Friday, September 8, 2023

Of Memories and Blessings

"May their memory be for a blessing."  That phrase, in some form or another, has been spoken or written a great deal lately in my life.  First, with the unexpectedly abrupt passing of my mother-in-law after a lethal reaction to a new chemo drug.  Then, again, with the expected death of my Dad after the long slog through congestive heart failure.

It's a lovely, gentle Jewish condolence, one rooted in the traditions and mourning rituals of my wife's people.  I find it comforting, but at times I will wrestle with it a little bit.  That wrestling rises from my compulsive overthinking of every danged thing, a sure sign that I was double-predestined to be Presbyterian.

I love the blessing part, and receive the simple kindness of those words with gratitude.  I do quail a bit at the "memory" part of the equation.  

Memory?  Memory is so fleeting, so malleable, so flawed.  Mine in particular is not to be trusted with the task of carrying any soul besides my own.  I can barely remember what I did yesterday.  I'll put an entire week of work into a sermon, and preach it with passion, and then the next week a kind parishioner will say, "Oh, I really loved what you said in your sermon on Sunday."  I'll smile and thank them, and ask them to tell me what it was that they liked, because in that moment, I don't have a clue what it was I said.  Not just specific words.  The whole thing.  

Memory?  Must it fall to my memory?

Do I remember my mother-in-law's voice?  I do, but it's an echo, faint and tinny and distant.  It feels less real than those voices of the deceased that we can't bring ourselves to delete from our voicemails.  If I ask my memory of Dad a question, does it answer?  Is it him, or is it just a simulacrum, a golem knit together from the fragments churning about in my meat-based motherboard?  My memory seems so inadequate.  So unreliable.

C.S. Lewis wrestled mightily with this in A Grief Observed, as he struggled to cope with the loss of his wife:

Slowly, quietly, like snow-flakes—like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night— little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end. Ten minutes—ten seconds—of the real H. would correct all this. And yet, even if those ten seconds were allowed me, one second later the little flakes would begin to fall again. The rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness is gone. What pitiable cant to say, ‘She will live forever in my memory!’ Live? That is exactly what she won’t do.

As that concept had me wrapped up in a triple tiger suplex, I found myself slipping out of that hold.  Two thoughts fluttered down like butterfly seraphs and settled in my thinking.

My memory of those who have died is not the memory of them.  The memory of them is their completeness, known utterly to the God that sang them into being.  It is God's memory upon which I rest, because there, not a single aspect of their person is lost.  

Note that I say, "their person," because the "Physicist and a Funeral" understanding of material continuance is such a cold comfort, a fundamental category error that fails to grasp what it is we grieve.  Of course the component atoms still float about, as our flesh dissipates into the dust from which it came.  That crass materiality is not what we mourn.  It is their anima, their psyche, their "Thou," their soul.  That's the absence that yawns in us, and why one seeks the comfort of a faith that points us beyond the fabric of our time and space.

The second thought was different, but related.  

It is not my faulty and sputtering memory that holds the ones I love.  It is my life itself.  I in my wholeness am the memory of those who have died.  I could not be who I am had they not been, after all.  I would not exist as I do, both physically and personally.  I would not be in my kitchen now, as the human being that I have become, had they not existed.  They are necessary for this moment to be what it is.  

The closer we are to someone, the more true that becomes.  It's a truth that goes deeper than our capacity to fully engage with it.  That memory rests in God's knowledge of us, not our own fumbling and limited self-understanding.

May that memory, as they say, be for a blessing.