“Great is the power of memory, a fearful thing, O my God, a deep and boundless manifoldness; and this thing is the mind, and this am I myself.”
The words are from the Confessions of St. Augustine, one of the founding documents of Christian theology. Augustine understood that, to a large extent, what we remember is who we are. In some sense, our soul is a story, the story of our lives.
In our modern world, numerous novels and movies have explored the interwoven fabric of memory and identity. Amnesia thrillers, like The Bourne Identity, Mr. Buddwing or Mirage follow a protagonist’s attempt to recover his memory so he can find out who he is, a hero or a villain, a wise man or a fool. Philip K. Dick’s short story We Can Remember it for you Wholesale, filmed twice under the title Total Recall, tells of a working stiff who discovers that his memories are implants and he is more of a man than he ever dreamed of being. Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind follows various characters as they discover they have had their most unpleasant memories erased, so that not only their selves but their relationships are called into question. Most recently, Dan Erickson’s Apple TV series Severance makes the point by opening its memory drama with the essential question: “Who are you?”
The meld of memory and identity means that new information about the past can change the answer to that all-important question. In real life, the most dramatic cases are often traumatic. Consider the soldier who makes enormous sacrifices in war, and then later comes to understand that that war was fought for wicked or corrupt purposes. Consider the wife who devotes her life to her husband, and after his death discovers that he was consistently untrue. I have known such people. They feel their whole lives have been revealed to be a lie, and that the truth has stripped them of their sense of who they are. In order to go on living fully, they have to forge a new understanding of their own identities.
But, of course, in a slower, more subtle way, our sense of self is always changing as each new day adds new meaning to what we remember. A period of great hardship and repeated failure, for instance, can be transformed into a saga of hard work and dedication after it has led to some tremendous breakthrough or success. An embarrassing or absurdly comical first date can become the meet-cute romance of “how I met your mother,” after it leads to marriage and gives rise to new generations. Where you felt like a loser or a fool in the moment of experience, you now look back in memory and see yourself, to paraphrase Dickens, as the hero of your own life.
In my own life, one of the most remarkable examples of this memory-and-self transformation came after I wrote The Great Good Thing, a memoir of my journey from secular Jew to faithful Christian. When I was writing the book, I thought it was the story of how the harsh instruction of experience and my own commitment to moral logic taught me to transcend my upbringing, my skeptical social milieu and the default atheism of the age.
But when I reread what I had written, I received something of a shock. It was plain to see that Christ had been present on every page of the story, even going back to my earliest childhood. Often his presence was hilariously obvious. A teacher who appeared at an important moment had been named Krist — spelled Christ. A nurse who comforted my wife and me in a period of crisis — a nurse I thought I recognized but had never actually met — was named Christiano. Indeed, virtually every voice that had spoken to me in moments of decision was, I now realized, a Christian voice or the voice of a person with a name that made reference to Christianity. It was so remarkably plain to see that only the most doggedly stubborn materialist mind — a mind like mine — could have missed seeing it while it was being lived.
Once I did see it though — once I saw that Christ was there even when I did not believe in him or recognize him — my entire understanding of my autobiography began to change and with it my sense of who I am. The revelation of Christ’s presiding presence cast a transformative backward light on my often troubled youth. I came to see that even when I suffered cruelties and abuses, scarring trauma and a broken heart, I was simultaneously being molded by an unseen but loving hand.
Today, six years after I published my memoir, my entire relationship to my childhood has changed. I see my life now as a work of creation — not mine — a work in which all things, even the most painful, are turned to beauty if I submit myself to the spirit that shapes me. This in turn has given me a fresh vision of myself not as the subject of my life but as the object of constant artistry and care, a rather less lovely Galatea imbued by a far greater Pygmalion with more and more abundant being.
So it is with Easter and all the world. In the Friday darkness after the crucifixion, nothing was left to Jesus’s followers but a history of failure, the bitter memories of false hope and the gargantuan reality of death.
“The One sent by God was dead,” writes the great theologian Joseph Ratzinger, once the great Pope Benedict XVI. “There remained only a complete void. There was no longer any answer.” It must have felt to them as it often feels to us now when we watch the news unfolding at home and abroad.
Then, all at once, it was wholly otherwise. The tragic memory was rewritten by an event so unexpected and uncanny even those closest to it couldn’t see it right away. Mary Magdalen stood just beside her risen Lord and did not know him until he spoke her name. Thomas had to stick his finger in the man’s wound before he could comprehend him. Some of those who saw him even in the moments before his ascension to Heaven continued to doubt what they had seen. It was as if their minds could not let go of what they knew in order to know more.
On the road that led out of Jerusalem to the nearby town of Emmaus, two broken-hearted disciples met their savior on the way and did not recognize him. It was only later, when he broke bread with them, that they realized who he was. But in the time between their meeting and that moment of recognition, this man explained to them how the world’s past, from creation onward, would now be remembered differently. The memory of mankind would change and so the identity of mankind would change. All the meanings of the past would be rewritten by this fresh revelation, and those who saw the transformed face of history would themselves become new.
God walked beside me my whole life, but I could not see him until he spoke my name, and then my memory and my self were forever altered. Likewise all of us and all our lives seem sometimes sunk in godless dark.
Yet every Easter, God speaks to us again.