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Remember the Gift

My sleep was interrupted very early the morning I write this as I struggled with a request to co-lead a week-long contemplative course, doubting my qualifications. Suddenly my mind began structuring the course, bringing order to chaos. I continued organizing in a dream as I drifted off to sleep again. Waking, I felt more confident.

I have yet to share it with my co-leader, so there will be changes to come, but I thought it would also be a helpful way to write posts that might speak to those of you who follow the spiritual season of Lent and Holy Week as well as those of you who don’t! So eager was I about this that here I am, up at 5:19 a.m., writing.

For the next six Wednesdays I plan to reflect on themes that could be used in such a course, in an order that roughly parallels the evolution of contemplation in the Christian tradition. Today I write of memory.

I have been told that studies indicate personal memory is unreliable. But I could not do my work or “do” my faith were it not for such a faulty instrument! My present self may easily be reshaping my personal narrative to suit myself. Lillian Hellman, believed to have reshaped her own personal narrative in her memoirs, famously wrote that the longest sentence in the world begins with, “I remember…”

One of the things I remember but have never been able to document is a line from W. H. Auden:

Remember the gift,
The one from the manger,
It means only this:
You can dance with a stranger.

When I used to send Christmas cards, I created a card with that verse one year. It is in “remembering the gift” that contemplation begins. The first followers of Jesus told stories about him, recounted and amplified his teachings and parables, and remembered, re-enacted, and sometimes re-shaped his deeds and life events. Lent is simply remembering his 40-day sojourn in the wilderness after his baptism.

If personal memory is faulty, collective memory can be fanciful, and as it passes through time, evolves into myth. Myth, for me, offers a deeper spiritual truth. Jesus came to represent to those who followed him and those who followed them what the world needs.

Teilhard de Chardin (yes, I’m still reading him) writes, “However personal and incommunicable it may be at its root and origin, Reflection can only be developed in communion with others. It is essentially a social phenomenon.” I would add, a social phenomenon over time, a communion of saints over the ages. In another context, he writes, “Coherence and fecundity, the two criteria of truth.”*

This is what separates mythological truth from “alternative facts.” There is both coherence and fecundity in mythology: it makes sense to our inner selves and is fruitful in its outcome. The sacrificial love that Jesus taught and practiced and lived bears fruit in our transformation and in the transformation of the world.

Zen Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield tells the story of a woman attending the trial of her son’s murderer. Overwhelmed with grief, at one point, she cries out, “I’m going to kill you!” After he was imprisoned, to his surprise, she came to visit him. “Is there anything you need?” she asked casually, and she began providing little things here and there whenever she came to visit.

When he approached release, she asked, “Do you have a place to go?” He said, “No, ma’am, I don’t.” So she offered him her son’s room. She also found him work with a relative. After living together for a while, she asked him if he remembered when she shouted, “I’m going to kill you!” “Yes ma’am,” he said, “I could never forget that.” The mother replied, “You see, I did ‘kill’ you. You are no longer the man who killed my son.”

Sacrificial love transforms. That’s why early followers of Jesus gathered to relive his sacrifice in the Eucharist in which all attending, not just the spiritual leader, spoke the Words of Institution that rendered bread and wine into body and blood. The Eucharist was preceded and prepared for by the Service of the Word, the reading of scripture and a contemporary interpretation. Liturgy too is a way of remembering, spoken or sung or choreographed. And early on, art and architecture served the Christian memory, especially in a largely illiterate world.

In Jesus and the Eucharist, Jesuit Tad Guzie wrote that the meal was “above all, a natural way for Jesus to express the meaning of his impending death, a death which he knew lay at the heart of Yahweh’s promise of life and a kingdom for his people.”**

This, to me, is not a sacrifice to an angry God, but a sacrifice to show us a greater love.

* The Future of Man, 133, 182.
**Jesus and the Eucharist, 57.

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