It took a sci-fi writer, Philip K. Dick, to perfectly summarize where we are when we are within the Mass.
There are some people living in Sharpsburg, Maryland, who “can tell you everything about the battle as if it happened to them,” says a resident. He was referring to the descendants of those who ―eight generations previously, in 1862 this month ― were swept up in the great Battle of Antietam Creek (or the Battle of Sharpsburg as Southerners called it). It’s been called “a gash in history that is still healing.”
As if it happened to them — an arresting phrase, that. The memory of events long removed from personal experience that become indelible, a living and seemingly personal memory that persists as people tell and retell it.
According to the town website, Sharpsburg is 702 people; not any larger than it was in 1862. Anybody growing up there would have heard the stories passed along. Those tales would in some degree become like real memories.
I had the same fierce experience with a tour guide while on a walking tour of Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston isn’t merely a historic city; in our guide’s telling, Charleston is history.
Our guide tied her story of Charleston’s story to “us,” “we,” and “ours,” linking herself to events that happened a century or two or three before. The history of her Charleston wasn’t something that happened to somebody else some other time. It was “our” history she recited as we walked; “my” memory of “Charleston natives” (Palmetto bugs, if you must know) and boiled peanuts and the earthquake of 1886. Charleston’s history was, like the man said, as if it had happened to her.
Our little tour guide, hardly in her mid-twenties, lived all that history.
This description is more than a variety of remembering. I think it is more like the Greek word anamnesis (literally, “against forgetting”), where the telling of a past event makes it present now.
Philip K. Dick was a science fiction writer who died in 1982. He was a relentlessly idiosyncratic novelist and an Episcopalian Christian. He not infrequently used Christian imagery and Christian themes. For his science fiction, forget the Buck Rogers-style space ships and bug-eyed aliens. His stories looked at the interior soul coping with exterior stresses. He chose themes of paranoia, political repression, the decay of society, and the plastic, tenuous nature of reality. For Dick, human living was a life of loss, fear, regret ― yet all that was strangely intermingled with the hope there is a deeper reality behind or above or under or within the reality we experience; and it is something we once knew.
There was a Truth that was true, but it was almost always shrouded, somehow just beyond reach. His characters possessed the visionary sense of being in touch with some vast, benevolent reality. They were reaching for it, and it was calling to them.
In his implausibly titled novel Radio Free Albemuth, published after his death, he has a dead-on portrayal of Christian memory:
“Anamnesis, it was called: abolishment of amnesia, the block that keeps us from remembering. We all have that block. There’s a Christian anamnesis, too: memory of Christ, of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. In Christian anamnesis those events are remembered in the same way, as a real memory. It’s the sacred inner miracle of Christian worship; it’s what the bread and wine cause. ‘Do this in remembrance of me,’ and you do it, and you remember Jesus all at once. As if you had known him but had forgotten. The bread and wine, partaking of them brings it back.”
I have hardly ever found a better liturgical description of what is going on in the Eucharist. The Lord’s Last Supper becomes “a real memory”for us, a real event we live through and remember as vividly as yesterday. It isn’t something Jesus did with his disciples in Jerusalem once upon a time. It is something he does with us, his disciples in these times.
We join him in the upper room. It is we to whom he speaks when he says he has longed to eat this Passover with us. He speaks to us when he says one of us will betray him, and it is to us he says he will not drink again from the cup until he drinks it anew in the kingdom, ushered in for us.
We hear the whole story, beginning to end, and it unexpectedly becomes our story, as if it had happened to us. It sneaks up on us but we find it is we, ourselves, now who are under discussion. No wonder we remember it so clearly.
And suddenly I remember another phrase. Maybe it’s from the 1960s macrobiotic whole food diet thing, or the earlier catabolic diet craze, or maybe it was Grandma who said it first: “Remember, you are what you eat.”
This is a revised version of a 2012 post at another website.