struggle with, also deeply connected to memory. That is place. What is home? Where is home? In addition to those more ancient homelands, do you come from the rocky soil of New England? Perhaps the plains of the Midwest? Or, like me, here where I call the “true West,” with its teeming cities clinging to rugged coasts, high mountains in the distance, and a moderate climate? For each of us, no matter how far away our lives may take us, these places have a permanent part in our hearts, and of who we are.

And, in that sense of where we come from, we also have that ancestral homeland. Germany? England? China? Japan? Armenia? And what if our ancestors were kidnapped? Where in Africa? Where? Or, what if you know, but if you go to that place and there are only a few stones piled upon each other for you to touch and to recall how your people were shaped, and lived? What if that homeland is now a place where the songs of your ancestors are no longer sung? I think of the native peoples of this continent.

And, this is the greatest mystery of it all, the one that must inform every other thought we have: at some point we’re all connected, deeply, truly. One family. We are all bound up in these acts of memory and loss, of place loved and taken. These are not empty words: the harm done one, is harm done to all. If we hope to act with grace in this world, if we hope for peace in our own lives, for joy, for authenticity, we need to remember all this; and we need a place to put our feet.

So, back to memory. Back to the power of presence.

People often, I believe, misunderstand the call to presence, to notice this place, to stand here. A person who cannot take memory into this moment is not fully present. And, that’s not the end of it, either. We need to have the cascade of hopes and fears for the future living in our hearts, as well.

This is how it can be so complicated. The one hundred and thirty-seventh psalm, so lovely, so compelling in its dream of captivity and longing for home, has a line at the end, of wish for vengeance on the captors so terrible that it is always cut from the reading. I suggest turning away even from these dark dreams of vengeance is a mistake. We need all of it.

If there is no memory, and no thought of the future, then there is no present. Not really. Not in a way that counts. Not in a way that allows the pregnant possibility of our existence to come forth. And living into that possibility is the task at hand. What does it mean to live full, to be fully present?

With that there is something powerful in the rite of communion. And small wonder people have all sorts of ideas about what it means. What we have is a meal. Probably the first communion was a Passover meal. I believe so, although there are good arguments against that view. But even if not directly a Passover service, the fact of a sacred meal at Passover no doubt is the indirect if not direct ancestor of the ritual. And, a sacred meal is in fact much older and vastly more common than the Jewish celebration.

Really. It’s a human thing, to eat and notice the holy.

And for me the secret sauce is our human memory. At least in that way the good bishop was right. We recall the meals of our lives. We recall, perhaps, when we didn’t eat. We recall the joys and the sorrows at those, hopefully many meals we have eaten.

They are all captured, past, and present, and future, in a few minutes of shared time and food and drink.

And, this is important, company. A mistake I think in some Christian communities is the solitary celebration of communion by a priest. This meal is meant to be shared.

Here our sacred individuality and the reality of our interdependence is fully presented.

All we need is to join with others, share food and drink, and recall. To do this is to open our minds and our hearts, and be present to what is.

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