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Spirituality: The Tragedy of Forgetfulness

September 13, 2011


 This past Sunday, my facebook newsfeed was inundated with a common, two-word status update: “Never Forget!” The internet was plastered with articles “recalling”, “remembering”, and “memorializing.” Conversations became grasping and penetrating attempts to painfully recreate the scenes, vivid imagery, and mindset of specific moments that occurred a decade ago. Throughout the course of the day, I drank in every detail of the MSN photo essays, compelling blog reflections and commentaries, and the heartrending and disturbing news footage representing a tragedy that adjectives, or even terror-stricken speechlessness, cannot approach. Why? because I felt an irrefutable responsibility to. I should, I had to— as my facebook friends’ messages drove home, it would be sacrilege for me to forget.

September 11, 2011, was the most intense and overwhelming “memory exercise” that I, in my 28 years of life in a peaceful United States, have yet experienced.

My intent is not to add any more vapid words to this crucial conversation, but rather, to speak about both the necessity of recollection and the tragedy of forgetfulness within every expression of our time-constrained lives, a dynamic that creates the undulation in the big picture of salvation history as well as in our personal relationships and spiritual lives.

Why was “Never Forget!” the mantra of the 10th anniversary of the attacks on our nation? Was it so that we could, in some way, participate, offering a feeble attempt to insure that the lives of the victims were not lived in vain and, by virtue of our memories, soften their appalling end by giving them a means to live on? Was it so that we could rally together and issue a powerful warning to our wicked adversaries then and now, a message of unity, impenetrable patriotism, and intoleration for vile acts of distruction and hatred? Or, was it simply so that we could internalize that ironic fruitfulness of gravity, a gravity that compels us to live altered, more purposeful and connected lives?

I believe the real reason goes even beyond all of those incentives. The tragedy of forgetfulness and necessity of recollection is revealed in the fundamental importance of recognizing, at the deepest level, who we are.

A useful exposition of scripture scholarship is a book by Lawrence Boadt called Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction. In it, he speaks of the special role of the prophet, not merely as the parroting, warning voice of impending doom or divine judgment, but as one who reminds and exhorts “never to forget,” who re-asserts the mercy and justice of God and the status of Israel as His chosen people. This prophetic paradigm had much to say about Israel and God, and consequently, has much to say about us. Boadt says, “[Prophets] recalled tradition to the people, showing them how God had acted in the past, and what the covenant had taught, and insisting that Israel not forget the freedom of God to act in new ways or the faithfulness of God that would not overlook repeated violations of the covenant. The prophetic word indeed stands in judgment on Israel’s behavior only because Israel forgets… ‘Forgetting’ negates the meaning of history and establishes evil practices because they seem helpful or useful for our present desires.” (549) In a balancing way, however, Boadt points out that prophets also remind Israel of who God is—the God who “would renew or restore because above all God was faithful.” (550)

This faithful God, seeking relationship with us in every moment, stands outside of space and time. Each moment is as present to Him as the last, and his omniscience, as difficult as it is to understand, means that he doesn’t “need” a memory. He never forgets. In fact, as Fr. Barron often points out, if he forgot about us for an instant, we would cease to exist. He is continually thinking us, continually loving us into being. His relationship with us is a perpetual “reining into” participation in this knowledge. It is a spurring of memory and an open door to the fullness of joy.

Because of our human nature, because each moment is more present to us than the last, we must continually be coerced and disciplined into recollection. A cursory glance at the Bible, a glimpse into the innerworkings of a struggling marriage, or even a quick examination of a poor-bill-of-health will reveal a cycle of various degrees of forgetfulness leading to various manifestations of disorder, distortion, poor health, and unhappiness. We constantly forget what we need, what we love, what causes pain, what makes us happy, who we are.

Therefore, we need palpable, daily, incarnational reminders. Good marriages are characterized by regular, sacramental reassertions of living love; healthy bodies depend on the recognition that proper functionality is the result of good habits and the knowledge of and respect for the limitations of one’s physicality; fruitful spiritual lives thrive on the devotional, participatory, and contemplative reminders of our relationship to God in every detail of our lives- past, present, and future. In each of these circumstances, the degree to which we forget is the degree to which we inch (leap?) toward fragmentation and unhappiness. That slippery slope is the latent-to-active expression of original sin: the more obstinate we are in ignoring “reminders,” the more vile the result of our willful forgetfulness and separation (i.e. our “sin”).

Our living prophet, our answer to the impassioned “Never Forget!”, our universally present “memory-jogger” is the Church, standing as a beacon of recollection. She, in her structures, her Sacraments and traditions, her devotional offerings, her status as the Body of Christ and the community of the faithful across space and time, exists to cater to this necessity—to represent at every moment our relationship to this God who loves us into being and who does all but insist that we allow ourselves to be loved.

Recollection and participation in the Church, our “active” remembering, happens by way of a memory exercise infused with the humility that is proper to this God, this just, faithful, loving, quietly coercing God: prayer. All of the Church is a beckoning invitation to recall. It is, as Fr. Steve Grunow states, the “memory of Christ and Christ’s recollection of us” … simultaneously. Jesus Christ, in his very Incarnation, offers the everlasting testimony that God will never forget us. Our prayer to Christ (and his enduring prayer for us) leads to an ever-renewing epiphany of recollection, which continually draws us into deeper joy, fullness, and life.

That is a truth that we would do very well not to forget.