Teaching Memories

I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me,
To see the beauty in the world through my own eyes

From “Wanting Memories,” by Ysaye Barnwell

On a Wednesday morning several several years ago, I stood at the edge of Lake Miriam as fog faded into morning’s strengthening light. Students and I had journeyed there to the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut, to spend eight days experiencing the daily life and rhythms of a Jewish farm called Adamah. We were eager to learn how this vibrant community connects land and liturgy, ecology and theology, everyday life and the mysteries of faith.

Lake Miriam. I like that name for the waters that revealed themselves to me with the sunrise. Once the fog lifted and the sky cleared, the lake reflected almost to perfection the clouds and surrounding hills. Lake Miriam, in that reflective moment, seemed to gather up ancient memories embedded in dirt, rocks, and mountains and make them new again with the dawn.

I thought then that for me this was what the eight days were to be about—connecting again with ancient memories shared by Jews and Christians and learning what it means to reflect these memories anew as dawn appears on each misty horizon.

This work my students and I undertook for the week was not new work. Remembering—and wrestling with how to collect and record individual and communal memories—is central to what it means to be human. We humans believe that memories are powerful, that they have wisdom to impart. This is a paradox for me, as my memory is a rather unreliable source of factual information. What I recall about past events often blurs the details of what happened in those events. This is true in my case for remembering both large and small things. I forget about once a week where I put my car keys, and I have been known to forget where I parked my car. Any number of daily details slip through the sieve that is my mediocre memory.

Larger scale historical remembering is also forgetful and often with dangerous outcomes. Too much “official” history has celebrated and supported certain groups and communities and ignored or denigrated others by its use of selective remembering or purposeful forgetting. Individual and collective remembering and memories are, at best, imperfect and, at worst, damaging.

Yet, as unreliable and unhealthy as it can be, memory is central to human mean-making, and ritual remembering is a significant part of much religious meaning making.

While my students and I were at the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center, we celebrated the Jewish holiday of Shavuot along with more than 100 Jewish retreat guests. Shavuot, the “Feast of Weeks,” focuses on the first fruits of the harvest season and God’s giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. Together with our new Jewish friends, we remembered what happened all those generations ago on that holy mountain in the story in Exodus. And what a remembering we shared. Meals were lavish; psalms and prayers were chanted and danced; a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, or all-night Torah study session, kept the midnight oils burning through the night before and into the morning of the main liturgy. The joy of remembering was intense and palpable throughout the weekend.

Memory and remembering are important both in Jewish and Christian traditions. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman writes about Jewish remembrance, or zekher:

[Zekher] is a pointer that fastens our attention across time, space, and even logic. It attaches where we are to somewhere else we wish to be. It rivets our consciousness on our inherent connectivity to something that might otherwise be lost among the disparate sense perceptions that constantly assail us, as if to say that regardless of how our lives may change, this particular pathway of attentiveness must never be lost. We move on with our lives when the moment of remembrance ends, but the connecting tissue to the event being memorialized attends us wherever we go, deepening our sense of what matters and committing ourselves to the lessons that flow from it (see http://blog.lawrenceahoffman.com/tag/do-this-in-remembrance-of-me/).

Christian remembrance is like this too. The Greek word for remembering is anamnesis and has the sense of making present now something from the past. When Christian communities “do anamnesis” at the communion table in Sunday worship, we remember how Jesus shared meals and a last supper before his death with his community. At Sunday communion tables, we also practice being attentive to how God is with us in the grains of the fields and in the meals we share together every day. Anamnesis invites us to re-member in our very bodies what matters in life and faith.

Often forgotten by faith communities today is that ritual remembrance—both anamnesis and zekher—is more than recollection or nostalgia. When we remember as we did during Shavuot, we are doing something more radical than wistfully looking back over our shoulders with the sneaking suspicion that if we look too long or too hard we might join Lot’s wife in the wilderness as pillars of salt. During Shavuot at Isabella Freedman, as ancient dust was blown away from stories in Exodus that I have never remembered in quite the same way in my Christian tradition, I experienced the sense that for me some long-neglected connective tissue was being restored and preserved. I somehow became connected again to sisters and brothers I met that weekend for the first time. Ancient-new pathways of attentiveness were cultivated. Looking back—anamnesis and zekher—can be salty in healing ways.

What struck me about Shavuot at Isabella Freedman was how embodied all of this remembering work was. In the days leading up the festival, my students and I joined others on the farm in feeding chickens, weeding raspberries, planting squash, and milking goats. During the retreat, much of the food for the festival meals came from the ground in which we planted and upon which we walked. And then there were the wonders of how worshippers danced with delight and abandon on that holy retreat ground to rhythms of djembes and tambourines that seemed linked to sources deep in the earth and even deeper in human spirits. Shavuot retreat goers remembered with their bodies—through meditations at dawn, a communal mikveh (ritual cleansing) in Lake Miriam, breaking bread together, singing and dancing.

In the embodiedness, it seems, resides a forgotten gift of ritual remembering. The point of embodied remembering is not so much to sharpen our recollection of historical detail as it is to connect us to others who have dug in this dirt, walked on this earth, and danced in this place before. The point is to connect us to each other and God’s good dirt in this place and to connect us to the ancient place called Mt. Sinai and the people who dwelled on that ground. Memory of this sort is neither static nor linear. It defies human articulation. It resists doctrinal formulation and religious institutionalization. Memory of this sort resides in sinewy places, perhaps even in the molecular structures of our bodies, accessible to us to heal and restore our spirits even when our minds have lost their ability to recall and recount. And somehow, for people in Jewish and Christian traditions, God’s presence infuses and enlivens these memories.

I stood at the edge of Lake Miriam again on Sunday morning, Pentecost Sunday in the Christian tradition that year. Pentecost marks for Christians the giving of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost (fiftieth) is also the Greek word for Shavuot. This is what the water, trees, and dirt of Lake Miriam remember each day: though different and unique, we are all connected.

On that Sunday morning, Lake Miriam’s waters again reflected the trees and hills gathered around her. Perhaps in that watery reflection dwells the beauty and mystery of what remembering God in community with others teaches us. The reflected images were so still and perfect that day, one could mistake the images for the actual trees and hills. Though they were just watery echoes of the things themselves, the reflections—the echoes—were real, in their way. Perhaps something similar is true for our memories and remembering.

What happens when we touch these reflections, these ancient memories, as we did that Shavuot weekend? Our fingers pass through the images and into the waters where deep truths and wisdom dwell. And if we are attentive, we realize. The truths that shimmer in our remembering are at the same time both fleeting and enduring, and because God’s Spirit lingers in and moves through them they have the power to connect, heal, and transform.

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