November: A Month to Remember

November is a month to remember the dead. But how do we remember the dead? The act of remembrance, or memory, is not so simple a thing. Yet it is of vital importance in the Christian life. It is so important that St. Augustine would devote a whole book of his Confessions to a consideration of memory.


To St. Augustine, memory is the present considering the past (Confessions 11:26). Or to more accurately translate the Latin––praesens de praeteritio memoria––memory is the past made present, an act made possible only through the mind.

In my university days, I once attended a debate on globalization and the future. At the end of the debate, a rather fat and confident CEO of a global strategies company proclaimed we had naught to fear of the future and that the advent of the computer had heralded a brave new world. In the past, man's tools extended the body. A hammer drives a nail better than a fist; a saw cuts better than teeth. The computer, he informed us, was the first tool that functioned as an extension of the mind.

In one sense he was right; tools are an extension of man's natural abilities. But with each such invention, we see an attendant atrophy in the muscle that once performed that task. The horse, railroad, car, and plane have all, in turn, replaced the function our legs once performed. And if you look at any statue of ancient man, you will notice thighs and calves quite different from the spindly props we have today.

They will no longer pursue wisdom, but rest content while wisdom rests moldering on their bookshelf.

They will no longer pursue wisdom, but rest content while wisdom rests moldering on their bookshelf.

But the computer is not the first tool that has extended the mind, and I am not the first thinker to recognize the atrophy that accompanies new technologies. Plato (427-348 B.C.) ends his Phaedrus with a myth about the invention of writing (274c-275b). The Egyptian god Theuth presents his invention to the king, Thamus, as a way to improve the memory of the Egyptian people and so make them wise. The Pharoah Thamus responds that writing will do just the opposite. People will no longer practice memory and lose that faculty altogether. They will no longer remember but be reminded. They will no longer pursue wisdom, but rest content while wisdom rests moldering on their bookshelf.

If writing replaced our memory of words, newer inventions have replaced our other ways of remembering. We have digital cameras to remind us of the color of the sunset, iPods to remind us of music, and streaming videos to remind us of stories.

I am not arguing that you should go outside and set fire to your electronics using your books as kindling. But we do need to become users and not consumers of these technologies. To redeem the time, we need to redeem the tools.

When we write the names of the dead in a book or recite prayers for the dead from a book, we are reminded of the dead; but this does not guarantee that we remember them. Recall, if you will, that St. Augustine said memory is the past made present. In some way, memory is the act of us tyrants of the present yielding ground to those that happen to be on the wrong side of the present moment.

Few acts accomplish this so clearly as the memorization and recitation of poetry. When I remember a poem, I yield to the dead my memory and my will. I yield them my voice. I do not speak so much as another speaks through me. In many ways, to learn a poem by heart prepares us for communion, that meal in which we do not eat but are eaten.

Today is the feast of St. Cecilia. It is fitting that we celebrate the patron saint of music in this month of memory. As the Greeks and Romans knew, Memory is the mother of the Muses. When we "do this in memory of" Him, we do not recite theological tracts; we recite poetry with angels: Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus...

Postscript: If you are new to the memorization of poetry, there is no finer start to the English poetic tradition than to learn "Western Wind":

Western Wind, when wilt thou blow,
The small rain down can rain.
Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!

Or if you must be more authentic, here is the 16th century version:

Westron wynde, when wilt thou blow,
The small raine down can raine.
Cryst, if my love were in my armes
And I in my bedde again!

Laura Berquist's The Harp and Laurel Wreath has for years been a constant in those few circles (home-schools and private schools) that have retained some place for poetry. There exists no good book in print for the adult who wishes to memorize poetry, but Palgrave's Golden Treasury will suffice if you can find a used edition.

If you are not new to the memorization of poetry, but have not had reason to do so for some time, I extend to you a challenge to memorize this sonnet by St. Robert Southwell in time for Christmas. Imagine the surprise to your parents, siblings, and spouses as they are deep in wrapping papers and tinsel when you recite these words:

By St. Robert Southwell


As I in hoary winter's night stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorchëd with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
Alas, quoth he, but newly born in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel justice layeth on, and mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men's defilëd souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.
With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I callëd unto mind that it was Christmas day.