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Remembrance and the Spiritual Life
I have often thought that, in many ways, the spiritual life comes down simply to remembering the things that we know — and yet so often forget. As a spiritual father, it frequently seems to me that my role consists not so much in teaching others something new as in reminding them of the truths they already know, and which they need at that particular moment to bear in mind. Nor am I alone in this way of thinking. The great Apostle Peter himself once declared to his flock:
I will not be negligent to put you always in remembrance of these things, though ye know them, and be established in the present truth. Yea, I think it meet, as long as I am in this tabernacle [i.e. his mortal body], to stir you up by putting you in remembrance. (2 Pet. 1:12-13)
But our modern culture looks at life much differently. It teaches us to prioritize — above nearly all else — the acquisition of new information and the invention of new ideas. We are obsessed with both knowledge and novelty, and subconsciously ascribe to them an unrivalled and well-nigh supernatural ability to overcome all our problems and to assuage all our woes. The new is always better than the old, and if there is anything we cannot do it is only because we do not yet know how. Ironically, we are like the ancient gnostics who believed that salvation is to be found chiefly in knowledge; we are like the ancient Athenians who “spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing” (Acts 17:21). And in the ascendant cult of scientistic progress, there is precious little room for remembering.
Think, for example, of our recent experience with the global pandemic: it was immediately and implicitly assumed by nearly everyone that we ought to turn almost exclusively to Science to instruct us on how we ought to live. Each day we watched impatiently for news of the latest breakthroughs in our research, and waited eagerly for every advancement in our treatment of the disease. And though there were several abrupt reversals in the answers that Science gave to us — as well as no small disagreement over which answers were actually to be believed — there was nevertheless almost no real attempt to look for answers anywhere else. Faced with what was for many the greatest crisis in living memory, it occurred to almost no one to reach for enduring wisdom rather than merely for the latest data. And amidst the interminable distraction of acquiring, analyzing, and debating that data, we somehow managed to forget the one great and immutable truth that the pandemic ought to have brought clearly and unmistakably back to our remembrance. That truth, quite simply, is this: no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, no matter how much we know, someday soon each one of us will surely die.
Our predicament has perhaps been put into words most poignantly by T.S. Eliot in his Choruses from “The Rock”:
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.
These words were published in 1934, long before anyone could have possibly foreseen the advent of the internet — that raging torrent of mere information, incessantly pumped directly into our eyeballs by the screens which constantly surround us and which we carry with us everywhere we go. We are every bit as addicted to this torrent of information as any addict is to their drug of choice. Its cruelly sophisticated delivery mechanisms have conditioned us to keep perpetually clicking and scrolling and refreshing, ever in search of the future and our next dopamine hit. Our addiction has left us with (mostly) healthy bodies but tragically shattered minds, almost wholly unable to truly focus, or meditate, or remember what we once knew of life before the dawn of the Information Age.
We have even forgotten what it means to remember.
Remembrance is not, as we may think, merely the ability to recall information; it is not merely a function of the intellectual mind. As we gradually enter into the spirit of Orthodoxy and little by little come to acquire the mind of the Church, we begin to see that remembrance is something far deeper. For instance, we sing precisely “Memory Eternal” as our quintessential prayer for the faithful departed. This is not merely a pleasant wish for them to be recalled from time to time by those who are living; rather, it is we the living offering on their behalf the prayer of St. Dismas the Good Thief: “Remember me, O Lord, when Thou comest in Thy Kingdom” (Luke 23:42). To put it plainly, to pray for remembrance is to pray for communion.
We are now (on the old calendar) celebrating the Afterfeast of the Dormition of the Mother of God. And — just as with all the feasts of the church calendar — we are not merely recalling the occurrence of a past historical event: we are actually participating in it. In a mystical sense, we really are standing with the Apostles chanting funeral hymns before the Burial Shroud of the Theotokos; we really are standing with St. Thomas beholding her empty tomb. Our remembrance of her is communion with her — and through her, with her Son who has already raised her up to reign in glory with Him in His Father’s Kingdom.
In the solemn service of Proskomedia always celebrated before the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, the priest commemorates not only the saving events of the Lord’s earthly life, but also the Mother of God, the saints and the angels, and the living and departed who are especially important to the community. A particle of bread is placed for each of these on the Holy Diskos surrounding the Lamb that will shortly be made into the Body of Christ, and at the end of the Divine Liturgy these particles are poured into the Chalice and suffused with the Blood of Christ. The universal witness of the Church is that such commemoration is one of the most powerful forms of prayer it is possible for anyone to offer on this earth, as it brings a possibility of union with Christ and His Church perhaps second only to our own reception of the Holy Mysteries themselves.
And of course, the Divine Liturgy itself is the manifestation of remembrance as communion par excellance. In the Divine Liturgy (which properly speaking takes place outside of Time itself) we remember and recapitulate and renew our participation in the whole history of creation, the entire economy of our salvation, and most especially the saving Passion and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. As the priest prays in the Anaphora of the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great: “All things hast Thou given unto us.”
Indeed, He has given us all things — if only we remember them.
It is more important that we should remember God than that we should breathe: indeed, if one may say so, we should do nothing else besides.
-St. Gregory the Theologian