Of God and Memory

Forewarning: This is something of a stream-of-consciousness post, and thus an experiment. Whether it was a successful experiment I will leave to whomever stumbles across this.

The other day I was chatting with someone of my acquaintance who happens to be an Episcopal priest, and much enjoys theology. By “theology” I mean the formalized thinking – principally Christian, of course – about the nature of godhead, our relationship with God both as individuals and as members of the different overlapping and intersecting societal spheres we inhabit, and so forth. Given that Jesus was an observant Jew, of course, Jewish theology both at the time and as since developed provides not only a backdrop but also an important substantive cross-check and interpretive tool for pondering the Mysteries as revealed through the teachings of Jesus and the Church Fathers. 

[Aside: I must here confess that I am a bit leery of taking “theology” at least in its modern manifestation too seriously. It is on the one hand undeniably true that we live in a radically different world than the one in which Jesus moved and taught, and that we modern humans have utterly different relationships with many of the circumstances of our existence than did the people who flocked to hear Jesus (or Paul or any of the others) teach. Since “circumstances of our existence” includes each other – in fact you might make a very compelling argument that we are each other’s principal circumstances of existence and our relationships with each other define our existence, at least on a moral plane – that suggests also that the bonds between and among the people who heard Jesus teach and in the context of which they understood Him are of mixed utility in discerning the answer to The Great Big Question: How do I live my life in the world I confront now? Of course the response to that is that Jesus, being of one Substance with the Father, would have known all that before a word left His mouth, and would have taught the people accordingly. 

More importantly and on the other hand, and this is where I cannot avoid the niggling suspicion that way too many “theologians” are getting off the path, Jesus did not come to preach to the post-doctoral students. The people He taught were to a man, nearly, illiterate. They were dirt poor, hungry, and eaten alive with vermin, parasites, and pathogens. Huge numbers of them would have lived in what we today would describe as filth, their own and their animals’. As Mark Twain noted during his travels in the Holy Land, Jesus chose the most immediate and effective message he could have, among that people: He healed their sick. They also practiced slavery (and in jubilee years freed their slaves and forgave their debtors). Given the standards of medical care in antiquity and the reasonably foreseeable rate of death in childbirth, their domestic habits would likely not pass modern muster either. I’ll guarantee that, of the groom, bride’s parents, and others at the wedding feast where Jesus first manifested His divinity by performing His first miracle, nowadays the groom would be on his way to prison for at least statutory rape (and maybe rape of a child, if she was at the youngest end of the marriageable age spectrum) and the parents would be headed the same way for conspiracy and contributing. And does anyone want to bet how many people at that feast were 21 years of age or older and still managed to drink the wine casks dry? 

All of that is just to make a very simple point: Jesus was teaching to simple people whose understanding and ability to take His teaching and apply it in their own daily lives were extremely limited. Even though people back then spent what we today would consider a phenomenal amount of time and energy actively pondering and discussing theology, you can’t get away from the fact that these were not Learned People. All these modern esoteric doctrines of this-that-and-the-other, the mountains of what can only with charity be described as academic gibberish the principal aim of which seems to be the “proof” that practicing Christianity must necessarily dictate support for the farthest-left wing of the farthest-left parties, including political support for the most murderous and humanity-destroying philosophies ever devised by the mind of corrupted man and unqualified support for the legally-unfettered right to kill one’s unborn baby, and the rest of it really smacks as being presumptuous. Likewise even more outrageous is the suggestion that unless you can navigate the tomes of modern “theology” you can’t claim to understand Christianity in its essentials or details and therefore you should please shut up and do as you are told by the Deep Thinkers Who Understand Things Better Than You. Remind me again of how this differs from the insistence on keeping the Gospels available exclusively in a language not even spoken by an illiterate peasant mass. Jesus may have instructed His apostles to go forth and make disciples of all the world’s peoples, but that was only because He wasn’t going to keep mooning about the place. While Jesus walked among men, He taught directly to the lowest and meanest of the world’s poor. I cannot accept that He would have chosen to preach to them a message that they were unable to comprehend sufficiently to, as He invited, “Come and follow me.”] 

Having now unburdened myself of that little screed, I proceed on to my post. 

My interlocutor was discussing a funeral sermon to be delivered this Sunday. The subject of remembrance came up. As it was told to me, in Jewish understanding so long as any remains alive who can “call your name” (as we say out in the country), you are still a part of a living community of believers. That much seems reasonable and I’ll have to take it on faith, being personally unfamiliar with the nuances and so forth. Also brought up was the mythology of Isis and Osiris. They were brother and sister and also husband and wife (talk about ancient domestic arrangements, but then King Tut really was the product of just such an incestuous union). Osiris managed to offend the wrong sort of god, who slaughtered him and scattered his pieces up and down a long valley. Isis went looking for the pieces, weeping and lamenting; her tears formed the Nile. She found them all, it seems, except his . . . ahem . . . manhood, which seems to have come to grief in a marsh or something of that nature and been eaten by an animal. She put them back together and, being herself a goddess, managed to bring him back to life long enough to impregnate her (how that happened without . . . oh well, I suppose when you’re both gods you can arrange such things). In any event, the story was told in the context of reading the word “remembering” as “re-membering,” the re-assembly of fragments. 

