The subject of today’s talk is memory. As an exercise, see if you can remember anything about the last talk I gave, some five weeks ago. It’s difficult and you are in good company if you can’t remember much about it! Now I would like you to reflect for a moment on what actually happened inside your own head when I asked you to remember something that happened a while ago, with so many events intervening. Of course you may not remember whether or not you actually were present when I gave that talk, so perhaps that could be your starting point. What do you actually do when you remember?
You may be able to access a mental image, or perhaps a sound - the sound of my voice - or you may have been able to remember a few words, or a short summary. But sometimes you can’t unlock the gate to a memory without having a little reminder - a trigger, a word or a picture which helps to bring the rest back so that you have at least some sense of having been part of the occasion.
Memory is a very important part of what makes us human and indeed of what gives each of us our own identity. Imagine not having any memories at all. It would be very frightening. Perhaps you know someone suffering from dementia, or Alzheimer’s - I have lived at close quarters with four such people and I know how terrible it is not to know where you are, not to know the people around you even though you have lived with them for many years.
Of course there are memories that are painful, that we would rather not recall. Indeed the brain has a rather amazing mechanism for protecting us from traumatic memories - psychologists call this ‘dissociation’ - the brain shuts down or puts a barrier between the part that processes live experiences and holds them in a short term memory store, and the part of the brain that stores long-term memories. Psychotherapists often work with patients to help them safely access and then transfer trauma experiences from short term to long term memories in order to stop them from overwhelming the mind - to help to hold them ‘at a distance’. It is the job of the long-term memory to reconstruct, or perhaps to ‘construct’ the experiences we store - using a filter to sift out the salient points.
So much for our individual memories. As Christians, as part of the church, memory, collective memory, plays an equally important role in our identity. At the heart of this identity is the experience of the earliest followers of Jesus and their experiences of him and of the events in his life, death and resurrection. It is their witness which comes down to us today as the ‘faith of the church’. One of the central events to which all the gospels attest is the Last Supper, which Jesus shared with his friends in the upper room of a private house before his eventual ‘betrayal’ and arrest. “Do this in remembrance of me,” says Jesus as he breaks bread and shares the common cup of wine. This urging by Jesus to memorialize him in the simple act of eating bread and drinking wine is of course not just an injunction to ‘hold him in the memory’ - since memory as we know is fragile and prone to failure. The genius of the ‘Institution’ as this moment in the service is called - this foundational incitement (what in scriptwriting is called ‘the inciting incident’) - is that it asks the disciples to do something, something very ordinary and everyday - to eat and drink.
As a theatre person, I know the importance of the body’s actions - the part the body plays in making memories. Performing an action and repeating it is how an actor schools him or herself for a part. Particular actions or gestures over time can form themselves into a style and convey meaning, which in turn can turn into a tradition. Now think of the part that tradition plays in church life - “the way we’ve always done things” - but this tradition, the Eucharist, far from being a sign of being stuck in our ways and dead, comes to us as a repetitive act that has travelled down the living arteries of our collective memory. We are enacting in the here and now, albeit in a way that is filtered and reconstructed, the fellowship, the closeness, the sense of relationship that Jesus had with his close friends and that he offers us today as participants in this act of faithful memory.
We must remember however that this fellowship which existed between Jesus and his followers took place on the edge of danger, difficulty, betrayal and suffering. Our enactment today is not a comfortable sealing off of our lives from a dark world, but a moment of grace as we prepare to go out and live out our lives of love and faith in the everyday world.
The Last Supper
Juan de Juanes
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