Musings on Memory for Individuals and Communities

“To live in this world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”

Mary Oliver

“I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many things I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.”

~~William Shakespeare

“Honeymooning, moonlighting, late for the Proms,
Our echoes die in that corridor and now
I come as Hansel came on the moonlit stones
Retracing the path back, lifting the buttons.”

~~Seamus Heaney

"Then he took the loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them saying, ’This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’”

~~Jesus according to Saint Luke 22:19

“It’s surprising how much of memory is built around things unnoticed at the time.”

~~Barbara Kingsolver


Memories of an individual or a congregation: We have all experienced those stories that we remember and tell of our past and those stories of a congregation’s past; those stories that tell them and us who we are. What is memory? Is it just about the past? Is it about what happened that informs us or the way we remember what happens that gives shape? In this reflection, I invite you to think with me about memory, both individual and collective memories, those of our own, those of parishioners and those of congregations.

Memory is not just a then, recalled in the now. The past is never just the past. Memory is a pulse passing through all created life. It is a waveform, a then continually becoming other people’s then, all the while creating a continual but almost untouchable now.

The gurus of our day often urge us to live only in the now. I believe they might be misunderstanding the multilayered inheritance of existence, where all epochs live and breathe in parallels. Whether it be the epochal moment initiated by the appearance of the first hydrogen atoms in the universe or a first glimpse of adulthood perceived in adolescence, memory passes through an individual human life or a community like a musical waveform building to its crescendo, constantly maturing, increasingly virtuosic, often volatile, sometimes overpowering. Every human life and community holds the power of this immense inherited pulse: holds and then supercharges it, according to the way we inhabit our identities in the untouchable now.

Congregations preserve their memory through the stories they tell. Congregations live by their narratives; their stories help remind them and inform them who they are and from whence they come.

When ministers enter new appointments, it is critical to spend the first months listening! To what are we listening in those early days? We are listening to the stories of the people and the congregation, the individual and collective memories of the past that inform them who they are. These stores contain their memory of those saints and heroes/heroines who came before. When we have been with the congregation long enough and become part of those memories, we help shape those that tell them who they are.

Memory is an invitation to the source of our life, to a fuller participation in the now, to a future about to happen. Ultimately, memory is a frontier identity that holds time and people all at once. Memory makes the now fully inhabitable.

Memory is the thread that runs through it; the incarnational connection, the unseen connection, bridging yesterday with tomorrow all in the robust now.

The genius of human memory is its very creation through experience.
Then there is the way it is laid down in the mind according to the identity we inhabited when we first decided to remember; then its outward radiating effect, and then all of its possible future outcomes occurring all at the same time.

We actually inhabit memory as a living threshold, as a place of choice and volition and imagination. It is a crossroads where our future diverges according to how we interpret, or perhaps more accurately, how we live the story we have inherited. Those stories are often multigenerational. We can be overwhelmed, traumatized, made smaller by the tide that brought us here. We can even be drowned and disappear by memory; or we can spin a cocoon of insulation to protect ourselves and bob along passively in the wake of what we think has occurred.

We also have other possibilities. Memory is a sense. It is the very essence of the conversation we hold as individual human beings and as a community. A full inhibition of memory makes human beings and communities conscious; a living connection between what has been, what is and what is about to be. Memory can be the living link to personal freedom and the community’s freedom.

If, in the full beautiful potency of nostalgia—the letting go of a child into the adult world for instance—memory can overwhelm us at times. We can also, through a closer discipline, through a fierce form of attention, through a learned and shaped intentionality and presence, become more courageous stepping into the center of things. We can open up the silent interiority at the core of our story, and become brave, living a representation of its trajectory.

Through memory, we can be the ground of our birth, the journey from the place where the memory began and most especially the unfolding drama of its emanating and far traveling energy, all at the same time. We can be equal to the story we have inherited, no matter its difficulty, by stepping into its very center.

Months before a friend was to die with a terminal illness, I visited him weekly. I would simply sit and hear his stories. As I write this story, I find deep joy and profound sadness. He was a deeply soulful, brilliant person honoring me with his invitation to walk with him through his memories—memories that were also present. I heard the heartbreaks, terrors, and close encounters he experienced so traumatically in life. I also heard his hopes, dreams, aspirations and delights.

His voice was elegiac, almost newly innocent, regretful for those he had hurt on the journey and for those comrades he had lost along the way. He was astonished that he had been put in such a position; he was humbled, shocked and wondering all at the same time, as if it could not be possible for an individual human being to have experienced so much, so young and to have carried it unspoken for so many years.

Looking back to that time, the clock ticking slowly in the background, the times I sat at his side seemed like a profound and necessary ritual, a handing on, his speech almost trance-like, of a past that was certainly not a past, but speech and physical presence alone. It was a living essence passed down to me, something for a future world to resolve, heard first through a young person’s wondering ears.

