This weekend our nation commemorates Memorial Day, a day to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice to protect the liberties we enjoy and can sometimes take for granted. Just the title of this day gives us occasion to contemplate the amazing gift from the Lord that we call memory. In his book Confessions (Book X), Saint Augustine comments on memory at length, including these words: “Great is this power of memory, exceeding great, O my God – an inner chamber large and boundless!” These words highlight the great power memory has as well as its importance in our lives. In a day when Alzheimer’s Disease and other causes of dementia are so prevalent, we have a greater appreciation of the importance of memory – how it stores so many of our experiences, be they of the senses, of the mind, of the heart, or of encounters with others, including God. Some memories we recall to treasure and savor. Other memories we bring to mind so that we may not allow certain events to be repeated.
Forming and sustaining a collective memory is something that is central to communities of faith. Faith communities share a common narrative, a common story, the parts of which are important to recall in their appropriate times. These memories may be things such as the saving hand of the Lord in leading Israel out of Egypt, or the recounting of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead, appearing to his disciples. Our participation in our community of faith, the Church, is essential to keeping alive within us the memory of who we are, from where we have come, and to what we look forward.
One of the things that has amazed me in my ministry is how memory shapes our faith lives. Even persons who have suffered dementia or other memory loss seem still to retain some of the most basic prayers they learned at a young age. When ministering to some of these people as they have been close to death, I have often seen their lips move along with me as I have prayed the Our Father or the Hail Mary. Memory can indeed be a mystery, but we should not forget its importance or its power in our lives.