Cultures of Remembrance

I grew up in a “culture of remembrance.” By that, I mean that the history of the place in which I lived was far more a matter of discussion and meaning than the present or the future. That culture was the American South. Much of the remembrance we discussed was not true – just a left-over from the sentimentality of the 19th century. My childhood was spent in the 1950’s, which may have been the last decade in America (or in many places of America) before the modern period became the norm. Modernity is not a culture of remembrance but a culture of forgetfulness. My children sometimes ask, “Which war was it Granddaddy fought in: Vietnam or World War II?” (The answer is World War II). But their forgetfulness staggers me. It is not that they are poor students of history (they were all great students) but history plays a different role in their culture than it did in mine.

My wife and I have swapped stories about our Southern childhoods and the experience of playing “Civil War” or “War Between the States” in our youth. The difficulty came in the fact that the game always involved where you were born. My wife was born in Washington, D.C. (where her native South Carolinian father was working at the time) which automatically meant she would have to play on the Northern side, which, in South Carolina, was always greatly outnumbered.

The culture of remembrance, however, is frequently false. We remember wrongs and hatreds that were not done to us and may not have even been done to our ancestors. No one in my father’s family fought in the Civil War (my mother’s family did). But no one burned our houses down or any of the other things we saw in “Gone With The Wind.” Many of those things happened to others – but not to all.

I was struck some years back when we took my home-schooling son to the Chickamauga Battlefield near Chattanooga. It is one of the oldest Battlefields preserved as a national monument. Reading about the history of its founding as a park is to read the story of soldiers from both sides working to set aside the area as a place of remembrance. It’s dedication was attended by men of both armies who met, ate, walked the fields and wept together. This is the remembrance of soldiers and was part of the healing of a nation. The culture of remembrance that I inherited included no such stories – it was the culture of a false memory.

The world has many cultures of remembrance – many of them bitter and angry. Many have continuing stories of violence and oppression – both of which feed the poisoned memories.

One of the promises in St. John’s Revelation is: And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away (21:4).

There is a proper culture of remembrance – a culture which is born of the mercy and forgiveness of God. It abides and will remain when the former things are passed away. The toxic remembrance of past wrongs does not build a culture of life, but a culture that serves the dead. There are some wrongs that are so great that we cannot easily ask another to forgive. Forgiveness is always a gift, never a demand.

Orthodox Christianity practices remembrance in a number of ways. The Sacraments of the Church are always a remembrance – but always an “eschatological” remembrance in which our focus is on the transcendant truth of things tabernacling among us.

Our Churches are usually filled with icons – some are covered in frescoes from floor to ceiling. And these icons are always a remembrance – of Christ, His Mother, the Saints, the Parables, etc. But icons, when painted according to traditional norms, are never mere historical records. We do not walk into a Church of photographs of the past. Rather, the saints – everything and everyone – is painted in an artistic grammar that points towards the final truth of things – the world to come which is already coming into the world.

Thus as I visited the Holy Land and stood in the chapel of the Monastery of Mar Saba, I saw in a side transcept the skulls of the monks of the monastery who have been martyred for the faith – the largest number of which died in 618 A.D. It was a remembrance of the most vivid sort, and yet not a reminder of a wrong that had been done, but of the transcendant power of the prayers of the saints. We venerate their relics – and do not mourn their martyrdom.

I noticed during my pilgrimage that Jerusalem itself is like a monument of remembrance. The Jerusalem whose streets were walked by Christ is some 30 or 40 feet below the surface of the present city. To visit those streets and other sites, you often have to go underground. Below that layer is the city of Jebusites (and perhaps others still lower), and the city of David. And above the city through which Christ walked are yet more layers – the city of the Romans – the city of the Byzantines – the city of the Muslims – the city of the Crusaders – the city of the Turks – and today the city that holds all of those things in one place – a center of pilgrimage. For some, to be there is a pilgrimage to a lost past and the pain of wrongs not forgiven. For a Christian, it must be a place for pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre – which belongs not to the past but to a past transcendant – for it is not a place of the dead but a place where tears are wiped away.

For all the peoples of the world – the reality of that Sepulchre is the only way forward. Modernity would move forward, not in forgiveness but in forgetfulness, which is not the same thing at all. For tears to be wiped away, they must also be shed. For the dead to rise again, they have to die. To remember the truth is, finally, to remember the End of all things when the Truth shall be revealed. The former things – which were always distortions – will pass away. What remains will abide forever.

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