Tuesday 2 August 2016

Living backwards: the conversion of memory

I’m reading Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter with some students this semester. The narrator, Hannah, is an old woman looking back on her life in Port William. Right at the start she says: “This is the story of my life, that while I lived it weighed upon me and pressed against me and filled all my senses to overflowing and now is like a dream dreamed…. This is my story, my giving of thanks.”

Normally we think about the Christian life as something that’s lived forwards in time: we want our orientation to the future, our plans and decisions and actions, to be converted to the gospel. But Hannah Coulter has reminded me that the Christian life is also lived backwards in time. It’s also our memories that need to be converted. By any objective measure, Hannah’s life has not been easy. But she is able to look back on the whole thing in gratitude, without bitterness or blame. Her conversion to the gospel is most evident not in anything she does but in the way she remembers herself and tells her story.

It is the same with the first and greatest autobiography, Augustine’s Confessions. Augustine’s conversion totally re-shaped not only his future but also his past. In the act of remembering his own life, he discovers the ever-present grace of God – a grace that was never apparent at the time, as the drama of life was actually occurring, but has now become the hidden meaning of everything that happened. “You have dwelt in my memory ever since I learned to know you, and it is there that I find you when I remember and delight in you…. You have honoured my memory by making it your dwelling-place” (Confessions 10.24.35–25.36). If God dwells in memory, then the past is not fixed and finished. It can be converted. It can be attuned to God’s presence.

The Bible, too, is not just a promise for the future or a revelation of how to live. First and foremost the Bible is an aide-mémoire. It directs itself towards the sanctification of memory – the memory of God’s way with Israel, read backwards through the prism of the death and resurrection of the Saviour. “Keep these words in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6.6-9). We can have a future only if we know who we are, and we know who we are because of memory. I am told that some sufferers of head injury lose their ability to plan because they have lost their memory: the future exists only for those who have a past. 

The last novel I read with this student book group was Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead – another powerful account of the sanctification of memory. In that book, the old narrator John Ames observes that religious epiphanies are often experienced not in the present but in memory of the past. “Sometimes the visionary aspect of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it, or it opens to you over time…. I believe there are visions that come to us only in memory, in retrospect.”

God dwells in memory.

This is why unforgiveness is such a profoundly damaging spiritual act: for when I harbour resentment against another person, I bar the door against God’s loving intrusion into my memory. I sin against myself, I destroy myself, when I shut God out of my past. And I sin against God when I shut God out of the divine dwelling place, “the fields and vast mansions of memory” (Confessions 10.8.12).


HeatherT said...

Very helpful. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I did my master's thesis on evangelicals and the environment under the supervision of Norman Wirzba -- an excellent person. He encouraged me to read lots of Wendell Berry, but I've not yet had the opportunity to read his fiction. This post is a lovely encouragement to do so. The theological reflection is thought provoking as well: "It directs itself towards the sanctification of memory – the memory of God’s way with Israel, read backwards through the prism of the death and resurrection of the Savior." The sanctification of memory. Nice words, Ben. Thank you!


wil rogan said...

What a beautiful reflection, Ben. How are any of us to know our histories apart from the sanctifying grace of God?

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