With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Eternal Memory

Eternal memory. Eternal memory. Grant, 0 Lord, to Your servant blessed repose and eternal memory.
In the Byzantine tradition, both funeral services and memorial services for the dead, except during the Paschal season, end with prayers asking for the deceased to be in God’s eternal memory. For many unfamiliar with this tradition, this request might seem strange. Is it possible for an omniscient God to forget someone?

The problem lies with the way we understand memory. For us, memory is merely the mental recollection of a phenomenon we have previously experienced. To remember someone is to think about them, bringing to mind whatever qualities and characteristics which we associate with their being. We might ponder the way they looked, how they used to act, or some spectacular deed they did. Yet, there are always aspects we forget. Memory is an imperfect mental reconstruction of the past which is now non-existent. Once a moment of time has past, it is gone. Only the now is real. Thinking about the past does not make it come back to life.

While a reflection of people, places and things which once existed in the past is indeed a part of the process of memory, to consider memory solely in this fashion is not to understand what the ancient world, and therefore the authors of Scripture (and their heirs who developed the Christian liturgical tradition), meant by it. Memory was an act of presence: to be in God’s memory was to be present with God. Those who remembered you preserved your presence on the earth. It was a great blessing to be remembered, because while someone remembered who you were, you continued to live. To be forgotten was to perish. “The memory of the righteous is a blessing, but the name of the wicked will rot” (Proverbs 10:7, NRSV). When God remembers someone, he preserves them. “But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark” (Genesis 8:1). When God remembers a covenant, he acts upon it, doing whatever is necessary to keep it intact. “After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites and God took notice of them” (Exodus 2:23-25). In the Torah, we find the blotting out of one’s memory to be God’s greatest curse. When Israel was attacked by Amalek, God’s response was to say, “I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven” (Exodus 17:14b).

The Torah calls us to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. It is not a command to merely reflect upon some past Sabbath day, it is a call to re-experience the holiness of the Sabbath each and every Sabbath. When the Passover was celebrated by the Israelites, it was understood that they were re-experiencing the original Passover.

We can understand many of the words of the prophets in this context. Recognizing Israel’s apostasy, they asked God to remember his covenant with the patriarchs. “We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord, the iniquities of our ancestors, for we have sinned against you. Do not spurn us, for your name’s sake; do not dishonor your glorious throne; remember and do not break your covenant with us” (Jeremiah 14:20 -21). Yet, how is God to do this when Israel has sinned against him? Did he not promise retribution for disobedience? When sin is remembered by God, it is in his presence, and it will bring out his wrath.

The solution was simple. Sin had to be blotted out. “Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (Psalm 51: 10 – 11). Sin is forgotten by God, that is, he removes it from his presence. “I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Isaiah 43:25).Fundamentally, there is an ontological change in the subject, and the sin itself no longer exists. We are told he does this because he remembers his first covenant. It is from the first and its continuation that a second is established. “Yet I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish with you an everlasting covenant […] I will establish my covenant with you and you shall know that I am the Lord, in order that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I forgive you all that you have done, says the Lord God” (Ezekiel 16:60; 62-3).

When we turn to the New Testament, we continue to see memory understood by this Semitic approach. We also see a development of what it means to remember coming from the Hellenistic context in which the New Testament was written. We find in the Apocalypse a very Jewish approach towards salvation and damnation. Here the saved are found written in the Lamb’s Book of Life (cf. Rev 3:5; 20:12; 20; 21:27). Their names are remembered, giving them life eternal. In the Torah, God said, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book” (Exodus 32:33). In the Apocalypse we see what will happen if that threat is carried out: “anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15). One whose name is forgotten perishes; one who is remembered will be given the heavenly reward – they will experience eternal life in the very presence of God.

“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendent of David – that is my gospel” (2 Timothy 2:8). Only by this traditional understanding of memory as presence, can the gospel be said to be established by the remembrance of Jesus. While the presence of Jesus in our life is established interiorly through our memory, we find his presence in our community through our communal memory. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). Just as we found out that the preservation of our names in the Book of Life indicates God’s remembrance of who we are, to be gathered in Jesus’ name is to gather so we can remember him. It is through remembrance we get his presence. It is also through remembrance we have communion, one with another, in the Lord. “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1: 2-3).

