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Responsibility for Memory

May 11, 2011

What most struck me about the philosophical reflection on memory and eternity was how far it stood from my usual thoughts about memory. As I said, I think of memory as something short and unreliable. I had forgotten how long, reliable, and essential it is most of the time. My reflections have been focused on the unreliability of newspapers and history books, on my daughter wondering whether she can pass her exams, and on brain science which progresses by studying failures, diseases, and anomalies. Failures of memory, in short.

It is a long time since I thought about memory in a philosophical way, about memory as something fundamental and profound, something that underlies our very identity.

Furthermore, memory is related to imagination because of course the things we imagine are made of the things we remember, only placed in new relationships. Imagination, in its turn, is related to hope because hope is the ability to maintain the image of a positive future.

Now, hope directed to holiness is one of the three theological virtues, the fundamental strengths of a relationship with God, so it’s important to develop it. Sometimes we see definitions of hope that are indistinguishable from faith – such as saying that hope means “believing” in God’s promises. Well, it’s by faith that we believe things as ideas, and the ideas of our creed, if truly held, shape our understanding of the world. So far, so good.

The difference with hope is that it involves imagination and memory. For example, our hope of heaven is an image of something lovely – fields of flowers, choirs of angels, a fireside meeting of friends, or simply the embrace of the Beloved. Our faith in heaven is the maintenance of an idea that is always present in our thinking so that we never say death is the end; we never allow the feeling of loss to overwhelm our concept of the power of God. Even reflecting on war, we remember that those who die stand immediately before God; once dead, they do not, themselves, bleed on the battlefield.

But concepts do not alleviate sadness; it is the image of our friends finally free and of ourselves going to meet them that comforts us. That is hope; that gives us courage.

Faith underlies hope because if the idea that our hope may be false becomes strong, the image fades or is carried away in a tide of grief. We must believe that hope is more than imaginary. Faith is clinging to God with our minds; it invites hope, which is clinging to God with our imagination.

Then, since imagination depends on memory, we must be attentive to memory and, to the extent of our power, provide images that support hope. I think of a Cuban prisoner of conscience who tells of lying in his cell and thinking of crashing waves and blazing sunsets. I think of an American in a Viet Cong prison, with the image of a stained glass window from the chapel of his childhood.

These reflections return us to the question of education and motherhood: part of our responsibility for education is a responsibility for the formation of memory and imagination. This means we are called to provide beauty, at least to notice it, so that hope has its proper soil.

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