Memory and Transfiguration

Our memory is not logical or journalistic or rational. Lewis compared it, in his book on 16th century English literature, to the difference between going on a train and growing as a crop.

Ride a train and you reach a station, which you then leave behind for the next, and then again you leave the next behind for the succeeding station until you arrive at your end.

On the other hand, when a plant grows, it carries with it everything it has experienced, converting it into itself.

Human memory is more like the crop.

We don’t just recall facts from previous events. In fact, most of our memory is not even conscious and some of it is never brought to the level of consciousness.

But everything that ever happens to us, everything we ever do, everything we experience quite literally becomes part of the substance of our selves. We can view it all as the means by which God creates us.

It seems to me that we must not neglect this fact when we think about “soul formation” – our own or those we are responsible to nurture. In other words, all parents, teachers, heads of school, bosses, and civic leaders need to consider this carefully.

It actually makes our job easier.

When Peter, James, and John saw Christ transfigured, Peter was so taken with the experience (after all, here was the Christ revealed, the apocalypse (unveiling) of the kingdom of God) that he wanted to keep it. “Let us build some tabernacles,” he said.

I so love Peter’s impulses, maybe this one more than any other. Here he sees Moses in his glory, Elijah glorified, and Christ Himself transfigured from our disfigured state of human nature to that glorified state He attained through the resurrection (Romans 1). They’re all taken into a cloud of radiant glory, the energy of the eternal God surrounding them with His uncreated light.

Of course he wants to stay. Have you ever seen anybody whose face shone like the sun and whose clothes were as white as light? “Lord, it is good for us to be here,” he says in one of the more obvious statements recorded in human history. “If you wish, let us make here three tabernacles.”

He knows perfectly well that everything else in his life has just faded into the quintessence of vanity. He knows that there is nothing else worth looking at or thinking about or doing. He wants to stay.

But he’s not quite responding the way he ought, so he is silenced.

“While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!”

Imagine how much Jesus much have enjoyed hearing those words. The disciples, on the other hand, were terrified and fell on their faces.

“But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise and do not be afraid.”

The moment was over. “When they  had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.”

You can imagine how excited they were. I can see Peter turning to James and John saying, “Wait till we tell the others about this! Thomas won’t believe it.”

But Jesus even blocks this desire. “Tell the vision to no one,” he says, “until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.”

“The what!” I picture Peter saying. If he doesn’t yet quite get it, he’s probably thinking, “That could be thousands of years. I can’t wait that long!!”

In fact, he does get it, because his question is much more profound. “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”, which is their way of saying, “Oh, so you are the Messiah. But what about this point?”

And then they get down from the mountain and ran into a man whose son had epilepsy but the disciples couldn’t cure him. They lacked faith, Jesus tells them, and this kind of demon requires prayer and fasting.

I cannot imagine that Peter, James, and John did not experience this miracle differently from the other nine. They had been in a glorious train station with all the radiance of ineffable light. Now they were in a little train station where the lights were off and no one was on duty.

Only, they brought the first train station with them. They had been changed. Not, by any means, completely. But by witnessing the transifiguration of Christ they too had been transfigured.

Not many of us have been in the presence of the transfigured Christ, but most of us have experienced some sort of ineffable moment in which some trace of Christ’s glory shone on us. Probably we tried to repeat the experience, the way we do with a soul-breaking song or a heart-lifting conversation.

It can’t be done. We can’t build a tabernacle for the experience.

But we can carry the experience with us. Yes, we can remember it with our conscious mind, and that’s a good idea. But it’s also necessary that we absorb the experience into our souls and that means attentiveness. It means being wholly there when He visits us.

For example, during communion, if our mind is elsewhere the experience will barely touch us. If our body is uninvolved, the experience will glance off us. If our spirit is consumed by anxiety, He will find no doorway into our souls.

We must be present, to be there for Him, to receive Him.

Every time we are there for Him, He takes possession of a tiny corner of our selves. And with each portion He inhabits (I am speaking to the weakness of our flesh), He enlarges our souls to make more room for Him. And oh how radiant is that tiny corner He inhabits, how He resurrects it, how He His love overflows from our hearts through our hands and into the souls of those we love.

