Memory and Lent

In this month’s Pelican, with the help of Marcel Proust, Rector Alan reflects on the meaning of Lent and how we remember Christ’s sacrifice

Reading the four volumes of Marcel Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time’ (I’m currently half way through the third) is not for the faint hearted. Sentences run to half a page, paragraphs to two pages, a chapter to three hundred; and nothing really ever happens. Describing a dinner party takes longer than many a whole book and outward events fade before the immediacy of those remembered. Opening a seam of recollection the writer rambles on, allowing one observation to suggest another, before returning to where he had begun, by which time you (the reader) have forgotten where that was and are past caring; on top of which nothing really ever happens.

71XQMY6AY4LYet the work remains an extraordinary testament to the power of memory and the gift of language, even though a memory and a language lodged in an over-sensitive, precious and privileged individual who moved in the higher echelons of late nineteenth century French society soon to be disturbed beyond measure by the first war, whose end will be commemorated this year. With infinite mental patience and a precision of expression rarely found elsewhere, he watched society around him, obedient to convention on the one hand and mischievous towards it on the other. He does not rant, has few strong opinions, swims with the tide; yet he penetrated its mores, its prejudices, its soul.

Then, later still, came the remembering and the remembering lasted longer than the events remembered. The force of the work is in the honesty of its perception, brutal at times and often inflicted on himself. I can’t imagine he would have made a good friend. He was often ill, and perhaps it was that circumstance (having to withdraw from the society of others) which developed in him an introspective eye and, later still, a desperate need to bring back vividly into the mind his journey from child to adulthood. It is not so much what he sees that brings the reader back again and again as the act of seeing, not so much what is remembered (amusing and antique as it is) as the act of remembrance.

[But here, a preview: I have in mind the power of remembering Christ and how we are to connect who we are with who he was and is.]

It’s summer by the Normandy beaches. He visits a country house for supper in the hills above (two hundred pages) and returns at dawn. For once the insomniac writer falls soundly asleep and later, sometime in the afternoon, he wakes (he never seems to work) and is led to meditate on the strangeness of the experience of sleep and what remains in the mind on waking and how most, though not all, is forgotten.

‘We possess all our memories,’ he writes, ‘but not the faculty of recalling them . . . What, then, is a memory we do not recall?’ and then, further on: ‘We do not recall the memories of the last thirty years: but we are wholly steeped in them; but why stop short at thirty years, why not extend back much further than my human existence?’

What if, like Proust, we could recall the depth and immediacy of all our encounters, and what others looked like, and what we felt about them and they about us or their companion and lover or how sultry the night was and how the moon rose before us? Would this not be something special? Is this perhaps what drives the writer to write at all, as a last act of defiance against the high tide of forgetfulness, frantically recording every nuance of the past before it is washed away for ever from the collective mind?

Calvary feels a long way from a turn of the century French provincial house, and it is, but what unites them, so far as Proust’s memoir is concerned, is the effort to redeem the past by recalling it with all the vividness of memory that we can summon. Central to this effort, of course, is the woven tapestry of the gospels, even though at times little more to us than a scrapbook of worn photographs unearthed from a mound at the back of a cupboard. For this reason, I imagine, I never cease to find the account of the rediscovery of the manuals of the law in a back storage room in the Temple during the reign of Josiah so moving: ‘And Hilkiah the high priest said unto Shaphan the scribe, I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord,’ (II Kings 22, 8).

If it is possible, as Proust muses, for us to be governed by memories that stem from before our birth (perhaps he means the memories that arise from our parents and their parents) then why is it not also possible to be governed and to become aware of the memories that come from before them, and if them, then why not the memories from before them also? What reason do we have to stop traveling back further still? I speculate, of course, but I do so because of the need to find an answer to the question that many today by their silence, as much as by their speech, pose: how on earth can the death of this Jesus have anything to do with me? It is surely not enough for us just to say ‘It is so’ or ‘This is what I believe;’ it is no longer self-evident that a Jewish preacher of the first century can die in my place.


Crucifixion Triptych, Rogier van der Weyden, c.1440

Somehow the distance created by the passage of time must be narrowed and the continuing influence of the past made manifest again to a generation immune to its appeal. From Proust I learn how we can retrace our steps authentically so that, as with him, the remembered past became as vivid as the lived past and in some ways more so. If we had been at Calvary would we have understood it as we now understand from the gospels, themselves the fruit of forty or so years of reflection and living?

We have a sacramental word for all this: Anamnesis: an amalgam of ‘ana,’ before or above and ‘mnesis,’ the act of committing something to memory: so, the remembrance of things from before or from above with the vividness of the present moment: ‘do this in remembrance of me.’ The weight of time falls away at such moments. It is not about us being in the original upper room (this would be a strange transposition of time) but about the risen one being with us in our own ‘upper rooms.’ We are creatures of time but he, the risen one, is not. Walls are no barrier, nor time, nor change, nor culture; none are barriers that could prevent the fusion of then and now, authentically and really in him.

We know Christ to be ‘yesterday, today and forever,’ to be ‘Alpha and Omega, the first and the last,’ do we not? We learn from the writer how to explore those regions of association we thought lost to us; and we learn from the treacher that there are no barriers to knowing and being known. He died that we might live. He lives still.