Restoring a Catholic Memory

On How to Develop a Catholic Sense Without a Catholic Culture

To restore to his people a true memory Alexander Solzhenitsyn has accepted almost unspeakable sacrifice and loss, and especially the cross of patience. Solzhenitsyn has attempted to draw his people forth from an asphyxiating rubble of distortion just as he has himself been drawn forth: trusting and contending, marked and transfigured by grace, an exile who has become a pilgrim, an exemplary wayfarer along the Via Crucis. Solzhenitsyn’s writings convey a profoundly sacramental imagination stirred by his own growing Russian orthodox faith, and from all his trials, certainly elevated by grace, comes a body of affirmation, of gratitude, and even of quiet prayer which he has expressed richly, yet with great moral and spiritual economy, and inwardly forged discipline.

Catholic thought and letters should be stirred to the depths by such an articulate witness who has surprised us out of the East. But the West and especially the Catholic Church in the West, have an even greater difficulty than Solzhenitsyn in restoring to their people a memory. For in the West, despite its apparent freedoms the moral and spiritual dangers are often more diffuse and amorphous, and nearly always more meretricious. In the Soviet State, the resistance to evil has more emotional focus, and even poignant concentration. But the superficial liberal pluralism in the West has both a relativizing and a centrifugal tendency. Just as the scattered targets for any resistance are distracting, so also is the corporate resistance distracted. And even if some enclaves of corporate resistance are not fragmented and factionlized, they are too often only negative. We know well what they are against, but too little what they are for.

Catholic Memory

To combat these problems, we of the West too need a corporate memory of what the Catholic life is when fully lived. In restoring a memory to our people, a Catholic Solzhenitsyn would address evils which wage, as it were, a fatiguing war of attrition. Modernism within the Church flourishes with this type of attrition warfare, as a contemporary of St. Dominic or St. Ignatius would likely see. But against such a strategy special vigilance, discipline, and patient strength are needed, and in such a milieu, even the resourceful imagination of a Catholic Solzhenitsyn would have acute difficulty, for such an imagination would need to draw upon a very full memory of the Church, and her intimate memory at that. But where are the renewable sources of equilibrium for Catholics who are increasingly split and scattered from their past, bereft of the memory of the Catholic culture in its plenitude? We are now harvesting the fruits of liberalism—religious, political, economic, and social—in which the link between the individual and external authority is inherently broken, and under which it is more difficult, even for a reflective and orthodox son of the Church, to know where to turn for access to this rich and enlivening patrimony of memory. What principles of order should he follow to give at least a center of gravity to his study of the full mind and experience of the Church, so that he can truly attain what is expressed in the traditional phrase “sentire cum ecclesia”?

In posing this question here, I presuppose that restoring a memory of the full body of the Church cannot but foster an intimately sacramentalized imagination. We are called to the effort of recovering the life and full memory of the Body of Christ, though we may not, in our own eyes, accomplish much in restoring that Body. From the long, articulate tradition of the Church, a sacramental imagination can be drawn to form bonds of unity between two distinct realms of life: that magnificent, often severely demanding, architecture of Catholic dogma and mystery; and, that mellowing spaciousness of a public Catholic culture. Such an imagination fosters intimate and guiding analogies between the history of salvation, the life of our Blessed Lord, and the humble details of daily actuality. In the past such an imaginative memory has been essential in appropriating the dogma and wisdom of the Church and embodying it in the order of Christendom.

Before proceeding to concrete proposals, however, a preliminary matter must be addressed briefly lest there be misunderstanding about the importance of Catholic culture. Since, for man, most truth resides in proportion, we must also retain a proportionately subordinated place for Catholic culture in reference to dogma, moral teaching, and the mysteries of our Faith. The deficiency of dogmatic understanding is a major problem in itself, and the Church needs a great prior emphasis on the mission of corrective and illuminative teaching. At the same time, however, such a mission is obstructed precisely because the nourishing medium of a Catholic culture is not present, much less growing, on a significant scale anywhere.

It is true, however, that several small nuclei within the fold of the Church seem to be germinating. And while it is still too early to tell much, some of these nuclei may be analogous to the restorative and preservative efforts made in the collapsing culture of the early 6th century A.D,–by Boethius in the court of the Arian barbarian Ostrogoth, Theodoric; by St. Benedict at Monte Cassino; and by Cassiodorus at Vivarium. How such sorts of modern nuclei may also restore the memory of the contemporary Church we may well therefore consider.

Sacred and Humane Letters

Can one do anything but affirm that in all the Church’s great renewals there has always been a special place for a broadly educational apostolate? The disciplined and devout study of sacred and humane letters has always been the foundation for this apostolate which enables men to be informed by the Catholic faith and to have an intimate sense of Catholic tradition. This foundation is lacking amid a Catholic illiteracy of pestilential proportions. And where fewer and fewer Catholics are culturally Catholic it can only be more seldom that a sacramental imagination is applied to the order of their lives. Who any longer reads any eloquent and finely ordered literature in whose tone and texture is woven a vivid sense of divine and satanic agency, which complements the operation of human agency? Who reads such works to children?

