The idea of ‘memory’ has lost its vitality in our culture. This is not the loss of memory some people experience in old age, or the tendency to absent-mindedness that is common enough at any age. Rather, it is a triple loss: a loss of the sense of the past; a loss of symbolism; and a loss of humility. (The Heart’s Desire, James Houston, p. 20)
How prone we are to forget. And, of course, the more we forget the greater is our loss.
Now there is a kind of memory that is basically intellectual. I remember the name of a certain flower in my garden. I remember the alphabet – that ‘b’ comes after ‘a’ like ‘c’ comes after ‘b’. I remember the ‘times table’ – that six times seven is forty-two. I remember a poem I learned for a Christmas concert when I was young. I remember a Bible verse I learned in Sunday School. While it could be argued that such memories are intellectual by nature, it is interesting to note that we often refer to such memory as ‘knowing something by heart.’
However such talk is simply a leftover sentiment from the pre-modern era. Modernism has made memory almost entirely into an intellectual process. We remember like computers remember what is keyed into them – precise and specific information that can be pulled up at a moment’s notice to be used for some utilitarian purpose. The medieval idea of memory went much deeper than that. It meant bringing the thoughts of the mind into the heart so that they can change our lives. Theophan the Recluse articulated this idea as follows:
The principal thing is to stand before God with the intellect in the heart, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night, until the end of life.
James Houston suggests that our collective loss of memory in the modern era has affected us in at least three ways. First we have forgotten a sense of the past. While most of us don’t say it out loud, we agree with Henry Ford when he said that ‘history is bunk.’ In my many years of teaching Anabaptist History to first-year college students I recognized that I had to spend at least the first month of classes convincing students that knowing their past was important. Most came out of high school with a bias against history. Why? It seems it is a peculiar phenomenon of modernism that each generation tends to think of itself in isolation from past generations. We have basically become narcissistic – nothing of significance happened before I was born and what happens after I am gone won’t matter.
It is small wonder then that in the post-modern era we are beginning to rediscover the treasures of pre-modern times buried under modern rubble. It is encouraging to note that many Christians are rediscovering the flow of history from which they once were cut off. They are beginning to value the insights of spiritual leaders of by-gone eras – finding them relevant and dynamic on this side of modernism. Medieval mystics have awakened from their long sleep in the desert, as it were, and are making sense to many of us who sit amidst the debris of modernism. Even in our own lives, we are beginning to place more value on the memories of our own past – memories of joy, pain and God’s faithfulness. And the Bible is beginning to make more sense to some of us as a Book of Remembrance rather than a Book of Codes. If we don’t remember our past we always lose out.
Secondly Houston says that modernism has stolen our memory of the power of symbolism. In our quest for precision and factuality we have been duped into thinking that we can ‘get it all together’ and at least come close to pronouncing the final word on all things that are important to us. That is why symbolism has lost its power in the modern world. Symbolism points toward what is unseen – to something that is beyond description in an intellectual sense. Modernism is more comfortable with signs that inform the intellect. Signs provide precise information about what lies before us. But symbols are more nuanced and provide many levels of meaning, and thus are infinitely richer than informative signs can ever be.
Victor Hugo once observed that ‘In the Middle Ages men had no great thought that they did not write down in stone.’ Spending a week this past April in the context of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt helped to give me a better understanding of the power of symbolism. I saw first hand how symbolism that employs all the senses can speak powerfully to the heart. I will always remember that holy moment when water hurled from a balcony by a Coptic priest showered me and my palm weaving on Palm Sunday morning. One of the marks of the emerging post-modern church is a renewed appreciation for the power of symbolism.
And finally, Houston suggests that as moderns we have largely forgotten about humility. And whom shall we blame for this memory loss? The optimism of science simply transferred into the church by osmosis. And this optimism was expressed most profoundly perhaps in the triumphalism that emerged within Christianity. I imbibed some of this blinding pride in the early stretches of my journey of faith. While giving lip service to the concept of humility, it was quite common in the circles in which I moved to pontificate with absolute certainty about truth on every level – even though we had only been exposed to one view of reality.
When we forget about humility we take ourselves far too seriously. Medieval cathedrals had gargoyles on their roofs and carved into the ends of pews to remind worshipers how comical it is to take oneself too seriously. Malcolm Muggeridge once observed astutely that modern high-rise office buildings don’t have gargoyles – nor do moderns recognize the value of court jesters. Perhaps every church needs a congregational jester who keeps reminding us of the folly of human pride.
We have forgotten a lot in our long trek through the desert of modernity. It’s time we begin to remember again.