His speaking and my listening must have allowed the younger man he had been to come to life again; the explosive memory to be relived; the journey to be contemplated anew and the future entertained again in one movement. As if through telling me the stories, he could overhear himself and become conscious of what now lived inside him, no matter that I hardly replied, no matter that he was in his last days.

He left this life in a better place, having rejoined his previously isolated memory with the future that my young ears represented. I remember his frail, wrinkled old hands when his gripped mine on leaving the room from each visit. I was his holder of secrets and his restorer of the future, all at the same time. I was honored and he was renewed. We are born again whenever we touch that which really matters, and through the shared experience of his memory, we had both experienced something that matters.

Through the gift of an inheritance truly inhabited, we come to understand that memory is as much about creating and influencing what is about to happen, as it has to do with what we quaintly and unimaginatively call the past. We might recall the ancient Greek world where Memory was always understood to be the mother of the muses, meaning that of all of her nine imaginative daughters, all of the nine forms of human creativity recognized by the ancient Greek imagination, and longed for by individuals and societies to this day, in all the difficulties and secret triumphs of an average life—were born from the womb and the body of memory.

The Native American view is not such an insulated observing view of life as our sophisticated view. In knowing the world this way, there is no such thing as simile and metaphor. The wind is not like God’s voice. The wind is God’s voice. In this way, memories are not like images of loved ones visiting us or us thinking about the experiences that came before. Memories are loved ones visiting us; memories are the experiences anew, the potential therein.

According to the Gospel of Saint Luke, “…He took the loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me’.” Thus, at communion, we speak those words—“Do this in remembrance of me.” We remember and it is more than just a memory of the past. In the sacrament there is a living presence in the now; and to the future, what may be!

As you live in and with memories of the people in your community, may you and they find understanding, wisdom, peace and connection in your memories. May the memories of the past be precious and matched by what is and the dreams to come.

Memory,
invigorating blessings.
blind curses,
Different but the same–
curses and blessings!
Is it the memory or
the way we choose to remember ?

Memories
loss and pain,
deep regrets,
profound sadness,
unlived dreams
requited loves
broken hearts
skinned knees
scrapped elbows,
aching sorrows.

Memories
the hug of a child,
a meal with friends,
proud celebrations of sons or daughters,
blessings from those we love,
knowing I will never look on it again
but it appears to me one more time almost complete
in its own time and then gone,
all part of
the precious body of memories.

Memory
begins in experience,
rewritten on the tablets of time.
An immense inherited pulse,
to remember,
to dwell in memory,
to seed our identity from,
to find the courage to go on,
to reshape this beautiful and ominous presence.
A memory charged with now
asking only that we not forget!
No wonder she was the mother of the muses,
born from the womb and the body of memory.
Oh fresh memories!
Oh God of those memories!
Bless us!

Agree or disagree, you are invited into the conversation.


“Let the bucket of memory down into the well. Bring it up.
Cool, cool minutes. No one stirring, no plans. Just being there.”

~~William Stafford

“Memory is the mother of all wisdom.” >>~~Aeschylus


Two ways to see and engage conflict

By Dr. W. Craig Gilliam

What is conflict? A person might think that one can’t be in conflict when seeing others in an I-Thou way. However, that entirely depends on what one means by the word “conflict.”

Two people who see each other in an I-Thou way can still disagree with each other’s opinions and positions, even strongly. And when such opinions are diametrically opposed political ones or around the pastor or around change in worship or religious beliefs or some social issue or some justice issue for examples, the stakes can be very high. In such cases, “conflict” certainly would be an appropriate way to describe the situation. However, parties that remain open to the needs and humanity of those whose opinions differ from their own (I-Thou) have options going forward that those who have closed off or cut off from others do not.

When we see others in an I-It way (objects) we end up provoking opposition and resistance in others not just because our opinions might oppose theirs, but because our very views of others are in opposition. Blaming, horribilizing, playing ourselves as the victims, focusing on differences, focusing on weaknesses and focusing solely on our own needs, we provoke others to do the same. This is why destructive conflict almost always results when people see others as objects (I-It). We help create the very situations we say we dislike.


“…the I-Thou relation to God and the I-Thou relationship to one’s fellow human being are at bottom related to each other.”

–Martin Buber

Our belief is that when we see others in an I-Thou way, creativity, resiliency and maturity are the natural
by-product and often growth in depth, quantity and quality are outcomes for the community.

I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realizes an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past."* >>~~ Virginia Woolf

"Your memory is a monster; you forget—it doesn’t. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you—and summons them to your recall with will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you!”

~~ John Irving

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