I don’t know about you, but these autumnal days have been busy and bleary.
I always want autumn to tarry, to pass me slowly and contemplatively by. It never seems to obey, though–falls are always busy, the leaves bid farewell too quickly, and the rough winds fly like they are in a hurry.
When I am busy like this, I frequently have the unsettling feeling that I’m not really present. I find myself wistful, looking back on moments and regretting that maybe I was never fully there at the time.
For instance, my little brother recently made the journey to visit us here. Although I barely did any work during his visit, it went by quickly. Too quickly. When he was gone, I was mildly bereft–my brothers live quite far away, and I so rarely get to spend time with someone who has known me more than a few years, let alone most of my life.
And in the hours after he left, it felt like I could perceive the value of his trip more clearly by looking back on it than when he was actually here.
Perhaps I should work harder on being present, I told myself for about the four-thousandth time.
Or perhaps, a quieter voice wondered in some small recess of myself, perhaps this is inevitable, and even good. Perhaps the clarity that comes with looking backwards is a blessing.
It got me thinking about all the verses in Scripture that remind us to look back. Like Psalm 76(77), an entire Psalm devoted to finding comfort in the midst of deep anguish by intentionally remembering God’s acts in the past–His redemption of Israel from Egypt, His many wonders and His eternity.
“I remembered God and was glad” (v. 4).
For a long time, I used to read verses like this and assume they were sort of a crutch, some kind of last-ditch advice–like: if you can’t manage to thank God in the present, then be sure to do so after the fact. Or: if you honestly don’t have faith that God will be merciful in the future, then just remember what He’s done in the past. I believed these crutches were written specifically for me, since I always seemed to have trouble having full-blow hope and faith in the present (I’ve since learned this is a relatively common side-effect of anthropological existence).
The “Goal” of remembering God’s deeds was to learn, eventually, to be aware of all God is doing in the present so you could be right there with Him in gratitude.
Probably that is still a worthy pursuit, but it tacitly implies that remembering God from the past is inferior to being aware of God in the here and now.
But I would no longer take that position, mostly because I see less and less of a dichotomy between the two.
Memory, I think, is simply another mode of being present, a mode that as long as we are alive in the body God gave us we can neither ignore or minimize.
Because we humans live in the wake of reality. It’s how we see and understand things, both at the neuronal and the spiritual level–even our brains are a fragment of a second behind the so-called “present moment.” Technically speaking, then, anything you see or experience has already happened, no matter how present or emotionally available you are.
We could see this as a defect or limitation of human perception. Or we could see this as evidence of “eternity in [our] hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11), because looking backwards allows for a more diffuse and encompassing picture of reality. If you stand at the front of a ship, for example, watching the bow plow through the water, you can only kind of guess at the shape that the ship is cutting through the water, because you don’t have a lot of reference points. But when you walk to the back of the ship, you finally see where you’ve been going–you see how far you are from shore, the twists and turns, also sometimes fish swim there.
I liken this wide-view lens of memory to peripheral vision. I don’t know if this is how eyes are supposed to work, but sometimes I see better out of the periphery than when I am staring directly at something.
Case in point: this past summer, we stayed in a cabin for Canada Day Weekend. During the fireworks, I went back into the cabin to get some bug spray. As I groped around in the dark, I got this instinctive sense there was an animal in there, maybe a rodent. I turned the lights on and started lifted our bags off the floor, but found nothing. Suddenly, something black whizzed past the side of my face: a bat. It had actually been circling the room the entire time I’d been standing there, but I couldn’t see it until it found its way to my peripheral vision.
When we are looking for something, we frequently miss the bigger picture. Although (or perhaps because) our peripheral vision is blurry and stays at the edges, it takes in multiple things at once to build a sense of visual and spatial context.
For most of us, living in the present–narrowly defined as a finite, immediate unit of time–is like focusing our vision on a single object. Memory, on the other hand, allows us to grasp more of the wider context. We see the patterns, the coincidences, the connections, the wayward turns, the mysterious mercies, and the details that didn’t seem so significant at the time. We see how close we came, how far we were. We see the disparate puzzle pieces, and how some of them came together. We see our lives as a long series of chronological events, but also as a single moment, cinched up like a tattered hem in the hands of eternity. We also tend to see things a bit more kindly and generously through the lens of memory than we do from the vantage point of the present.
