I have been musing about memory this week because I had a wonderful two days in Atlanta with my dad’s side of the family – all the cousins and their children. It was all a walk down memory lane especially with my cousin Frank. Although at times I wondered if we walked the same lane – but then he has had the advantage of all the things that can trigger memory: people, places, sights, sounds, smells, and all the rest. It did seem that the longer I was around the family, the more I recalled, and made more memory connections. More and more, a whole range of memories came to ready recall – out of storage somewhere in the misty past of memory.
Memory is an interesting thing. There are many physiological and psychological theories around the topic, but lots of folks seem to agree we have memory for facts and memory for context. Some time the memories are general and sometimes explicit. We tie memory to specific events, personal experiences, semantic categories and more. Then whatever the memory, we have to “register” the memory, store it and then recall it.
A recent study proposed there is a six-stage neuro-chemical process that has to occur for a memory to be registered and retained long-term. Part of that retention is connecting the memory to something specific or to your own semantic structure of remembrance. I always silently chuckle when someone asks me, “Father, do you remember your homily from five weeks ago?” I generally respond, “What did you find interesting about it?” as an alternative to the simple, “No.” There was something about the homily that for one listener that gave enough “energy” to satisfy the complex “registration” in longer term memory. Me? I “register” them on paper and long term store them on my computer because between now and 5 weeks ago are 20-30 other homilies from daily and Sunday masses.
Maybe I am a little fuzzy on homilies, but other memories are as clear and instantaneously present to me as they day they happened. But for lots of recall is just takes a while to access the memory, it takes the right “nudge” or catalyst, and then it can be retrieved. But one sometimes has to wonder if what we recall is quite right. I think we are a people who have remarkably fluid memories. Or perhaps we are a people who have remarkably creative memories. At times, we are a people who regularly skew our actual experience in favor of the stories we believe.
We hold memories about ourselves – and more than what we have done, who we know, places we have been. We hold memories of who we were, who we are, and those memories point to the future of who we are becoming. I think all here, including myself, would hold that we are good people, we are believing people, that we love God. I think all here would want other people’s memory about us and our lives to be consistent with our own perception – our own memory. It is not just that we want people to think well of us; we want people to think well of us, because we are in fact “good people” through whom the love of God is evident and enters into the world. We want actual their experience of us to match our memories.
I have heard the Gospel described as the living and dangerous memory of a believing community. The memory of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for our salvation. In the core of today’s gospel is that most dangerous part passed on to us through generations “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, … Whoever does not love me does not keep my words” (John 14:23, 24). And we are called to delve into our real and creative memory to ask: “Have I kept his word?”
Too often we simply understand “keep” as “obey.” But how is love and keeping his word connected? When the gospel says “keep” a good paraphrase of this word is “hold dear.” Because we love Jesus we hold his word dear. But… we hold Jesus dear because we keep his word. It is like two sides of a coin – inseparable and rightly together.
The dangerous memory shows Jesus keeping the word of the Father. Jesus gave his life for people. He served people. He helped people. He healed people. He fed people. He liberated people. He taught people. He encouraged people. He blessed people. He prayed for people. He felt compassion for people. He forgave people. He resisted evil for people. He laid down his life in love for everyone and he says to us, “Now you go and do the same thing. Love others as I have loved you.” There it is…. The word to which we are to hold dear. The memory we are to live and become.
The moments when we serve, help, heal, feed, liberate, teach, encourage, bless, prayer, forgive and more – because we hold these actions and these people dear – all because we hold dear Jesus the one who gave the Word, who lived the Word, who is the very Word of God. That should be our life…and so I pause to remember…. Is this actually my life or a remarkably creative memory of my life? Perhaps I am not as good as I remember… and maybe I never was.
But I can be as good as I am called to be all in the grace of God, and with the help of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will come to teach us everything Jesus has taught and to remind us. To remind us, to heal and correct our memories, to re-instill in us that dangerous memory, that dangerous Word that changes lives and heals lives.
Memories are a tricky thing. But the love of God and his Word are steadfast and true. That is what I try to recall – and in recalling to live and become the dangerous memory.