Saturday, June 15, 2013

Memory and Morality: God remembers all

Today, reading once again from Milan Kundera's most recent book of essays and reflections, Encounter, I was struck by something, but this time by something brief, a fleeting observation. The observation was about the persistence of the evils human beings commit, especially against each other.

The context of Kundera's observation is a short (3 page) commentary on a novel I had never heard of (The Curtain Falls), by an author I had never heard of (Juan Goytisolo). There is no need for me recap either Goytisolo's novel or Kundera's commentary.

Kundera answers the question posed by God in a dream to the novel's main character - "Why do people go on reproducing?"
Because the scandal of forgetting (forgetting that "great bottomless hole where memory drowns," the memory of a beloved woman as well as the memory of a great novel or of a slaughter)
It bears noting that memory and forgetting are major themes in all of Kundera's own fiction. This is brought forward very well by Maya Jaggi, writing for the U.K.'s Guardian back in 2008: "The struggle of memory against forgetting," which is about an accusation, by all appearances false, made against Kundera, dating back to when Czechoslovakia was still under communist rule (Kundera emigrated to France in the mid-1970s).

Milan Kundera

While I think the question is an important one, one that vexes many, especially in the West, as a Christian, I don't buy Kundera's answer for a minute. In fact, I would turn 180° out and say that the reason most people reproduce, excluding, of course, Westerners who see conceiving as the result of intercourse as an "accident," is an act of hope.

In December 1999, as a way of preparing for the great Jubilee year of 2000, at the behest of Bl. Pope John Paul II, the International Theological Commission published Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past. To the best of my reckoning, the document is about two things: the importance of not forgetting as well as the importance of reconciliation through process of confession and forgiveness.

Since I don't want to belabor this, I will cite the second paragraph of Memory and Reconciliation:
The purification of memory is thus “an act of courage and humility in recognizing the wrongs done by those who have borne or bear the name of Christian.” It is based on the conviction that because of “the bond which unites us to one another in the Mystical Body, all of us, though not personally responsible and without encroaching on the judgement of God, who alone knows every heart, bear the burden of the errors and faults of those who have gone before us.” John Paul II adds: “As the successor of Peter, I ask that in this year of mercy the Church, strong in the holiness which she receives from her Lord, should kneel before God and implore forgiveness for the past and present sins of her sons and daughters.” In reiterating that “Christians are invited to acknowledge, before God and before those offended by their actions, the faults which they have committed,” the Pope concludes, “Let them do so without seeking anything in return, but strengthened only by ‘the love of God which has been poured into our hearts’ (Rom 5:5).” (both footnotes refer to Incarnationis Mysterium, par. 11)
 
Then-Cardinal Ratzinger

All of this is merely a prelude to pointing out that one of the main functions of Christ's Church, the communio sanctorum, is to keep memory alive. This was beautifully expounded on by then-Cardinal Josef Ratzinger in 1991, in an address he delivered to the U.S. Bishops gathered in Dallas, Texas, entitled "Conscience and Truth." Quoting St. Augustine's observation that "We could never judge that one thing is better than another if a basic understanding of the good had not already been instilled in us," then-Cardinal Ratzinger went on to note, "This means that the first so-called ontological level of the phenomenon conscience consists in the fact that something like an original memory of the good and true (both are identical) has been implanted in us, that there is an inner ontological tendency within man, who is created in the likeness of God, toward the divine." He then expresses something rather beautiful, especially since I have been pre-occupied with conscience formation this week:
This Christian memory, to be sure, is always learning, but proceeding from its sacramental identity, it also distinguishes from within between what is a genuine unfolding of its recollection and what is its destruction or falsification. In the crisis of the Church today, the power of this recollection and the truth of the apostolic word is experienced in an entirely new way where much more so than hierarchical direction, it is the power of memory of the simple faith which leads to the discernment of spirits. One can only comprehend the primacy of the Pope and its correlation to Christian conscience in this connection. The true sense of this teaching authority of the Pope consists in his being the advocate of the Christian memory. The Pope does not impose from without. Rather, he elucidates the Christian memory and defends it. For this reason the toast to conscience indeed must precede the toast to the Pope because without conscience there would not be a papacy. All power that the papacy has is power of conscience. It is service to the double memory upon which the faith is based and which again and again must be purified, expanded and defended against the destruction of memory which is threatened by a subjectivity forgetful of its own foundation as well as by the pressures of social and cultural conformity
Simple faith has the power of memory. This reflection also has a lot of bearing on atheism: God remembers everything!

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