Memory—philosophically speaking—is one of man’s interior senses. It is the power to store past images, ideas, and experiences. Memory is vitally important because whatever is stored by it becomes, in a way, a part of us. It has tremendous influence in shaping one’s identity and, as Professor D. Q. McInerny writes, is crucial in maintaining a “coherent sense of self.” That is, memory helps to develop unity and continuity in our lives as opposed to the fragmentation that often plagues us. Yet, despite its importance, memory is often neglected today.
In The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, Mary Carruthers notes that, in the ancient and medieval periods, memory training was heavily stressed in one’s education. Today, however, the premium in education seems to be placed on creative thinking. Perhaps this current neglect is due in part to our conception of memory and its role. Memory is often considered to be nothing more than the ability to store and recall various and sundry bits of information—which a computer can now do astonishingly easily—without realizing its importance to human development. Memory is about more than retaining random information. As Carruthers says, “Training the memory was much more than a matter of providing oneself with the means to compose and converse intelligently when books were not readily to hand, for it was in trained memory that one built character, judgment, citizenship, and piety.”
Besides these developmental aspects, memory is also indispensable to the handing on of culture. Before histories were written down they were memorized. Everyone told stories of their heroes and the great events in their past, events that shaped their culture, their tribal or national identity. Even after writing was developed, various groups retained their storytellers—the shanachies of Ireland for example—the better to make these memories come alive and so inspire succeeding generations with them.
Memory is also crucial for religion. The recent encyclical Lumen Fidei—a joint effort of Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI—highlights the connection between memory and Christian faith. Faith, we learn, is linked to the remembrance of God’s working throughout the course of history. For Abraham and his descendants faith is based on the memory of a promise for the future, “shedding light on the path to be taken.” Faith for us is based above all on the memory of Christ, kept alive and handed down through the ages by the Church’s Apostolic Tradition. Through the sacraments especially we encounter the Christ who is alive and active in our world.
As an example of this living memory, think about the Eucharist. One of the great feasts of Israel is Passover. As it says in Exodus 12:14, “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as an ordinance forever.” Every year the Jewish people celebrate the Passover in order to recall the great work God did in freeing them from bondage to the Egyptians. This is a celebration not just of some past event, but a re-living and a re-appropriation of the workings of God in their history.
The Passover is paralleled and fulfilled in the New Testament. At the Last Supper Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” He established a memorial that is re-enacted every day in Catholic churches around the world. It is a remembrance that makes present again what it celebrates: the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a memorial that, as Lumen Fidei puts it, “leads from the visible world to the invisible” and helps us to “see the heights and depths of reality.”
At Mass, the living memory of the sacrifice of the Cross, Christ “becomes present in his passover to the Father: this movement draws us, body and soul, into the movement of all creation towards its fulfillment in God.” Through this foundational memory and its constant reenactment, individuals can develop their own power of memory and their personal identity as members of the Body of Christ. For the Eucharist is the incomparable source of wisdom, stability, coherency, and continuity which man needs.
Image: Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory