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.

Comments

  1. Pastor Chad says

    Remembering rightly is so important in this time when Christians are beginning to come to grips with the fact that they are still waiting for the promised land, for the end to come. The facade of universal Christianity has crumbled and true believers are left, once again, on the fringes.

    Thank you for this reminder.

  2. Handmaid Anna says

    Father Bless,
    While my Godmother’s husband was in his last days he spoke these words to our 19 yr. old son, “Always remember God”. In college now, the pressure is tremendous for our son to veer away from God. Because he was so close to this remarkable man all we have to do is remind our son of these words and it helps him come back.
    By your prayers,
    Anna

  3. luciasclay says

    Father Stephen,

    Thanks for the continual notes as to the images and photos you use.

    The idea that there exists on the earth a culture of remembrance is so awesome. That tradition of the faith is remembered and preserved. Its such a wonderful thought. Its a completely different way of viewing everything to me.

    The western protestant church culture is not one of remembrance rather its one innovation. One of building an argument. Perhaps one of exalting of mortal reason and logic. Proving a point. May the best master of logic win.

    I must ask your forgiveness and say thank you for allowing me to have asked so many questions in a manner that is perhaps opposite of the Orthodox way. You and others have been very gracious to me.

    It has been shown me in my study and prayer that the manner I approach so much is in the way of the heretic. To ask about this or that and why it is, to prove it to myself and argue it in my mind. It sets man or self up as the arbiter of Truth. As one teacher I am listening to points out the word Heretic comes from “One who chooses”. Its the opposite of one who accepts what is revealed. In the end of Sophrony, “On Prayer” I found the line yesterday that says the following. “We do not subject the Lord’s Word to our inferior judgment but judge ourselves in the light of our given knowledge”. That is profound.

    Dare I hope that there is really this culture of remembrance, that is is faithful and reliable and that it has preserved through time the faith of the apostles, the experience of the saints and the church to this day ? Is there really something I can trust and like Saint Vincent of Lerins speaks, shelter me from the storms of heresy and novel doctrine etc. Can I trust it with something as valuable as my soul ?

    For now I will continue along in the mindset and thinking of the heretic while I try and make sure that I am not enamored with something that is false. I must be certain because there is so much falsehood in the broad umbrella of Christendom ( including all the sects, schisms and heresies). But at least I realize the difference in the way I approach it.

    Father thank you for your ongoing ministry.

    Regards,

    Lucias

  4. says

    Lucias,

    All I can say as a convert to Orthodoxy is that I have staked my life on its truth. I believe it is worth everything I had and anything I could have lost. And in ten years rather than be disappointed, I am more overwelmed than I could have imagined when I converted. It’s like a good marriage (34 years is way better than what you imagine beforehand).

    A Russian woman whom I baptized, bristled several years later when I said something about us “converts,” including her in that category. She said, “I am Pravoslavnie (Orthodox). I was not yet Baptized. But I am not a convert. Converts are people who choose.”

    I thought at the time that no American would ever bristle at being accused of choosing. But I have rethought the matter and now prefer to say that I was born Orthodox (since it is what it means to be fully human and the fullness of what God wants for us), but I lived in schism from myself for 43 years.

    I was received in the Church on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son in 1998.

    “And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,” Luke 15:17-18.

    No choice really. I just went home.

  5. says

    Fr. Stephen,
    Father Bless!
    I read an interesting book on this very subject several years ago entitled “Confederates In The Attic”It was indeed an eye opening piece, and I believe you have rightly analyzed the tendencies that we have as human beings to remember and hold onto the perceived “wrongs” instead of that which is good, holy, pure and true.
    Thanks for the reminder
    In Him
    Subdeacon Eusebios

  6. PD says

    “Converts are people who choose.”

    Not sure I understand this. I’m still dealing with the baggage of my hard-core Calvinist past…

  7. says

    PD

    It’s an anecdote of a comment from a Russian friend. I don’t think I would build anything theologicially on it. Obviously choice plays some role in everything – though we are not playing on a level field. God’s grace kindly slants things towards salvation.

  8. Margaret says

    Thank you for posting this reminder of the existence of the cultures of remembrance and of forgetfullness. Truly God is everywhere present and fills all things and that is totally yesterday, today and tomorrow. It is good to be reminded of our surroundings, our various cultures, and to be encouraged to meditate on God. This post and its comments have reminded me to remember God always and to remind my children and husband to remember God. I too often “assume a remembrance of God,” not the same thing at all as remembering in this present moment.

  9. says

    “I lived in schism from myself for 43 years.”

    This reminds me of something that my Baptist High-Church-Leaning-Sacrament-Loving-Professor said about Christianity.

    “True orthodox Christianity is a re-orienting of the mindset and desires. It teaches us to see ourselves differently than we ever have, because through it we realize who we are in Christ. Like St. Augustine pointed out, it is the re-ordering of our disordered and perverted desires into the true and pure order which God intended at creation, and it leads us into a harmonistic view of ourselves to God, man, and ourselves.”

  10. says

    “The memory was originally simple and one-pointed, but as a result of the fall its natural powers have been perverted: it has lost its recollectedness in God and has become compound instead of simple, diversified instead of one-pointed”.

    St. Gregory of Sinai

  11. says

    Father is it possible that the ikon of Christ was handed down over time as was the painting of Mary by Luke. Would it in some way be similar to his actual face ? Realizing much of it is drawn as it is to tell a story as a teaching tool. But wondering if I was indeed able to see, in a small way, the face of the Savior.

  12. says

    The similarity of the image through the ages would, I think, indicate, in a small way, that yes, we see the face of the Savior. And the nature of an icon is to allow that which is to come through that which represents it. In time, around icons, you come to know the face of the Savior.

  13. Dean Arnold says

    That’s heavy.

    It’s an intriguing question, since, post resurrection, even the disciples did not quite recognize his face much of time.

    It took something beyond the physical (prayer and breaking of the bread, etc.) to reveal the true face, much like the true person supernaturally comes to us through the icon, as you wrote.