We find that we agree with the Father who called Him His beloved Son, “in whom I am well-pleased.” When we are given a glimpse of a shard of His glory reflecting into some distant corner of our souls, we always agree with Peter, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”

And when He says, “Yes, it is. But you have to go pray and fast and, like Me, endure suffering and crucifixion before you can be transfigured,” we carry that goodness in the deepest core of our selves. We are changed by it.

That is how our souls are formed, or better, healed. And that is the power of the memory He has empowered us with.

Come, let us rejoice,
Mounting up from the earth to the highest contemplation of the virtues
Let us be transformed this day into a better state
And direct our minds to heavenly things, being shaped anew in piety
According to the form of Christ.
For in His mercy the Saviour of our souls has transfigured disfigured man
And made him shine with light upon Mount Tabor.

personhood and memory

Those dark and pathetic medieval thinkers had some truly extraordinary insight into the workings of the human mind. Every time I pick up Mary Carruthers’ The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200, published by Cambridge University Press, my amazement is renewed. There was something so much more whole, so integrated, about their theories of thinking.

For example, whereas we tend to think of memory (without wasting too much time thinking about something so banal and unimportant, of course) as a conscious intellectual process by which we force our minds to recall information, Mary Carruthers tells us that their notion was “a much more expansive concept, for it recognized the essential roles of emotion, imagination, and cogitation within the activity of recollection.”

One way to abbreviate her point would be to argue that they saw recollection, or memory, as something done by humans in human ways – as something personal.

But lest you misunderstand the meaning I intend that word personal to carry, I want to quote a little longer section from her next paragraph:

“In medieval monasticism, the individual always had his or her being within a larger community, within which a single life was “perfected,” “made complete,” by acquiring a civic being and identity. That civic being, I will suggest, was brought into consciousness through learned practices that were both literary and rhetorical in their nature.

Perhaps this is idiosyncratic, but when I hear the word personal I tend to think of the act of hiding things away in a private place. “Don’t touch that – it’s personal.” “Now you’re getting personal” (i.e. you are asking questions that have to do with my private self and you should stay away from that area). Even, “Have you accepted Christ as your own Personal Saviour?”

But, while there’s a validity to these uses, the relatively exclusive “Personal” use of the word personal betrays an emphasis in our thinking that I believe to be both inconsistent with reality and harmful.

The word “personal,” as you can readily see, arises from the root word “person.” I love this word for many reasons, one of which is that Christians can unflinchingly look back on it as one of the most significant contributions to human thought. Prior to the Ecumenical councils, persona basically meant a mask and was a theater term. Of course, with the decline of Christian thought and its influence, with the redirection of so much Christian thought away from Christ to man, the word is reverting back to that common use. The reality of personhood is reverting back to the masks we hide ourselves with instead of the essence that we hide with those masks.

Personhood really only came to be understood when the Fathers of the church drew the distinctions between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But it’s crucial to notice that the person’s of the Trinity are defined by their RELATIONSHIPS to the other persons. In other words, God Himself never existed in some imperious isolation, towering above all those non-existing contingent entities that relate to others. It is not a weakness to relate to and even to need others. It is essential to personhood.

My son David was recently married and Karen and I just celebrated our 25th anniversary. I doubt many parents of married children have missed the joy of watching as their child’s beloved drew out qualities in their child that had been waiting for the beloved to arrive. I sometimes wonder if that isn’t the real joy of youthful love – young people find something worth living (if not dying) for and it draws out powers and emotions they never knew they had. It’s an exciting journey of self-discovery, the key to which is that they pay no attention to themselves – or at least they think they don’t.

Meanwhile, I can tell you that in 25 years of marriage there have been plenty of times when Karen has had to deny herself (at least a dozen!) and a few when I have had to as well. Soren Kierkegaard suggested that life has three “stages” to it. The first he called the aesthetic, when people avoid making decisions and take in as much as they can for themselves. This stage always leads to despair and, therefore, boredom.

Then the point comes when a young adult needs to make a once for all choice – a commitment. Some decide to make the choice and proceed to the ethical stage. Others refuse and are stuck in the aesthetic. You can easily see this in the difference between a faithful married couple and the barracudas that swim through our bars, dorms, and youth groups.

The sense of irony is crucial to growing into this second stage, because it looks as though you are setting limits to yourself. Commitment means, by its very nature, self-denial. It means you won’t indulge the appetite of the moment, but it also means you will set aside deep burning desires that never really go away.

