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Anamnesis: A Pilgrim’s Reflection

I remember a picture I took of my 12-year-old son when we were about 100km from reaching Santiago de Compostela, after having walked about 700km along the Way of Saint James. It was a misty, enchantingly beautiful morning as Stephen quietly walked a stones-throw ahead of me, almost at the limit of my visibility in a light morning fog. I still well-up at the memory of that time spent with my boy who, just three years later, looks and sounds far more like a man than a boy. Parenting, it seems, comes with a built-in process of letting go…in trust.

In the midst of the Covid-19 reality that is upon us, I recently asked Stephen what he now thinks about the Camino de Santiago. He responded, “It’s more like a lesson about life than a memory.”

“What an interesting turn of phrase,” I thought to myself. So, I asked, “What do you mean by that?” He continued, “I mean, it taught me about perseverance and when things get tough in life you just have to keep going, one step at a time. Life is sometimes difficult but you just have to keep going. I also liked meeting so many cool people along the way. Good people.”

Isn’t it interesting that he said it seems more like a lesson now than a memory? I wouldn’t have thought to express it that way. Clearly his applied lesson for life in the present is based on his memory of a past event. I can say with certainty that when his response reminded me of a sacramental theological concept known as anamnesis it was not what Stephen had foremost in his mind! He merely responded to my question with an honest reflection about something in his past that was more like a current lesson for life rather than a faded memory. It was more real, and more relevant to him now than it was in the past when it actually happened. His re-presentation of this memory made it more real and caused him to consider how it renews the present. To re-present is to render what happened in the past present again. The Greek word anamnesis means precisely this idea of remembrance, not as if nostalgically admiring an old photograph, as I did of my son in the mist, but of rendering a past event as real to us now – a re-presentation of that past event, of it being really and truly present now, from which we can more intimately plumb its depths for a deeper meaning. In some indescribable way, it becomes real, interactive and renews the present. It defies being relegated to the past because it remains real.

The process from memory to lesson, or memory to learning, and learning to the formation of identity, is one of the great meta-narratives of the Hebrew Scriptures. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today.” (Deut 15:15) This central point of remembering a past event to help form the identity of a people in moving forward is key to understanding the Passover and the formation of a wandering people toward the Promised Land, which ultimately sustained them through exile and restoration and expulsion and ghettoization and holocaust and the seemingly constant resurgence of anti-Semitism.

The Church today still attests that in the Upper Room, Jesus the Christ, the Lamb of God, fulfilled the covenant by instituting a new covenant through the Holy Spirit, which, through Scripture and Tradition, has caused the Church to cling to the inconvenient-at-times, but no less true, concept of anamnesis, thus rendering that past event, the paschal mystery, as being as true today as then when it happened historically the first time. It is true because it has been made known to be true via divine revelation, which allows us to better know the past event, once offered, through the efficacy of the Holy Spirit to lead us in truth. For theology, this is the essence of the sacramental re-presentation of Christ’s voluntary offering on the Cross.

Why does this somewhat esoteric concept of anamnesis matter today? I suggest it matters because we need to remember that we are an incarnational people. Yes, we are in a condition of need, but our lives, indeed the material world is not void of meaning lest it be decoupled from a sacramental understanding, a theological underpinning, of reality. Without a theology of the Incarnation, and a sacramental theology of anamnesis we risk commodifying all of creation, including other human beings. We must remember and pass on to our children their God-given dignity, the dignity of the other in their otherness, and the deep well of living waters offered at the Altar. We must remember the scandal of grace as core to our being. If we forget our condition of need, and the immense, gracious gift of God’s very self, we stand to deprive ourselves and others of deepening in our true identity as beloved children of God, pilgrims on a journey in a wonderful but deeply wounded world.

Anamnesis iteratively lures us to see our true identity, individually and collectively, as actors in a world where creation matters, water matters, bread matters, wine and fruit of the vine matter, because it causes us to see things as they really are not as we would have them be for our own convenience. Anamnesis arouses in us a fulling sense of our deep longing, an infinite longing toward the great transcendentals of truth, beauty and goodness as embodied in the person of Jesus, true God and true man. He who is the way, the truth and the life came not to condemn the world but to save the world through himself. Anamnesis of this singular event from the past, made known and re-presented at the Altar as true sacrifice in the present, is a sacramentally valid, ontologically rigorous way of knowing based on divine revelation. It is not ours to grasp at so much as it is to receive as free gift. Control of it is out of our hands. It is a Gift with a known Giver through whom we participate by re-offering this Sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving back to the Giver. The giving back is the seat of joy.

This reminds me of a story I was told comes out of the tradition of the Desert Fathers. It is about a monk whose hermitage was broken into by a bunch of thieves. The monk told the theieves to take whatever they wanted. As they were leaving, having taken much, the monk noticed a treasured candle-stand on his shelf so he called to the thieves and said, “You forgot this, take it, it’s the most precious thing I have!” This is precisely the moment in the liturgy when the action of re-presentation makes the bold claim that Jesus’ perfect, obedient self-giving of his total self to the Father exists now and is truly present through anamnesis, which reveals the person of Christ, the Sacrifice of Christ, and pattern of grace that continues to bring about the salvation of the whole world. The action is entirely God’s, out of God’s perfect will, to offer to us the most precious thing God has, his Son, his very self, out of selfless love for all of creation.

The Church teaches Christ is revealed liturgically to us through the gathered assembly, the reading of Sacred Scripture, the Priest and the Blessed Sacrament. If Christ is indeed most precious too us, may we freely offer Christ through our re-presentation of Christ by delving into the heart of the liturgy which forces us into the world. The anamnesis of Christ as true re-presentation of Christ, calls us into the heart of liturgical contemplation which drives us into our own re-presentation of Christ in action in our world. This is ultimately an act of love in response to love. It evokes joy.

Stephen’s off-the-cuff, “It’s more like a lesson than a memory” is an affirmation of memory taking on flesh by him learning to integrate memory in how he lives today. He found himself surrounding by “cool people…good people” from many parts of the globe who helped him learn. This is not the stuff for a nice picture frame to be dusted off and occasionally nostalgically gazed upon. The suffering of life denies nostalgia much depth. Stephen’s learning is the stuff of getting into the trenches in a messy world. It is a refusal of the death of his childhood friend as meaningless. It is a refusal of memory as being relegated to the past. It is a surrender to, and a re-presentation of perseverance as we yearn toward all that is true, beautiful and good along our pilgrimage of letting go in trust as the seat of our identity grounded in the Eucharistic sacrifice. It’s sometimes very messy and tough. Let go of it all, for the truest, most beautiful and the greatest of all is pure gift, meant to be re-offered by each one of us.

To me, this seems to be how a poor field preacher from Galilee ushered in a living hope of faith and love. He gave it all – for you. Let go…in trust.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is Our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.” – Deuteronomy 6:4-7

“Jesus answered, ‘The first is, Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” – Mark 12:29-31

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