Memory and Our Catholic Metanarrative

Memor fui óperum Dómini: quia memor ero ab inítio mirabílium tuórum. (“I remembered the works of the Lord: for I will be mindful of thy wonders from the beginning.”) — Psalm 76:12

When he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1983, the great Russian thinker Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gave an oft-quoted speech at the London Guildhall. Rather than quote only the four words most frequently cited from that speech — his simple explanation of how the Soviet horrors befell his beloved Russia — I would like to put those words in the context wherein they were uttered three times in as many paragraphs:

Over half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’

Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’

What is more, the events of the Russian revolution can only be understood now, at the end of the century, against the background of what has since occurred in the rest of the world. What emerges here is a process of universal significance. And if I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire twentieth century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: ‘Men have forgotten God.’

Given his criticisms of the West as hinted at above (“the rest of the world,” “universal significance”), as also contained later in that same speech, and as stated explicitly in his famous Harvard Speech delivered five years earlier, Solzhenitsyn’s accusation that “Men have forgotten God” did not apply exclusively to men of the Eastern Bloc.

As a race, we men have a problem with being forgetful of many things, even — perhaps especially — those that are in our best interest to recall. In his Meditations on ‘Memory,’ Brother Francis calls memory, “the abundance of a man’s heart,” and the “greater part of personality, the index of love, the depository of wisdom, the determinant of virtuous action, the effective and abiding part of education.” What we choose to remember and what we choose to remind ourselves of say a lot about us. So, too, does what we forget.

Thankfully, we are not alone in this task of selecting what is most important to call to mind. Under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, the Church herself has crafted the masterpiece that is the liturgical calendar, which has for one of its tasks this very serious matter of filling and repeatedly “jogging” regenerated man’s memory, as our Sisters point out so eloquently in their brief, Importance of ‘Memory’ in the Liturgy and the Rosary. Those who attend to the yearly reminders we get of the mysteries of our Faith have annually paraded before our minds the Incarnation of Our Lord, His Birth, the Infancy Mysteries, the hidden years, His public ministry, Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension into Heaven; His sending of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost; the doctrine of the Trinity, and more. And these all pertain to the annual cycle only. In the sanctoral cycle, where the Marian feasts and festivals of the saints recur, we see the work of the Holy Ghost sanctifying the members of Christ’s Mystical Body in the history of the Church. We call to mind, also, our beloved dead and recall our ultimate destiny: the four last things.

When he instituted the Feast of Christ the King in 1925, Pope Pius XI showed that he wanted to avail himself of this “memorial” aspect of the liturgy in discharging his task of teaching and reminding Christians of Christ’s Kingship:

That these blessings may be abundant and lasting in Christian society, it is necessary that the Kingship of our Savior should be as widely as possible recognized and understood, and to this end nothing would serve better than the institution of a special feast in honor of the Kingship of Christ. For people are instructed in the truths of faith and brought to appreciate the inner joys of religion far more effectually by the annual celebration of our sacred mysteries than by any official pronouncement of the teaching of the Church. Such pronouncements usually reach only a few and the more learned among the faithful; feasts reach them all; the former speak but once, the latter speak every year — in fact, forever. The Church’s teaching affects the mind primarily; her feasts affect both mind and heart, and have a salutary effect upon the whole of man’s nature. Man is composed of body and soul, and he needs these external festivities so that the sacred rites, in all their beauty and variety, may stimulate him to drink more deeply of the fountain of God’s teaching, that he may make it a part of himself, and use it with profit for his spiritual life.

Later, Pius employs a kind of “holy pun” when he writes that “the feast of the Kingship of Christ sets the crowning glory upon the mysteries of the life of Christ already commemorated during the year…” (emphasis mine). In writing as he did, the Holy Father shows that he intended to institute no merely factual reminder, as if we were tying a Catholic string on one of our fingers, but a memorial that movingly and lovingly engages the entire person. That is what real liturgy does.

The ordinary of the Mass has a few references to words like “memorial,” “memory,” and “commemoration.” Immediately after the words of institution (and hence the consecration), we have the Anamnesis (“recollection”) in both Eastern and Western liturgies, where the sacrificial Victim is offered to God “mindful” of that same Victim’s principal salvific acts. Many liturgical propers also use this language of memorial. On February 12, the Church presented to us the feast of the Seven Founders of the Servite Order, whose collect says that Our Lord moved them to found a religious family, “for the renewal of the memory of Thy most holy Mother’s sorrows.”

I have written and spoken on the importance of “narrative” and “metanarrative” for us Catholics, especially in light of the constant stream of lies and false narratives we have drummed into us by the enemies of our salvation and their useful idiots in the media (see, Our Catholic Grand Narrative versus Satan’s Minions’, Writing A New Narrative: Something We Catholics Should Attend to!, Reconquest Episode 308: Our Catholic Counter-Narratives, and Reconquest 309: Two Elements of a Christian Metanarrative). If the Covid-19 phenomenon has taught us anything, it is that the powers-that-shouldn’t-be are pretty good at propagandizing large swaths of humanity with damnable lies. Pseudoscientists have been doing it for a long time — think evolution; think the overpopulation myth. Our true metanarrative includes the Creation account in Genesis and God’s command to be fruitful and multiply; so, the fables of Darwin and Malthus be damned! “I remembered the works of the Lord: for I will be mindful of thy wonders from the beginning,” wrote the Royal Psalmist (Psalm 76:12). The divinely-inspired “origin story” of Genesis contains so much more seminal wisdom than these cheap purveyors of scientism could ever hope to narrate.