And there comes, for many, a time when that deep burning desire is set in conflict with the committed love for a husband or wife or children or friend. The decision one makes at that time determines the kind of person he will be from that point forward.

If he goes back on his commitment – if he turns his love into a theory – then he becomes the kind of person whose love will be theoretical, which often means sentimental and a little desperate.

If he keeps it, he will find the rest of his life limited, but he will find that he becomes a man.

Every successful artist knows that it is in the limits that they achieve greatness. Every successful businessman knows that success comes from focus. Everybody who has ever succeeded at anything has known that he succeeded by denying himself.

But so often we read or hear about living without limits. It’s childish, aesthetic, madness.

Because when we try to live without limits, which is to say, without sacrificing anything for our relationships, the very thing that draws us out of ourselves, the very thing that causes us to become human, to discover our capacities and limits (yes we have them!), to discover where and how and why we matter, has been treated as an obstacle.

We become human only in committed relationships. We discover our own inner lives only in relationships. We develop our personhood only when we give it to another.

Frankly, like all men, I wish I could have done many things with my life that I have been unable to do because I chose to marry Karen and to beget five children.

And because I did not do them, I became a man and can now boast as my greatest achievement that Karen and I have been married for 25 years. I can’t wait to see what we’ve become after 50!

This might seem to have taken us a long way from the discussion of memory with which I began this blog, but it hasn’t really. Personhood values memory. Memory sustains relationships. But because what we do in schools is so “academic,” we fail to think about and realize the full personal value of a trained memory. As a result, we have forgotten nearly everything that matters.

But at least we get a good feeling when we worship our relevant God with contemporary music. Who cares if those who have denied themselves on behalf of the church and their communities are driven away by our preference for the tastes of the young and hip. Family traditions, church traditions, social traditions – they just get in the way of…


The individual always had his or her being within a larger community, within which a single life was “perfected,” “made complete,”

The Place of Technology

A little over a month ago, my back went out on me. For four days I lay in bed with a continual supply of ice and Advil, virtually unable to move. Finally, after no improvement, I went to my doctor, a kinesiologist. He told me that I did something to my disk while swimming the butterfly and that I should never do that again. He also told me to get myself a back brace and to wear it most of the time for a while and then whenever I’m doing anything approaching heavy lifting or bending (like, say, getting off the couch after watching a football game).

 Since then I’ve worn the back brace most of the time, though for the last couple days I’ve tried not to. The not so funny thing is, now about five weeks later, my disk has recovered for the most part, but my back is weaker.

When I was in 8th grade and Ronald Reagan was failing in his Quixotic bid for the Republican nomination, my knee was bothering me so I went to my family doctor. He had no idea what was wrong with it so he made up some ideas as he went along. They didn’t help, so when I was 17 I had my knee scoped. All they could tell me was that my left leg was weaker than my right. About five years ago, in spite of weight lifting, walking, running, etc. I started wearing a knee brace.

The not so funny thing is that my left leg has gotten even weaker.

The not so funny thing about all technology is simply this: if we replace a human faculty with technology, the human faculty is diminished.

This is by no means a sweeping indictment of technology. The stick was a great improvement over the thumb and the plough was a magnificent improvement over the stick. Reviews on the tractor are a little more mixed.

But this is meant to be a call to sobriety in our haste to replace the human being with the machine, especially in education. Education is the cultivation of our human faculties, like words and reasoning. Socrates went so far as to object to writing because he argued that our memory would be impaired if we placed it outside of our minds. He was, of course, right. Educators should not see learning how to read as the be all and end all of education.

Consider the calculator. When seventh graders get their hands on these things, they forget how to calculate themselves.

And now the computer has arrived in every classroom on earth and we are going to save the world! Yeah, right.

Here’s my position: In education, no technology should ever be used that is not necessary and when it is used, the human faculty that is being replaced must be consciously and deliberately cultivated in some other way.

If you are seeking to cultivate wisdom in children, you will have to cultivate the faculties used to gain wisdom. These faculties reside in the soul and they use the powers of the body. Do not break the link between the body and the world around it.

Always remember: when you replace a human faculty with technology, that human faculty is diminished.