While memory signifies presence, we must admit that there are many ways we can experience this presence. Even when we are physically before one another, we can experience each other’s presence in a multitude of ways. Each way is unique. However, the greatest, purest act of remembrance of Christ comes through the new paschal meal he established before his death. He told us that when we come together, we are to perform this meal in remembrance of him. To fully understand the New Testament understanding of remembrance, we must appreciate the implications of the Greek work anamnesis which is being used. “It is a recollection of the past that enlivens and empowers the present as well. Such memory is not restricted to the mental activity of individuals; it is found above all in the ritual and verbal activity of communities” Luke Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 114-5. It is truly a re-collection, re-establishment, a re animating or “member”-ing of Jesus’ presence, the ongoing presence of Jesus as the bread of life (John 6:51).

Our memory is imperfect. Through memory we experience the presence of others relative to how well we remember them. But, through the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, that which is imperfect is perfected. The Spirit, through the order established by God the Father, through the work of his Son, is fully capable of bringing that Son, Jesus, to us. The bread we bring to share with one another as the remembrance or re-collection of Jesus becomes that very presence through the work of the same Spirit who turned dust into life. In communion we find not only the perfect presence of Christ, but the perfection and end of memory itself. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have entered eternal life, and I will rise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” (John 6:54-5). In our communal remembrance of Christ, we find Christ remembers us – in communion we find eternal life, that is, eternal memory. Remember me, O Lord, when you shall come into your kingdom!

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  • At 9/21/2006 3:07 PM, Blogger Eric said…

    Brilliant post. I tried explaining God as eternal memory, though not nearly as eloquently, to a Dominican priest the other day. He said he wasn't familiar with the concept. I wish you had written this three weeks ago, it would have been a tremendous help!

  • At 9/21/2006 4:20 PM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…

    We had a Panachida Service on Sunday, and during it I kept thinking something like this would be good for the blog.

    I still have more I want to say on this -- but it is good to have more to say for later.

    I'm glad to see this has already been useful (even if a bit late for your talk with the Dominican).

  • At 9/21/2006 9:52 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…

    Well said indeed, Henry.

    I find it intriguing that Augustine tied memory so closely to the (trinitarian) image of God in man. It seems that though it is likely more hellenistic a concept than semitic, it is nonetheless for Augustine the result of meditation on Scriptural revelation, and therefore must at the very least be compatible.

    It seems that not only is the presence of others mediated via our limited memory, but memory for Augustine as the stability of the self, the identity in all determinate acts of knowledge, etc. can be seen as one's presence to himself. And insofar as the Father's self-identity is a perfect presence to Himself, memory as self-presence mediates the image of God in this way.

    Stating it in these terms may be redundant, but I think it makes Augustine's sense of memory tie in nicely with your final thoughts. For if memory is for us an essential part of God's image in us, and through the image of Christ we are to become likened unto Him ever more radically, then it is, as you've said, in communion with and in the presence of Christ that the perfection of memory is found. Memory in this sense has a kind of openness to grace, as our limited ability to make things present is amplified by the Holy Spirit; and just as with the dynamic of image, grace makes of us an image so radically new that it means partaking of divine life. And that is beatific memory!


  • At 9/22/2006 3:48 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    You are right -- and I have plans to write more on the topic, and Augustine is on the top of my list of those whose thoughts on memory I plan to discuss.

  • At 9/23/2006 1:18 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    great to see you've dropped in!

    Great Post. Augustine also calls memory the 'stomache' of the mind (Confessions, Bk x).
    I would also highly recommend his De Musica Bk 6 on this topic. There, he explores especially how sound illuminates various aspects of memory.

  • At 9/23/2006 1:23 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    And as a side note, how much more difficult the ontological aspects of memory alluded to here (and in Scripture, though of course there is no ontology as such) become in an era of thinking after Descartes and Kant....
    For when the mind becomes the source of determinacy, how much more does this effect memory: at that point, it can be nothing more than the recall of discrete factbites that had once been determined by the mind, and are now contained like fragments in a storehouse with no real continuity.

  • At 9/23/2006 11:03 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…

    Glad to be here!

    It also seems that the modern conception of memory, as you have mentioned, a simple recollection of previously determined fragments, is inherently incompatible with the Beatific Vision. For that end will entail the identity of the person in an act of knowledge (since as Thomas notes, it will be an act of the intellect), and it will also be the perfect presence of God to us, as we are united to Him. These are precisely the two features that the pre-modern and Biblical conceptions bring to the table.

    Pax Christi,


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