Civilized nations or “peoples” worthy of the name keep a memory of their story. If a people, a nation, a tribe, or a community of any sort is going to have a metanarrative, some portion of it, at least, must be committed to memory, with much of it memorialized in art forms intended to remind. Depending on what culture we speak of and in what era, these art forms will include folk-songs, epic poetry, sagas, Eddas, and the like, often mixed with mythology. The Greeks have their Iliad and Odyssey, the Romans, their Aeneid. God’s people of the Old Testament had their inspired historical narratives which they liked to tell over and over again (as we see from Saint Steven and others). Many of the significant events in the history of the Jews were commemorated liturgically in their feasts, e.g., the Passover, annually calling to mind the Exodus story; and, much later, Hanukkah, commemorating the heroic Maccabean uprising.

All peoples who had something worthily called a culture have some kind of narrative that served as their own history or pre-history, however mythologized it may be. In some cases, a people’s identity can be wrapped up in tragic events that are still fairly recent. The Armenian Genocide, for instance, is burned into the memory of most Armenians, not only in the mother country, but also in its far-flung global diaspora. Mets yegherrn, they call it, the Great Evil Crime.” As some of his modern coreligionists despicably want to engage in what we might call Armenian Genocide denial, the Jewish novelist Franz Werfel helped memorialize this history in his Forty Days Of Musa Dagh. (Werfel would similarly narrate the story of Our Lady of Lourdes and Saint Bernadette in his Song of Bernadette. By writing these two novels, the Austrian Jew with the checkered morals won the gratitude of two groups of people: Armenians and Catholics. I cannot document it, but I have it on the authority of an old Armenian friend with connections to the monastery where it happened, that Werfel was baptized in Vienna by an Armenian-Rite Catholic Mekhitarist monk.) Personally, I met a survivor of Mets yegherrn: my sister-in-law’s grandmother, who was the youngest of a family of thirteen and the only one to survive the genocide. Most, if not all Armenian families have such memories. That kind of thing, on such a large scale, cannot help but press itself deeply into the collective consciousness of a people. Aside from stoking a hatred of the Turks in the Armenians, this episode also helps to give them a sense of national identity.

With His sending of the Apostles to evangelize all nations, Jesus Christ made us New-Testament faithful not a single people or nation in the conventional sense of those words (although we are called “a holy nation, a purchased people), but a Mystical Body that is universal (catholic) in character, composed as it is of men from “every nation, and tribe, and tongue, and people.” For this reason, our story is more complex and more diverse than that of any single nation. Because we are the Mystical Body of Christ, our local beginnings are found in Jerusalem, with the physical Body of Jesus (extending also into His Old-Testament “back story”); therefore, His Incarnation, Birth, Death, Resurrection, Ascension, and sending of the Holy Ghost will give us our major feasts. After those, the Marian feasts and the feasts of the saints complete our calendar, which brings us to an interesting point. The unity of Christendom gave our Catholic ancestors a sense of shared identity, separated though they were by language and local customs (hence the social disruption caused by heresy and schism). There was much that was common across Christendom, centered on the Mysteries of Our Lord, Our Lady, and the saints. But new saints arose, as did Marian apparitions and other sacred occurences, and such persons and events were all woven into the story, the ever-added-to narrative of those localized embodiments of the one people of God that is the Catholic Church. This is to speak of a legitimate inculturation” that gives Catholic peoples and nations their own local identity in addition to that which we all share.

But, let us return to liturgical considerations. Writing as I am in Septuagesimatide, I am mindful of the Creation and Fall of Man recorded in Genesis, which the Church has me reading in the office of Matins lately. On the Wednesday of Quinquagesima Week, a priest will trace the sign of the cross on my forehead while saying these words: Memento homo quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris (“Remember man that dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return” — the last six words of which come from Gen. 3:19). That word, memento, is not only in the imperative mood (a command: do this), but it is also in the future tense (we do not have a distinct future imperative in English), as if to highlight that it is something permanent, abiding, and of general rule. This is the Church’s liturgy reminding us of both our origin and our destiny, as if inviting us to complete the thought with that salutary exhortation of Jesus, the son of Sirach: “In all thy works remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin” (Ecclus 7:40).

Let us take this Lenten mindfulness to heart.

We are wiping out our Catholic memories, our Christian remembrances. The causes of this are manifold, but plain old bad will is at the bottom of them all. We need to reverse that horrible degeneration to save our souls, to rebuild the Church, and to restore Christian culture. Whatever we can do to sanctify our memories will help to accomplish these goals and to acquire the Mind of Christ.

After all, we do not want it said of us what was said of the Russians after their murderous, atheist Revolution: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” Well beyond temporal punishments in this life, putting God outside of our knowledge invites upon us a terrible divine sequel that extends into eternity: “Amen I say to you, I know you not” (Matt. 25:12).