Memory: Human and Divine

What he did at supper seated,
Christ ordained to be repeated,
His memorial ne’er to cease.
       (From Lauda Zion, Sequence for Corpus Christi)

Have you outsourced your memory? No, probably not. And neither have those who claim to have done so. At best, they have enlisted digital devices to aid their recall – but not their memory. The distinction is essential. Man does not merely recall; he remembers. The reduction of memory to recall trivializes one of our greatest powers – and threatens our appreciation of the Eucharist.

Recall simply brings up data: a phone number, an address, a date. As such, it is approximated fairly well by computers. But memory goes much deeper. To remember means more than to spit out data. It is not a purely intellectual act but involves the entire person, soul and body. In days of yore – before cell phones and speed dial – to remember a phone number meant more than to recall the digits. It meant to see and feel the pattern of the numbers on the dial pad or even to hear the varying clicks on the rotary dial.

Which is to say that memory is embodied. When I think of summers at the beach, I do not merely recall the fact of it. I remember the smell and feel of the salt air, the tug of a fish on the line, the sound of the surf at night. No device can compensate for this, because it is profoundly human.

To remember is, in a certain way, to make something from the past present to us, here and now. We do this by thought and conversation, by monuments and ceremonies. We recite poems and sing songs about past deeds. We set aside perfectly good land and erect monuments where battles were fought.

We want to keep the past present because we know that the events ought to influence us still today. The virtues of those who served, the heroism of those who died, the glory of just deeds, the travesty of injustice – these should be made present in order to form us.

But our efforts fail. The world has plenty of monuments, decrees, songs, and ballads meant to remind us, but which have themselves been forgotten. The Roman poet Horace boasted that he had created a monument “more lasting than bronze.” But. . .who reads Horace anymore? Mere creatures that we are, we cannot make the past fully present. The songs are forgotten, the monuments crumble, and the ideals are lost.

The Last Supper by Juan de Juanes, c. 1562 [Museo del Prado]

And yet our Lord commands us, Do this in memory of me. These words indicate a deeper kind of memory than we have. They speak of a divine memory, so to speak, a participation in the memory of the One for Whom all is alive. (see Lk 20:38) The Church calls the Mass the “memorial” of Christ’s Passover. Now, the colloquial understanding of “memorial” does not convey the Church’s meaning. The Catechism explains it as follows:

In the sense of Sacred Scripture the memorial is not merely the recollection of past events but the proclamation of the mighty works wrought by God for men. In the liturgical celebration of these events, they become in a certain way present and real. This is how Israel understands its liberation from Egypt: every time Passover is celebrated, the Exodus events are made present to the memory of believers so that they may conform their lives to them. (CCC 1363, emphases added)

This is no ordinary, human memorial. This is God’s remembering and thus fulfills our desire to make the past present.

In the Mass, our Lord’s sacrifice becomes present and real under the sacramental form of bread and wine. The Catechism repeats the words of the Council of Trent:

The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different. . . .In this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner. (CCC 1367)

Our symbols of remembrance remain merely that – symbols. Our monuments remind us, but they do not make present. Only the Lord fulfills the longing of human memory by making history’s greatest event present to us now under the form of bread and wine. In what Saint Thomas calls the “memorial ne’er to cease,” everything of His Sacrifice is made present: His offering to the Father, the stretching of His Body on the Cross, the shedding of His Blood, His prayer for mercy, and even the giving of His mother.

“Were you there when the crucified my Lord?” the American spiritual asks. No, we were not – nor did we need to be. The Mass makes His crucifixion present to us, precisely so that we can become participants in His offering and conform our lives to that event.

This consideration of the Eucharistic memorial teaches us something about how Mother Church remembers. She does not reminisce about the good old days or merely recall her Lord. She is always – throughout history and throughout the world – making Him present through the ministry of her priests.

All teaching about Jesus Christ reaches its fulfillment in this memorial, in which He is not just recalled but made present. And without this memorial all teaching would remain only a recollection about past events.

To appreciate the memorial sacrifice, then, requires an appreciation of human memory. If we reduce our memory to that technological recall, easily delegated to a device, then we lose the template for understanding the memorial that perfects all human memory.

The exercise of authentic human memory, on the other hands, prepares us for the sacrificial memorial. It cultivates in us a desire to make the past present and indeed to make ourselves present to the sacrificial Victim present to us.

Fr. Paul D. Scalia

Fr. Paul D. Scalia

Fr. Paul Scalia is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, Va, where he serves as Episcopal Vicar for Clergy. His new book is That Nothing May Be Lost: Reflections on Catholic Doctrine and Devotion.

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