The Paradox of Memory
I couldn’t decide last week between two beginnings for this sermon, so I kept them both. Slightly more formal and Scripture-oriented, here is the first one: When I settled on “The Paradox of Memory” as a title, I wanted to point to the contradictory nature of that uniquely human faculty — that it can be both a blessing and a burden, and that sometimes it’s almost impossible to separate the two. Here is an illustration from the Christian Gospels.
There was that moment one night when a rooster crowed and a follower of Jesus named Simon Peter suddenly remembered something. Thousands of time before in his life that barnyard sound had only been a signal to get up and get ready for some early morning fishing on the clear, fresh water of Lake Galilee. But this time it meant something else. His friend — his sometimes incomprehensible but always magnetic friend whose name was Jesus — had told his followers soon after an evening meal together that on that very night they would lose faith in him and run away. Peter, always impulsive, drew himself up and boasted that even if these others guys are scared into being disloyal and cowardly, he never will be.
But Jesus read people with clear-eyed honesty, and loved them no less because they were a mix of strength and weakness, so with I’m sure was a sad but gentle smile, he looks at his friend the fisherman and says, “I tell you, Peter, that this very night, before the cock crows, you will have disowned me three times.” A bold and confident man, Peter was not used to being doubted. “Oh, no!” he protested, “even if it means dying with you, I will never disown you.” But it was only two or three hours later, after Jesus had been arrested, that first to a servant girl, then to another young woman, and finally to a group of hostile bystanders Peter vowed that he absolutely did not know the prisoner named Jesus. And right after this third denial — when Matthew says he even tossed in a few curse words for emphasis — a rooster crowed the coming of day, and Peter remembered, and the memory drove him out into the darkness to weep bitter tears of remorse. It must have been almost unbearable, but even in that scalding flood of memory there was also the cleansing water of rebirth. Never again would he boast quite so nonchalantly of what he could do. Never again would pride disgrace him so terribly. This gift we are talking about — memory — would see to that. Have you ever thought what it must have been like for Peter, every day for the rest of his life, to hear a rooster’s morning cry in some tiny Galilean village — a sound that would always be bittersweet, a reminder of how weak he had been, an incentive to spend the rest of his days proving his courage — at once both a painful and a saving memory.
And there is another story in the New Testament which makes use of memory, although this one is a piece of teaching fiction rather than literal fact. It’s a little short story (we call them parables) about a rich man and a ragged beggar who lay huddled at his gate every day hoping for a handout. The story has both men die, with the beggar ending up in Abraham’s bosom (a Jewish idiomfor heaven) and the rich man in a place of torment, pleading for the man he had ignored in life to dip his finger in cool water and cross the great gulf between them with blessed relief. It is Father Abraham himself who responds to that request, and he starts out by saying, “Son….remember…..” It’s a solemn beginning because this little story is built on the notion that the memory of our lost opportunities is one way of describing hell.
“Son, remember your huge surplus of good things while you lived on earth, and how greedy about them you became? Remember how many times you passed that huddled heap at your gate and did nothing?” In the story, of course, it’s too late for the rich man to make his memory become a door of hope. But it’s being told for an audience that’s still alive, and its point is that perhaps their memories of selfish moments may yet change them before it’s too late. This actually happens to some of us. The bad taste of what we are is in our mouth one evening, along with an image in the mirror of a face we aren’t at all sure we really like anymore, and suddenly we remember what we promised ourselves we would be, when we were younger and full of idealism and hope. Or on a certain day we are all set to lie — in words or by cowardly silence — or to steal something tangible like money or intangible like someone’s reputation, and suddenly there rises the memory of a dear friend or parent who held integrity higher than any form of self-betrayal, and we are pierced with shame. Or perhaps shabby behavior has become such a pattern that we are riddled day and night with anxiety and guilt until there comes upon us like a dam breaking the memory of a time when we were at peace with our conscience and could sleep without a shadow in our heart? How well we have all known the curious power of this thing called memory!
Well, that’s one way I thought of beginning. But I also wanted to begin in a much less formal way. Like this: You’ve probably all played that little mental game in which you try to dredge up the very first things you can from your childhood. However strange they may seem to others, they were moments of intensity for you, so that out of all the things that happened you remember those things. Perhaps the first time someone you loved went with you to a circus or a zoo to see elephants and tigers and the tall stick-legged creature with the long neck. Or the time your mother let you mix the dough for the cake, or sent you on your first errand into the next block by yoursaelf.
Maybe it was the first time you got a letter through the mail with your name on it, or the smell and taste of the first strawberry you picked from a garden. Or perhaps your first taste of romantic love and how it filled the whole world with bright warm color. It might be something as simple as a new sound. One day, when Robin and I were talking, we asked each other what the very first word was that ever excited us by the magic of its sound and meaning. He said that for him it was the word crunch , used to describe the sound of walking on snow as a teacher read aloud in grade school. He had no idea it was a good example of onomatapoeia, he just loved saying it over and over for himself, thrilled by the sound of it. It was his very first experience with the power of language. Memory brought back a similar experience for me. My father owned a furniture store, where I loved to play as a child, and when he told me one day that a certain lovely piece of furniture was cherry wood, I thought the sound of that was absolutely beautiful. Cherry wood….it sounded rich and exotic, and at that moment, ridiculous as it may seem, my love of the miracle of language was born.
