Rest and Remember

On the Spiritual Act of Remembrance and Plato's "Anamnesis"
Feb 3, 2015

Remembrance is one of the greatest themes in all of Scripture and the call to remember one of the most constant imperatives. We hear the voice of Hebrew prophets and poets as church bells, echoing across the rolling landscape of holy writ. Repeatedly, the people of God are told not merely to remember God’s words and works but also to retell their countless narratives and imitate their countless deeds. But forming memory requires time. And time is a complex reality.

Humans understand time in two ways, quantitatively (chronos) and qualitatively (Kairos). We do not ask, for instance, “How much Halloween did you have?” but rather “How was your time on Halloween?” We expect answerSRst in terms of experience, which obliges the godlike faculty of memory, which can only take place in the conditions of reflective thought, however brief that may be. We sometimes answer the question, “How’s it going?” with a simple “Good,” knowing, however, that things might not be “good” and that we have only given an unreflective, canned response. Time is requisite to memory, but it is the particular kind of time (kairos) related to leisure that accomplishes this.  

Remembrance of God’s words and works cannot happen in a life of total work, as Josef Pieper notes; without leisure (schola), the only kind of time one might experience is quantitative time, punctuated by the scythe-hands of the clock. Without rest, we are on the hurried flight from the hungry titan from which we derive the name of time (chronos). But true remembrance requires festal time, a sense of time noted by its proportion to opportunity (kairos); thus, the feast necessarily involves a spiritual experience of time, one not given to the demands of the clock or measured by quantitative analysis. The sacrament of Holy Communion, for instance, gives the significance of time (kairos) to our measured time (chronos). Christians, therefore, celebrate not only the Sabbath but also other days given to feasting or fasting, because it was believed that Jesus is Lord of time.

Consider the church’s calendar, which by their “holy” days, follow the life of Christ; the season of Christmas, for instance, does not simply commemorate the “birthday of Jesus,” in some shallow sense; rather, the twelve days of the Christmas celebration mark a doctrinal sine qua non of the Christian faith, namely, the Incarnation. The Christian feast is born of love and adoration of God; just as one does not count the hours in the company of one’s beloved, so one does not live by the clock in the act of divine worship. The point of this is to show that the highest qualities of human existence are present in the singing, thinking, listening, responding, eating, and drinking of holy worship, and that these are indeed qualities and not quantities.

Remembrance is a spiritual act that requires a spiritual aspect of time.

Biblical remembrance, however, is not the same as Homeric nostalgia; it is not the same remembrance of Hellenistic thought, which always paints the past painfully more beautiful than the present (or the future). As Zeus mingles blessing with trouble, so Homer mixes the wine of a longing with the water of despair. So too Attic tragedy. So too Hesiod’s proem, which offers a simulacrum of beauty, ever tinged with halcyon works and days, when the beginning of a thing was better than its end. Hebraic remembrance, on the other hand, is a remembrance of eschatological hope, animated by reflective thought and acted on by repentance and faith in the promises of God. This kind of remembering involves not only the intellect and the affections but man’s moral and physical capacity as well. This is most clearly realized in the Eucharistic feast.

As Christians, it is impossible to escape the moral imperative to guard the old things, or to keep on the old paths, or to receive that which has been handed on to us. The biblical call to remember His ways enjoins telling and retelling, hearing and rehearing the story of the world as it participates in the Divine Life. In an age of consumerism, William T. Cavanaugh suggests that the Eucharist offers a corrective for how to consume rightly, principally because it draws us into communion with God and others. I would add to this that the Eucharist instructs how to consume rightly because it enjoins memory. “Do this in remembrance of me,” says Jesus. When we consume, we ought to be able to reflect and remember. We ought to consume purposively, in such a way as to think beyond the satisfaction of individual desire, to raise our consciousness above consuming what is cheapest and easiest to acquire. This is why television is so dangerous. It treats the eye as an ear, says Marshall McLuhan, with no way to consume in a discerning fashion. To consume rightly, the memory must be present.     

One might even say that Plato could well have corrupted what was once a biblical doctrine of a sanctified anamnesis, a re-remembering of what God has given to his people. For Plato, anamnesis was the religio-eductional process by which we “re-remember” the knowledge the soul once had in its ideal and pre-carnate state. This is not Biblical. But it is perhaps no accident that Christ Himself uses the word anamnesis as the command to “do this in remembrance” of his Eucharistic celebration (Luke 22:19; I Cor. 11:24-25).  When St. Paul says, “Therefore, let us keep the feast,” he is responding to a reality in the past and therefore “perfected” tense, that “Christ our Passover (pascha) is sacrificed for us” (I Cor. 5: 7-8). The significance of this sacramental and mysterious Feast, the Apostle explains, obliges us to both remember Christ’s sacrifice and to “examine himself,” something he chastises the Corinthians for neglecting (I Cor. 11:28).

Proper keeping of the Eucharist involves the whole man. To “feed on Him in your hearts by faith,” as one Prayer Book says, is an invocation to the memory of God. We remember God’s words to us as we feed on the Word of the Father, and we recollect His works in the ritual work of his atoning sacrifice. Christ was revealed in the breaking of bread (cognoverunt eum in fractione panis), but we memory to do this, just as those on the road to Emmaus did (Luke 23:35). The Lord’s Supper involves all the senses of man in a kind of glorious malapropism: the ear chews upon the Word made flesh; the tongue tastes and sees that Lord is good (Psalm 34:8). And memory is tied to each of these senses. The Eucharist, therefore, does not afford an anamnesis of pre-incarnate knowledge; but it does achieve an anamnesis of the Incarnation of knowledge, a communion with the way, the truth, and the life, or in transcendental terms, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.     

Devin O'Donnell

Devin O'Donnell

​Devin O’Donnell lives on the foggy coasts of central California. Currently the Headmaster of St. Abraham's Classical Christian Academy, he has served as Research Editor of the Bibliotheca project, has taught Literature and Latin for over 10 years, published a graduate thesis on Flannery O'Connor, and has a forthcoming book with Classical Academic Press. He and his lovely wife have four adventurous children who love stories, the ocean, and good feasts. 

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