What Does It Mean To Be A People of Memory?

We start this month with the words of a Soul Matters participant who wants to remain anonymous:

So I was out for a walk this afternoon and got to thinking a little more about memory, and about the various ways in which we are called back to some previous event or feeling, especially through scent (a certain combination of rotting orange peels and other vegetation takes me right back to the market in Dar es Salaam, and sun on pine needles takes me back to our summer hideouts in the woods) or music, which is so much easier to remember than prose. I think especially of the song, “In the Still of the Night,” which I can sing verbatim, because when I was in junior high we used to take class field trips from White Plains to NYC and sing it all the way there.

It’s all got me thinking about what is it that takes you back, and where it takes you – and, most importantly, how this remembering feels holy? “In the Still of the Night” wasn’t holy, exactly, but it represented community, a whole busload of kids singing together, getting beyond the teenage cliques and the need to be popular or cool. There are other memories that take me directly to the holy – dark vaulted rafters, from a church in Philadelphia where I went for a youth conference. Sitting in the Sunday morning service, I had my first real experience of the presence of God in those rafters – as a total agnostic, if not atheist at that point in my life. Or standing on a mountain trail in the sunlight, totally alone feeling the immensity and the holiness of the moment, the glory of the mountains and the vastness of the sky. All of them are memories that have enormous power in my life still.

Our friend asks, “What is it that takes you back, and where does it take you?” These may be our most important questions this month. “What takes you back?” invites us to see memory as having its own volition. Not a skill we manipulate, but a sacred energy that “wants” something from us, or “hopes” something for us. And “Where does it take you?” Well, that’s a big question too. The space of memory is elusive. Mysterious. Seemingly beyond our grasp. Who can really say “where” it is? But here’s what we do know: it is in the space of memory that we are somehow held together, and also re-assembled. As we remember, we are re-membered. In that space, memories become these self-animated threads that weave the pieces and parts of us into this more complete thing we call “me” and “you.”

It’s so humbling, and remarkable!

Which makes it all the more sad that throughout much of our history, we Unitarian Universalists have not been overly nice to memory. We’ve given it the label, “tradition,” and treated it mostly as something that holds us back. Tradition, we say, cuts us off from a direct experience with the holy and tries to shape us rather than allowing us the freedom to shape ourselves. This attitude has left us, as a faith, wary of the past, depicting it simply as a place where one gets stuck.

But this is changing, and our Soul Matters friend captures this change perfectly. For her the past is not a place that traps us; it’s more like soil that clings tightly to our roots in order to nourish and stabilize us. If memory had a voice, it wouldn’t sing “remember me.” It would call out, “don’t forget who you are.”

And so, friends, this month, may that be our charge: To allow memory to flow through us in order that it may patch us back together and keep us whole.

Happy re-membering, re-assembling and re-collecting!

Excerpt from the Soul Matters curriculum