As we approach Memorial Day, we do well to remember that memory is not just a comforting nostalgia, but a way of knowing who we are, of connecting with God and others. Many of us, immersed in counseling lingo, know the dangers of forgetting. We know by now that we cannot know who we are without knowing from where we’ve come. We know that trauma will never heal as long as it is locked deep within us. We know that we cannot progress or grow as long as we refuse to take inventory of our mistakes and poor past habits. We know we cannot begin to imagine steps of reconciliation as long as we ignore or deny the wrongs in our past. Memory is a teacher, a revealer, a guide for every day that follows.
Memory certainly can be constructive and healing, but the work of today is not to tell us to take our medicine, nor to remember in order to stay out of trouble. Instead, this Memorial Day I hope to ring the bell of memory again for beauty, as an act of worship, and maybe of resistance. I am arguing we should not face memories because they otherwise haunt us, but because in our memories we find our very selves; in remembering, we tap into the eternal hint God placed within us at our forming. Remembering resists mortality and reverses erasure.
Walter Benjamin was a Jewish German philosopher and thinker about culture and literature who fled Hitler’s growing Nazi hatred in the 30s. He died along the way when he thought his escape had been blocked, committing suicide. Thankfully, among other ideas he left us the legacy of the notion of Messianic time. For Benjamin, a powerful connection—one that overcomes the limits of mortal humanity—occurs when a community beholds a piece of art or beauty together. Making a memory collaboratively with others somehow crosses the boundaries of space and time that isolate us. Messianic time is felt and tapped into when a collective experience is shared. When a moment is held among people together, it is so powerful that an atemporal connecting occurs across time; for Benjamin, past, present and future merge into the shared moment.
The bonds of mortality, of our own sad stuckness in temporality, are tight indeed. How can we practice remembering in a way that catches a glimpse of Messianic time? Frederick Buechner, a writer and priest, is helpful here as he reminds us that first our memories must be spoken. In speaking of a hard and never talked about past memory of loss, he found hope in words, asserting, “Words are so much a part of what we keep the past alive by, if only words to ourselves.” We must learn to face our memories and also learn to speak them. Tell yourself the story of you. The stories that shape and impact and make you. Remember them to yourself, with images, yes, but also with words. When we speak such words, we offer ourselves the chance to re-remember the ideas that helped shape us, putting ourselves together again.
Buechner argued that speaking memories into the present keeps those we have lost alive, but I think it helps us stay alive too. As a follower of Christ I believe I was made with God’s imprint. The God in me elevates and expands my most painful limits, giving me tastes of the eternal in precious, restorative glimpses. I have to struggle and grieve and fight against my own imprisonment in linear time. I am neither eternal nor God, and am thus limited to live one day at a time, leaving the past, and memories of those I knew in the past, behind.
This is mostly true, but I think memory is a beautiful, outrageous, God-sized loop hole in my prison of time. One of the pathways to Messianic time, to God’s eternally connected temporality, is memory. Buechner puts it this way: “Maybe the most sacred function of memory is just that: to render the distinction between past, present, and future ultimately meaningless; to enable us at some level of our being to inhabit that same eternity which it is said that God himself inhabits.” What if remembering the past lifts us out of linear time and instead gives us a taste of the eternal, where all time is simultaneous?
This Memorial Day, indulge in remembering. Take some time to re-member yourself—to put yourself back together—by telling the stories of the people and encounters that continue to shape you. Take a morning to marvel at how close you can be to those you have lost when you remember them. Give your private memories words, and tell stories about the people you have loved and love still. Keep them alive with your laughter, and revel in the Messianic time that allows you to walk with them, to hear their voices, and to sense the embrace of God, again.