While I’m not sure that’s sound etymology (Mr. Webster does not back the proposition), thinking about “remembering” in that manner does seem to make a bit of sense. For starts, our experiences of each other are necessarily fragmentary, even of those closest to us. Our recollective powers are likewise patchy and subject to the ravages of space and time. When one dies to us, all we have left are these piece-work glimpses, some fading, some remaining acutely vivid. In our re-membering the departed one, we re-assemble that person into a living presence, in the sense of a presence capable of offering joy, sorrow, hurt, hope, laughter, comfort, and all the other essentially human interactions. True enough: these interactions are no longer with a live human organism, but then the sensations which remain are no less real. When we communally “re-member” a person we gain not only just the number of points of recollection but also we restore, somewhat, the multi-dimensional character that person displayed while alive. What makes a diamond sparkle is not its surface but its depth. No one is the same person to everyone. Each of us, even if experiencing the same character attribute of a person, experiences that person as expressed in that attribute differently. 

Contemplation of these little snippets leads me to contemplate a subject that presents itself to me from time to time. The simple fact is that almost no one I know, at least not in my close circle of acquaintance — those in whose most immediate presence I spend my life — is interested in certain of the things which absolutely fascinate me. I know enough to accept that circumstance not as an indictment of anyone – why ought anyone find interesting what I do, after all? – but rather as a fundamental set of relationships with the world I move in. Well, perhaps a better way of stating that would be a lack of a set of relationships. Other people have their own interests, worries, hopes, and dreams, and it is unreasonable to expect them to respond the same way to the things which intrigue me. So over the years I’ve learned to enjoy what I enjoy and accept that I will likely never share the joy of it with anyone, or at least not face-to-face. Which is a pity, but the world is full of much greater pities. 

One of the sets of things which fascinates me is history in general, and the specifically human experiences that collectively make up “history.” Having a head which seems unfortunately suited to the retention of masses of trivial detail, it is packed solid (pun intended) with exactly that sort of detail. The names, dates, occurrences, and parallels to the world I know crowd around me. I can lose myself for long periods contemplating what the world looked like to the monks who first staffed up Cluny. I find intriguing pondering the sweep of a particular family, from the Habichtsburg above a tiny Swiss village in the 12th Century to the burial of Archduke Otto in Vienna in July, 2010. My home county is criss-crossed with the remains of old country roads. You can see them traced across open fields, a double line of trees about ten or twelve feet apart (trees don’t naturally grow like that, you know). I see them and instantly I’m transported back to 1910 or sometime, wondering what it must have felt like to be driving a horse-drawn farm wagon down one of those roads, lurching from hole to rock and back. What it must have sounded like, smelled like. Around here you can till up the ground for a garden and depending on where on the hill you’re working be pretty certain of digging up numerous fragments of arrow heads, spear heads, chippers, scrapers, and similar traces of long-ago camps. What were they talking about around that campfire as this chip was struck from the edge of this arrow head? Had the hunt been good that day? Could they have, perhaps in some religious trance or other halluncinatory interlude, have had the slightest inkling of Us, centuries later, stumbling across their hunting camp? A number of years ago I was in a museum in Freiburg, the Augustinermuseum. Among their exhibits are ecclesiastical carvings and so forth from around that area. One of them was an altar crucifix that had been carved sometime in the 1100s. I am unqualified to speak of the artistic merits of it, but what gripped me was the thought of all the thousands of people from that village and the surrounding farms who would have sat in front of that figure over the course of centuries. Through the Black Death; through the Reformation and the Peasants’ War; through the Thirty Years War and Napoleon’s invasions; through all manner of other wars, tumults, robber barons, famines, and festivals. Who were they? What were their worlds like, for them? 

I also and especially enjoy reading books written about then-current events. The author of course doesn’t know how the story ends; he cannot fully know which aspects of what he’s looking at may be Truly Significant. One such book that immediately comes to mind is Strong Man Rules, which went to press no later than June 29, 1934. The author was a professor at Hunter College, and the book is about this new political regime that’s just coming into focus, in Germany. It’s about who’s in, who’s out, who owes whom what favors, and so forth. Among the Rising Men (other than the Chancellor, of course) is mentioned Ernst Röhm, who is, the author opines, certain to be heard from further. Which is how I know the absolute latest date on which that book was turned over to the printers. But the whole thing is the author has no idea how the story ends. The crematoria, the thousands of starving prisoners, the corpse-filled trenches all across Eastern Europe, the embers of tens of thousands of houses, and the stink of the bodies buried beneath . . . those things would not, could not have occurred to him. Kristallnacht? What’s that supposed to be? 

And so on. 

I won’t say that such things and people are somehow “real” to me. In most cases I don’t – can’t – even know their names, or even when they might have existed, and my efforts to re-awaken by the feeble powers of my imagination are . . . well, feeble. I do know that they did exist, however, and in thinking about them and their world – the things they saw, heard, smelled, knew, and the things they couldn’t have known but I now do, just by having come along a matter of several decades or centuries later – I get the sensation of having them become a part of me, of how I greet the world. And by that feeble process of re-awakening them and their world it is as if, in some nebulous way, I am living not only today, the January of 2014, but all prior days, and all at once. Part of me thinks I can get on that road, now overgrown between its rows of bordering trees, and Go Where They Went. I can look at that crucifix and hear the sermons. I can re-create the sensation of not knowing, as the Duke of Wellington described it, what is on the other side of that hill. 

For me, it’s as though I get to live in all worlds up to now, and each day just adds to the pile. I don’t have to turn loose of anything that ever was; I can still hear the buzz of insects outside that village church door on an August afternoon. Wasn’t it Faulkner who said that around here, the past really isn’t even past? The old boy might have been on to something.

 

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