Anamnesis

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As I look at the beautiful Christmas tree here at my parent’s home, hung with 40 years of memories, I’m struck by how this tree is like memory itself.  Hidden among the branches and tinsel, illuminated by twinkle lights or lost in shadows, little ornaments of past delight wait to be rediscovered, re-remembered, and enjoyed anew.

St Thomas Aquinas wrote that joy is delight remembered.

Reading about the human brain and how memory is formed, I have been surprised by its fragility.  Barring the painful memory loss that comes with Alzheimer’s, dementia, or injury,  normal events making the trek from experience to working memory into long-term memory require certain key conditions or the brain will not store the information in any retrievable fashion.   Even strong memories can still be lost as long-term memory remains in flux for over a decade. The more sensory and emotional connections made with an experience, the greater the chance it will stick around; the more it is actively recalled and in a sense, re-experienced, the greater the chance it will solidify into long-term memory.

Some people spend more of their time thinking about the future or the present, I tend to think more about the past, and I often return over and over to certain memories.

As I’ve been rediscovering prayer this past year and asking difficult questions about vocation (and the future), God has been gently, yet insistently, showing me that the majority of the memories I frequently revisit are marked with sadness and shame, rather than joy or grace.    While I often find joy in the present, it doesn’t seem to make it into my long-term memory.  With a tinge of Jonah-like frustration at God, I complained, “Well, this is what I remember, so help me remember something else!”

The word anamnesis came to mind. Not exactly a word I would casually…well, remember.

Liturgically, it refers to the part of the Eucharistic prayer recalling the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, “Do this in memory of me.”

Anamnesis means more than to simply remember or reminisce, it means to remember something forgotten.

To remember what was forgotten seems paradoxical and feels impossible, so I figure it must only be possible with the help of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus described as the Comforter, who will “bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” (John 14:26)

As I walk this journey of Advent and come to the end of 2009, I long for a loss of forgetfulness, to remember (maybe even for the first time) all the many times God spoke grace, love, and joy in experiences and through others, and to feel them as deeply as I feel the not-so pleasant memories.  I long to stop traveling the roads that lead to feelings of sadness and shame. Even better, I want to remember whole stories from the past, not just the difficult parts, and pray for insight into how grace, God’s “I love you,” was present even in painful times.

A way I’d like to begin this exploration of the fragile, wonderful, complex gift of graced human memory and memory-making is to create a weekly blog practice called Anamnesis, and invite you to join in.  If you have remembered a forgotten moment of joy or grace, and would like to share it, include your blog link below or add a comment.

Peace to you on your journey through Advent!

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  • On Sunday at church, after I was done leading worship but before the service was over, I had an anxiety attack. I’ve not had one in years, but this full body flood of emotion took me right back to the months after Jack was born, when I was sick with anxiety all the time.

    I know this attack was triggered by stress (too much going on last week, and then I skipped the Silent Listening to God time at the beginning of the service and felt like an idiot), and it startled and scared me. I went forward and asked for prayer during Communion, and when I returned to the pew, Doug prayed for me silently throughout the rest of the service.

    By the benediction, the anxiety had left! I’ve never ever ever had such a short-lived attack, especially when it was as strong as that. Usually they last for hours if not days (or in the case of my post-partum anxiety, months), so I consider this a miraculous healing, a yes answer to the prayers of Doug and the gentleman whose name I do not know who prayed for me.

    I include this here in your anamnesis post because this anxiety attack reminded me of all the anxiety I used to live with that I had forgotten. And it reminded me how grateful I am to be free of that chronic anxiety! My life is truly blessed.