And so, though we are yet spared from Soviet totalitarianism or a more therapeutic Hospital State, we too, as Solzhenitsyn himself has said of the West, are severed from our essential corporate memories: memories which should still be imaginatively, informingly and prayerfully alive. With the loss of the language of the Church, especially the long-consecrated liturgical language and idiom, there often comes the loss of the experience of our forbears in the corpus mysticum upon earth. A sad vacuum arises when there is a loss of this memoria corporis, the memory of the body: that is to say, the full Mystical Body, the Body of our Lord in His life and Crucifixion, and His Sacramental Body. Without this memoria corporis we, too, are increasingly likely to be buried under the rubble of an alien and inimical way. What a gift it is to be able to read and hear the intimate words of those of the past who may have seen more clearly or more freshly the implications of our Lord’s Incarnation and His method of Redemption! Moreover, what a gift it would be to appropriate from the refreshing surprises of the Church’s memory a sense of the spiritually interdependent society of the Church as implied in the doctrine of the Communion of Saints! Such implications have often been embodied in great Catholic literature, fictional and non-fictional.

Who any longer reads literature that has a vivid sense of the Divine?”

By reading and hearing such a corpus of literature, the faithful might have more of a vision of what a full Catholic way of life includes. In addition, they might be less compromisingly tolerant — or indifferent — and less willing to settle for less. Such compelling access is gained to the rich memory of the Church by way of her letters, especially those produced when the Church and the Church’s faith-inspired culture were more fully informing the way of life of a people. Much of the memory and vision of the Church is implicit, as is so much of love and friendship and beauty. It should therefore, where possible, be assimilated in the idiom and tone of its own time and particular culture, and also, at higher levels of formation, in the original languages of Catholic culture. Had we a Classics Curriculum for Catholic cultures analogous to the disciplined and long-tested classics curriculum for ancient Greece and Rome, the Church would be greatly helped in her educational apostolate. But other palliatives are nearer at hand which would be helpful complements to these more disciplined, institutional efforts of Catholic education.

While more and more primary Catholic source materials and works of thought and letters from earlier Catholic cultures are becoming available, they are only irregularly available, unsystematically, and not for long. This is a major index of the general decline of culture in the West today, and certainly of Catholic culture. It is to be hoped that the wealth and wisdom of the Church be used to subsidize needed efforts in formation of curricula, reprinting of Catholic classics, and translation of classics hitherto available only in foreign languages, as well as the restoration in a wider and wiser sense of the Church’s ancient and liturgical languages. And the Church could certainly foster the production of annotated bibliographies to guide various kinds of audiences, especially parents and their children, amid the welter of discordant information competing today for the attention of the faithful.

The great educational discipline of studying those languages which embody the thought, letters, and general culture of the Church cannot, I think, be overlooked much longer, if only because Catholic teachers today must often teach the traditions and symbolic forms and content of their beloved Faith as if they were elements of a foreign mythology. The memoria corporis is nearly dead.

The Perils of Amnesia

On a wider scale, if the public memory of the Church becomes more anemic, undifferentiated and abstract, especially among leaders and Catholic youth, it can only bode ill. The manifold composition, color, and rhythm of a fully sacramentalized Catholic view of life would attenuate toward the homogeneous. And so would come a formless lethargy in the presence of too much partial, unassimilated information, something which we already see.

In any event, in such conditions the memory of the Church will be more greatly challenged, fractured, defied, ridiculed, or ignored. Some who claim to be in the Church are likely to encourage such acts against the memoria corporis. Some of the solitary faithful with little corporate memory or corporate life may be weakened and seemingly abandoned to a struggling Protestant individualism or a schismatic community. And the Church’s scattered children will be even more pressured by the world to be mere children of their age. Without a corporate moral and spiritual imagination drawn from the articulate tradition of the Church, the faithful will be at more than a strategic disadvantage in the new milieu of irregular warfare.

The memory of the Church and her diversely enlivening and resourceful patrimony are increasingly inaccessible because of widespread Catholic cultural illiteracy: illiteracy of old customs, exempla of the saints, symbolic forms and iconography, literary verse and prose, liturgical poetry, private and public letter collections of great Catholics, sermons, old rules and laws and customaries, and much more that is more obvious. Mindful of the problem and witness of Solzhenitsyn and mindful of the memory of the Church, we must not ignore this increasingly accentuated disadvantage of Catholic illiteracy. Such an illiteracy and consequent amnesia fosters the terminal transition from “what’s the difference?” to “what’s the use?” Under the pressure of a pallid pluralism, Catholics may begin by failing any longer to see — or pretending not to see — the vital difference between their rich heritage and the eclectic customs of a secular world. If so, they will end by failing to see the use of doing anything specifically Catholic at all. This temptation of indifference, in the understanding of the Church, leads to the transition from pernicious sloth to even more pernicious despair. From the Church’s corporate memory, freshly restored to her people, we may even surprisingly countervail this seductive drift.


© 1982 Robert D. Hickson

(First published in Common Faith, in January of 1982, Vol. III, No. 1, a Monthly then Published by Christendom College’s own Christendom Publications of Front Royal, Virginia)