“They can tell you everything about the battle as if it happened to them,” said a commentator, referring to some residents of Sharpsburg, Maryland, descendants of those who eight generations previously were swept up in the great Battle of Antietam Creek. The battle just passed its one hundred-fiftieth anniversary, yet has recently been described as “a gash in history that is still healing.”
As if it happened to them, an arresting phrase, that. The memory of events long removed from personal experience that becomes indelible, a living and seemingly personal memory that persists in the telling and retelling.
I had the same fierce experience with a tour guide while chaperoning my second son’s middle school civics class on a walking tour of Charleston, South Carolina. Everything in Charleston is historic, I discovered; or rather it became immediately historic in our guide’s telling. Charleston, as she understood it, isn’t a city with a history; Charleston is history.
Our guide laced Charleston’s story with “us,” “we,” and “ours,” linking herself to events that happened a century, or two, or three, before. I think I remember a small, glistening tear as she recalled Charleston’s capture by the Union in early 1865. The history of her Charleston wasn’t something that happened to somebody else some other time. It was “our” history she recited as we walked.
It was, like the man said, as if it had happened to her. This description is more than a variety of déjà vu. I think it is more like anamnesis.
Philip K. Dick was a science fiction writer who died in 1982. He was a relentlessly idiosyncratic novelist. He was not much of any kind of Christian I know, except perhaps one with lingering Gnostic instincts. But he sometimes used Christian imagery and Christian themes. As for his science fiction, forget the Buck Rogers-style space ships and bug-eyed aliens. His stories looked at the interior soul coping with exterior stresses. He chose themes of paranoia, political repression, the decay of society, and the plastic, tenuous nature of reality. For Dick, human living was a life of loss, fear, regret—yet all that was strangely intermingled with the hope and confidence there is a deeper reality behind or above or under or within the reality we experience.
There was a Truth that was true, but it was almost always shrouded, somehow just beyond reach. His characters possessed the visionary sense of being in touch with some vast, benevolent reality. They were reaching for it, and it was calling to them.
In his implausibly titled novel Radio Free Albemuth, published after his death, he has a dead-on portrayal of Christian memory.
Anamnesis, it was called: abolishment of amnesia, the block that keeps us from remembering. We all have that block. There’s a Christian anamnesis, too: memory of Christ, of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. In Christian anamnesis those events are remembered in the same way, as a real memory. It’s the sacred inner miracle of Christian worship; it’s what the bread and wine cause. “Do this in remembrance of me,” and you do it, and you remember Jesus all at once. As if you had known him but had forgotten. The bread and wine, partaking of them brings it back.
I have hardly ever found a better description of what is going on in the Eucharist. And, yes. I’m afraid I’m about to start talking like a pastor.
The Lord’s Last Supper becomes “a real memory” for us, a real event we live through and are expected to remember as vividly as yesterday. It isn’t something Jesus did with his disciples in Jerusalem once upon a time. It is something he does with us, his disciples in these times.
We join him in the upper room. It is we to whom he speaks when he says he has longed to eat this Passover with us. He speaks to us when he says one of us will betray him, and it is to us he says he will not drink again from the cup until he drinks it anew in the kingdom, ushered in for us.
We hear the whole story, beginning to end, and it unexpectedly becomes our story, as if it had happened to us. It sneaks up on us but we find it is we, ourselves, now who are under discussion. No wonder we remember it so clearly.
And suddenly I remember another phrase. Maybe it’s from the 1960’s macrobiotic whole food diet thing, or the earlier catabolic diet craze, or maybe Grandma said it first: “Remember, you are what you eat.”
Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church, an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary, and author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.
Radio Free Albemuth
USA Today, “What Antietam bloodbath teaches us about war today”
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.