It is a simple word: “remember.” Yet, its meaning is more spiritual and mystical than many of us think. For, at its heart, memory, and remembering are deeply mysterious, and, as we shall see, the deepest remembering is done by God.
Materialists and others who like to reduce everything to matter and to the physical, will tend to see memory merely in terms of brain cells storing information. And yet, this explanation answers very little really. How, for example is “information” reduced to cellular tissue? And how is that information broken down and later retrieved in an orderly, meaningful way? Is there one cell for every letter of a word? Is the vast and subtle information of facial recognition stored in 1000 cells, 10,000, or 10 million…? And how do the many different cells interact and take their data bits stored in their tissue and create a package we call knowledge, or memory in such a way that the knowing subject (us) is able to be present to it? And how can we explain consciousness, self consciousness and the reflexive experience that we “know that we know,” that we are “aware that we are aware” and know that we are remembering? How we can explain higher phenomena such as awareness, consciousness, personality, and memory?
I pray, dear reader, I am not being too overwhelming in raising all these questions. My point is only to illustrate that there is a great deal of mystery when it comes to the human mind. And when we ask “what does it really mean to remember” we ought to accept that our meager words cannot really plumb the full depths of all this.
Indeed, Scripture teaches that only God really knows our inner depths:
—O Lord, you search me and you know me…too wonderful for me this knowledge (Ps 139:1),
—More tortuous than anything is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, the LORD, explore the mind and test the heart (Jer 17:9-10).
—Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known (1 Cor 13:12).
With this humbling background in mind, still the question occurs, “What does it mean to remember.” Just a few and very partial thoughts:
In English, the word remember seems to suggest a putting together of pieces to create a whole. Re + member. Thus, we collect the fragments of our past, mysteriously stored in our mind, and we make sense of them, we connect the dots, we stitch a narrative together that decodes some of their meaning. We take these bit and pieces of stored memory and “re” “member” them. Thus remembering is more than random memories bubbling up (as some suggest dreams are), rather, remembering is to collect, synthesize and make sense of the fragments and “stored data” of memory.
In Latin, the root is memorari – meaning “to be mindful of.” Thus rememorai means to be mindful of something once again. And here we take a step a little deeper into the mystery of the mind. For what it means to “be mindful” is, in fact mysterious, caught up in the mystery of awareness, and consciousness, the mystery of what it means to be a knowing subject. Still, to be mindful of something means to have it present to and interacting with our inner self, with that part of us that is aware, thinking, and pondering.
Theologically remembering is rooted in the Greek word anamnesis, which, while it means “remembering,” or “to bring to mind” in simple Greek etymology, theologically, it means a deeper kind of remembering that makes present what is remembered. Thus, in the theological sense, “remembering” is not simply a passive process, but one by which we actually enter into the Paschal Mystery and those events become present to us in their power. We are not simply recalling distant events, we are experiencing them as present and active.
Thus, to “remember” in the theological sense is to have what God has done for you so present to your heart and mind, that you’re grateful, that you’re different, that you are changed by its power at work in you. When Jesus says τοῦτο ποιεῖτε εἰς τὴν ἐμὴν ἀνάμνησιν “Do this in remembrance of me” he is doing more than asking us to have a fond memory of him from time to time. What he is saying is, “Gather with me, and experience as present what I have done for you. Don’t just go on standing there, let what I have done be present to you, in your heart and mind, present in such a way that you are grateful, present to you in such a way that you are different, that you are changed by it.”
And thus the great mystery of “remembering” reaches its highest peak as a work of God. For if, as English suggests, “re-membering” involves a kind of drawing together and making one, what was bits and pieces, what was somehow dismembered or random and unintelligible, then anamnesis (unerstood here as theological remembering) involves the work of God in bringing all the members of Christ’s body together. This “re-membering” it heals us individually by uniting our divided soul. It also “re-members” us collectively by making us one, it involves knitting us together into one body, the Body of Christ.
And when Christ’s own work of “re-membering” is complete there will be as St. Augustine says, Unus Christus, amans seipsum (one Christ, loving himself). Then will be fulfilled the words of the ancient hymn Ubi Caritas which says, congregavit nos in unum Christi amor (the love of Christ has gathered us in one).
Yes, when all has been “re-membered” then will be fulfilled what Scripture says, So in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. (Rom 12:5).
What does it mean to “remember?” A lot! And much of it is mysterious and marvelous.
Here Fr. Francis Martin speaks on the theological sense of remembering.