Memory and Eternal Life
When a young person is killed or suddenly dies, it is relatively easy to imagine their young, vibrant spirit passing quickly into another, even better, life. Or even when old persons die, as the bible puts it, “full of years”, their bodies worn out but their minds still bright, it is still fairly easy to think of their souls being absorbed, as it were, into God.
But when we consider the long slow process, the gradual loss of memory and a one function after another that accompanies the onset of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, I think we all face a real test of faith. We ask ourselves, not without good reason, what there is left in this person’s mind that could possibly serve as the foundation for some kind of new or eternal life?
find questions like these all the more pressing the older I get. No doubt this
is natural. When we are young we take for granted that we will live forever.
When we are old, we begin to worry whether anyone will remember us once we’re
gone. I doubt if the ancient rulers of
Yet when we think back about our own ancestors, we realize how fleeting these memories are apt to be. Most likely we remember at least some of our grandparents, but when it comes to our great-grandparents most of us are at a complete loss. We have a notional knowledge of their existence, indeed of all our ancestors, even the remote ones going back, and let us say, even to “Adam & Eve.” But lacking a living memory of them, we have no real or personal knowledge: thus, for us, they would seem to be truly, and irretrievably dead. And this is what is the great tragedy of the victims of Alzheimer’s and, especially for us who once knew them, that having lost all their memories, they had become like the living dead.
Is there any plausible answer to this tragedy and challenge to our faith? I think so. Years ago, when I first read St. Augustine’s famous treatise on God as a trinity, I was puzzled as to why, after comparing our will to God’s Holy Spirit and our mind to God’s Word or Son, he compared our memory to God as Father, the origin of all existence, or indeed, as Augustine defined God, to “Being in itself.” What is it about memory that is so vital to our existence that without it that we can scarcely comprehend what it must be to exist? (I’m not sure, but perhaps it is simply that without memory there is no “food for thought”, much less for deliberation or free will. If we, or even animals, know or decide anything it is only on the basis of impressions or memories stored in the brain.)
So all this makes me wonder: is not memory the key to understanding what we mean by the words “eternal life”? After all, Jesus, the night before he died, left us not with any command to build grand temples or stage grandiose pageants in his honor, but with the simple injunction to bless the elemental symbols of our life and sustenance to become his body and blood “given up for you” and repeated “in memory of me.” Yet it is this simple act of eating and drinking in his memory that the Apostle John assures us that will guarantee eternal life. But how is this possible? How can a sacramental ritual guarantee immortality?
Again, it seems to me that memory is the key. Memory is the conveyer of the spiritual force or “grace” that alone gives eternal life. So if there are those who are still alive in our minds because we remember them as they were, then in turn, being remembered by God even now is the guarantee that we shall not die.
So I guess that what I am saying, or what faith tells us, is that when we are dead and gone, and are eventually forgotten by succeeding generations, nevertheless, despite all that, God will remember each one of us. Not only that, but in our sharing of the vision of God, we will remember things as God remembers them, and in so doing our own memories will be restored, and—perhaps what is even more important—healed, and in this we at last will become fully and forever alive!