We’re all curious about this thing called memory, this faculty the rest of the animal kingdom seems not to have except in the most minimal way — this power to summon up the past and parade it before our minds again for whatever nourishment it offers. We pay homage to that power all the time. We begin a thousand conversations this way: “Do you remember when we were kids and we [did this, went there]? Do you remember those fishing trips to the White River, and the time a spring storm hit just as the four-pound bass slammed into your lure and you had to fight that fish in a torrential rain? Do you remember how your Dad used to concentrate so hard at checkers that his pipe would go out?” So do we trigger for ourselves one of the most delightful exercises we know.
Nor is it merely a social exercise. We pay homage to the power of memory even when we are alone, by deliberately willing our recollections. We stare into the fire on a winter night and memories begin to dance. We watch the leaves fall on an October afternoon, and they remind us of the years that have drifted slowly down from the summers of our own lives. Memory like that is a mixture of pain and joy, but we tolerate the pain because there is no other way to reach the happiness part.
We treasure certain objects we know will give us that same strange combination of joy and sorrow. Most of you can barely see what I’m holding up right now, so I’ll describe it. It’s a crude little spindle made of plaster of Paris with a sharp nail stuck through it that was brought home to me one day by a little boy in the third grade. It has some green and yellow felt strips glued on it, and a sprinkle of gaudy little stars on top, and it was made so Dad could file papers on it. Given my sudden moves I knew it was too dangerous to leave on the desk — I would have stabbed myself sooner or later. But he was bursting with pride and love that day, so I have kept it on a shelf safely above the desk for 40 years while the child named Robin, who made it, grew up and forgot all about it — and every time I happen to see it, there is a touch of sadness for days that are lost forever, and a touch of joy to know that the child is safely grown up and that the old love remains between us.
I look at a seashell saved from a wonderful family trip — at a tiny piece of forbidden marble brought back llegally from the Parthenon by a friend more loving than wise, at an acorn I picked up once and kept as a memento of a perfect afternoon. My life — like yours — is a collage of mementos like that. So I understand why St. Augustine wrote his great treatise on memory. He was prompted, I think, by recollections of his mother, Monica, whose love for him while he was a wild and reckless boy tugged at his conscience until he finally surrendered to a higher love and became one of the most influential Christians of all time.
But the gift of memory is always a paradox. A picture of a boy and his dog hangs in the beautiful old barn owned by one of my oldest and closest friends, who also happens to be the choir director at my church. It never fails to stir fond memories of his gentle ways, of having him in a Freshman class, of his trusting me enough to talk about his love life at midnight once on our back porch. But inside the curled and fragrant petals of those memories there lies hidden a thorn, because the picture also reminds me of his mother’s frantic call one Sunday afternoon to say that her son had just been electrocuted in a tragic accident. No other living creature is teased and tormented as we are by the paradox of memory.
Memories can even be dangerous for some who decide to live in them, who become fixated on the past because it stays the same, because it’s so much less demanding than the present. A poet tells how we sometimes elevate yesterday until today is lost. “Memory,” he said, “is a crazy woman that hoards colored rags and throws away food.” To become a slave to memories is probably worse than not having any at all. It’s also necessary to know that some memories are of unresolved regret or guilt, which — unless we confront them — destroy our peace of mind. I meet good people who have made mistakes and asked God and others for forgiveness, but who cannot take the final step and forgive themselves. Memory, for them, becomes an intolerable burden.
If it’s true, as we are told, that it’s impossible for us to forget anything, that somewhere in the computer bank of the mind is the memory of everything we ever did, that ever happened to us, then it certainly makes sense to control, when we can, the images that fill the corridors of the mind. Your minister’s mother and I took him and his siblings to every river, lake and mountain we could find because we believed in the healing powers of such places, so it’s our fault that he has dashed off to Green Mountain Falls again, and that his brother’s home perches on a hill above Colorado’s Crystal River Valley, and that his sister’s home overlooks the San Juan Islands in Washington. We believed someone who said, “A weary city dweller to survive/ Must keep some cool green memory alive.”
I have made that work for myself more than once. Stalled on a hot August day in heavy traffic, watching heat waves shimmer on the pavement, I have at times by an act of will called up a saving memory: the feeding splash of a big bass on a remote river, the laughter of a loon on a clear Minnesota lake, the low thunder of surf during glorious days and nights by the ocean. It works! So well, in fact, that Sara Teasdale was describing what is, or ought to be, a universal human experience in these lines: “Into my heart’s treasury I slipped a coin / That time cannot take nor a thief purloin — / O, better than the minting of a gold-crowned king / Is the safe-kept memory of a lovely thing.”
On this final day of December, as still another year claims its place in the heart’s Hall of Memories, my wish for each one of you in this courageous and warm-hearted church is that what you remember will enrich the new year and make you want to create happy memories for others — especially for children, and for the unloved of this world. I think it’s part of what it means to walk in the steps of One who said, “These things have I told you, that you may remember.” Amen.
Order our lives, Eternal God, so that our memories may fill us
with comfort, happiness and hope. Amen.