But memory, too, is work. In fact, German has a word for this: Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which literally means the past’s work. A more fluid rendering would be something like “the work of coming to terms with the past” or “overcoming the negatives of the past.” It’s a term that most directly refers to grappling with the reality of the Holocaust. But in a more global sense, it reminds us that cultivating the right kind of memory requires effort.
Remember that lovely verse from Psalm 76(77)? I only quoted half the verse, here it is in its dichotomous totality:
“I remembered God and was glad;
I complained, and my spirit became discouraged” (v. 4).
I’m currently picturing the two faces of Janus–one face is remembering and glad, the other face complaining and bitter. Despite literally having two faces, I find this version of Janus staggeringly familiar. It’s about as hard to keep our grumbling at bay in memory as it is to do so in the present.
Sometimes, remembering is painful–we don’t always remember when God was there, we also remember when He seemed to be nowhere in sight.
“Your way is in the sea,
And Your paths are in many waters,
And Your footsteps shall not be known” (v. 20).
Sometimes, even in our memory, God seems invisible at best.
Still, it’s in all of this, the beautiful, hard work of memory, that we perhaps begin to see things a little bit more as God does, who is the I Am and not tethered to the strictures of past, present, or future.
Maybe the “Goal” (or one of them, at least) is not so much to be present to the immediacy of the here and now, but to be present to our god-given memory. Maybe we are called, simply, to “remember God and be glad.”
The liturgical calendar helps us in this pursuit.
In the year of the Church, much of life is lived in the peripheries of time–the temporal spaces that surround the time itself. With most major feasts, we are called not just to celebrate them on that day, but to look back on them (via Afterfeasts, Synaxes and Leavetakings). Each of these peripheral times comprises days that have their own, unique hymns that are often distinct from the hymns of the actual feast day, but which tease out various aspects of that feast.
Here are some basic terms to be familiar with:
- Synaxis: “Synaxis” is a Greek word that simple means a meeting or gathering. Any service can be a synaxis (and as one of my priests recently put it, if you choose to sleep in instead of going to Church, you are still attending a synaxis–with your pillow). In the context of liturgical time, however, a synaxis refers to the day following a major feast, upon which is commemorated other, more peripheral figures integral to the feast day. (Last month, for example, I mentioned the synaxis of Righteous Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Theotokos, which is the day after the Nativity of the Theotokos on September 8th.)
- Afterfeast: A period of ritual remembrance and celebration of a major feast day, which can last between 5 days (Entry and Nativity of the Theotokos) and 39 days (Pascha).
- Leavetaking/ Apodosis: The final day of an afterfeast (or the day following a feast, if there is no afterfeast or synaxis). Pascha and most major feast days have a leavetaking, as do at least four feasts not strictly included in the 12 major feasts: the leavetakings of St Demetrios (27 October), Nativity of the Forerunner (25 June), Saints Peter and Paul (30 June), Beheading of the Forerunner (30 August).
In a similar way, there are two varieties of days that come before feasts. On these days, the Church anticipates and prepares for upcoming commemorations. Although anticipation is seemingly the opposite of looking back, it is actually an inverted form of memory, since we are anticipate events that have already happened in time, historically.
- Forefeast: A season preceding a major feast day lasting between 1-5 days. Note: this is not the same thing as a preparatory fasting season like Lent. Forefeasts are centered on the feast itself, and most Paschal and Lenten feast days do not have forefeasts.
- Vigil: The eve of (i.e. evening preceding) a major feast day and/or an all-night service held on the eve of a major feast (this service usually consists of Great Vespers, Matins and the First Hour).The most famous vigil is that of Pascha, but vigils can also precede Christmas and any of the other 12 major feasts, as well as on Saturday evenings in preparation for the Lord’s day, or the eves of saint days.
There are various ways these festal periods of anticipation and remembrance developed around the major feast days. Mostly, though, they remind us that we can’t take in everything when we limit ourselves to the present. It’s in remembering God, and the events through which He ushered in our salvation, that we begin to see through more whole, generous and eternal eyes.
As autumn slowly relinquishes to winter and we find ourselves growing wistful for what has come and gone, let us remember to remember God and be glad.