The Catholic Thing
How Proust Can Save Memorial Day (Really) Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Sunday, 26 May 2013

Editor’s Note: A reader from Ohio writes in a note sent along in the same envelope with his check for the fifth anniversary fund drive: “Don’t you dare go out of business.” I’d like to assure him – and all of you – that we have no intention of doing any such thing. But we can only continue this vital work so long as our readers and friends – meaning you and others you can send our way – will help with our costs. Thanks to some generous gifts yesterday, we’re now down to $3500 left to meet our current goals. In the larger scheme of things, it isn’t a lot of money. But each year we have to hit certain targets by our common efforts, which means many small and medium contributions from people who appreciate the mission and want to help see it expand to even more readers who might literally find a saving word in our words. This is Memorial Day weekend. And as we remember all the things we are grateful for and all the people who sacrificed to make it possible, please give a thought to The Catholic Thing as well. We’re a happy band of brother and sisters here engaged in what real Catholic lay people must do: evangelizing the public square while trying to inform and strengthen one another. I hope to see many of you at our June 19 Fifth Anniversary celebration (click over on the advertisement above to register). Several of the writers will be there to talk with you and sign copies of our anthology of columns, which will be published that very week. And if you can’t attend, a $100 contribution means you can receive a free copy of an anthology of five years of our work. So how about it. Do your part right now! – Robert Royal

Memorial Day, it’s worth reminding ourselves, is about memory. And what we’re remembering this weekend, in theory, is the long line of men and women in the past who sacrificed – in something approaching religious devotion – so that we in the present could enjoy the freedoms and benefits of living in America.

That’s how you might hear about it from a public school teacher or at a Memorial Day event. And there’s much right with that. The trouble is many people have lost even simple historical memory: students and even mature citizens can’t say in what century the Revolutionary or Civil Wars were fought, or who our Allies were in World War II or Iraq. Not that long ago, we worried about this. Now, we’ve just largely given up.

Memory of names and dates and battles, of course, is not the Holy Grail. You can Google and store them on your computer. That’s memory of one sort. Though on a wholly different plane than gratitude towards benefactors and proper love of country.


But there’s another kind of memory. A Christian who believes in the Real Presence meets it regularly: “Do this in memory of me.” The Christian churches have not done very much better than the secular world in preserving bare-bones knowledge of sacred history. Who today knows who Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Samson, David, Moses, and Job were? Still, we seem more and more to be suffering from an even worse failure of another kind of memory.

We only really remember things vital to us. Today, the typical American takes America for granted, as if it’s the normal condition of humanity instead of – many deep problems notwithstanding – a rare achievement. The typical Christian thinks the two great commandments are 1) Be Nice; and 2) Don’t judge. And everybody already knows that, so what is there to remember?

How remedy secular and religious amnesia? Let me suggest that there’s strange light in the esoteric and far-from-typically-American Marcel Proust. Proust’s novel Remembrance of Things Past, is “not for everybody.” Indeed, in its sprawling totality, it’s almost not for anybody.

But Proust made a crucial discovery. There are two kind of memory. One voluntary: like Googling some search term. It’s not much different whether a computer or human brain recovers the item.

But there’s another kind of memory, involuntary memory, which only a living being can have – though, by its nature, not possess. (To jump to another literary reference, William Faulkner remarks in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It’s always there whether we acknowledge it or not. And sooner or later it forces us to acknowledge it.)

The second sort of memory comes to us when we’re awakened to some connection that’s hard to specify, but has a living and vital link across time that seems to make no sense in a world conceived along strictly materialistic lines. In one of the most famous episodes in all of literature, Proust’s narrator is having tea with shell-shaped cookies called madeleines, when something strange happens:

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. . . .And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. . . .Whence did it come? What did it mean? . . .And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it.
So what, you say? So everything, say I.

How can an ordinary sweet named after Mary Magdalene lead us to an experience that transcends ordinary time? Modern life has been so flattened out that we believe we live in a narrow moment and can search the hard drive for some past input and maybe peer a little into the future. But as ancient mythology asserted, the Muses are the daughters of Memory – this kind of transcendent memory. If we want to have all those higher things that distinguish the human race from its animal relations – religion, poetry, art, music, love, loyalty, fidelity, patriotism, all the unbought graces of life – we need that memory.

            Like all graces, the gift of living memory is not under our command. It comes on its own terms or not at all. Young people were once taught names, places, and dates so that maybe, someday, a Madeleine-like moment might transform those seemingly lifeless facts into gratitude for this land.


The parallel with religion is not accidental. We once learned sacred history, dogmas, moral principles by rote so that some day, by a process known only to God, we might see how they are right – and insert us into our own living place in a communion that, like some recent theory in physics, jumps over our normal understanding of time.

On this Memorial Day, in an America that sadly neglects or refuses memory, there’s much to recover. Robert Frost remembers in “The Gift Outright”:

Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become. 
Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (4)Add Comment
written by Jacob, May 26, 2013
Great article.

But how can we be patriotic when our country has just committed fifty million abortions at least, not counting those it has inspired in other countries?
written by Randall, May 26, 2013
@Jacob - You ask, "How can we be patriotic when our country has just committed fifty million abortions . . . ?" Let me take a crack at answering your question.

First of all, let me briefly explain my perspective. I'm an American who's been living abroad for nearly two years. This isn't the first time I've lived abroad for an extended period of time. I can say with certainty that distance creates a certain clarity. It's rather like Chesterton's example of the English boy living in the chalk hills, living on top of a giant chalk-line figure, who left home to see the world, turned back to take a last look at home and for the first time in his life saw the great chalk figure in its entirety.

So much for brevity. Anyway, for all our faults as Americans, I think the majority of Americans would be horrified if they only knew what has really been happening in regards to abortion. But our public education system and media generally have obscured the shocking horror of it. We've been spoon-fed the "women's right to choose" and "they're only a clump a cells" mantra for so long that it's a miracle that many of us have still been able to see the truth.

So, I guess the point I really want to make is that Americans are essentially decent people who would really like to do good. America has spilt more of its own blood for the intended benefit of others than any other nation, ever. Are we often naïve? Self-obsessed? Just plain ignorant? Yes, yes and yes.

And yet, when a disaster hits we line up for hours (if necessary) to donate blood or show up with shovels in hand to rebuild. If people were as informed about the horror of abortion as we are whenever any other tragedy happens, I believe abortion would largely disappear.
written by Manfred, May 26, 2013
Thank you for an excellent article, Robert. Let me just add a few footnotes. This American holiday was originally called Decoration Day as the citizenry would place flags and decorations at the graves of the Civil War dead (both North and South). As America became a world power and the war dead continued to grow, the holiday became Memorial Day in which we honor the American dead who protected us from foes we largely helped construct (think of the US, UK and Netherlands cutting off oil and rubber to Japan in July, 1941 which triggered the attack of 12/7/1941).
You wisely avoided this trap by focusing on memory. My family and I will be gathering and focusing on all the gifts which God has given us, beginning with the True Faith and the promise and hope of eternal life if we obey His Will in our lives. We will remember our sick and deceased both in our immediate family as well as friends. We will pray for the Pope and the good bishops and priests we rarely hear of who desperately need our prayers.
As America charts its course, we remember the good, affluent times we enjoyed when it still had a patina of "Christianity" about it. We will pray for it to correct its course but we fear that Orestes Brownson had it right back in 1873.
written by Jack,CT, May 26, 2013
Thanks Robert for another GEM!

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