Christopher Blum is academic dean of the Augustine Institute in Greenwood Village, www.augustineinstitute.org.
What would it be like to suffer a “massive amnesia?” The question is troubling, but it is one that the encyclical Lumen Fidei invites us to ask. There Pope Francis and his co-author Benedict XVI alert us that the “question of truth”—the great question of our day—is a “question of memory,” even of “deep memory.”
Every Christian knows instinctually how crucial the memory is to the spiritual life. In the first place, there is our memory of the saving deeds and sufferings of Jesus Christ: his passion, death, resurrection and ascension. These events define our sense of space and of time. The holy city of Jerusalem is the center of the world’s attention, the altar the focal point of our churches, and the crucifix the symbol that makes a Catholic house a home. The rhythm of our weeks and years is also built upon our memory of Christ, with each Sunday marking the Lord’s resurrection, and the cycle of Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter and Pentecost marking the seasons of our year. Without our “deep memory” of Christ, we would be lost in the cosmos.
It is astonishing to think that it was over two centuries ago that the French Revolution tried to do away with Sunday by instituting a 10-day week. We associate such iconoclastic secularism with our own age’s relentless opposition to the lowly manger scene and the humble Holy Family. Yet we must not be surprised by cultural forces that would like to see us forget Christ and the saints. Christ himself mourned that his people had forgotten the words of Moses and of the prophets, and the psalms again and again portray a grateful memory of God’s saving deeds as the soul of piety.
God is Truth, but we know him through his deeds, and so hold upon truth depends upon our “deep memory” of how the Father’s love for us was “manifested” by Jesus Christ (1 Jn 4:9). Yet, as Benedict XVI liked to say, we meet Christ in the Church, for the Church gives us the Scriptures and the sacraments in which we encounter Christ. And so, as we prepare for the season of Lent and consider ways we might come to know Christ better, one practice that we may wish to consider is reading the lives of the saints.
Why the saints? The answer is simple. If we want to know what a football team is, we know where to look: not to unsportsmanlike and self-absorbed players, but to those who consistently put the team first and value their own personal achievements less than they prize the team’s victory. It is the same way with the Church. A dreary litany of sinners and scandals in the end tells us nothing about the Church other than that she is made up of fallen human beings. The same sins and scandals can be found the world over. Holiness is what sets the Church apart, and holiness we find in the saints.
An effective way to heal the massive amnesia from which we suffer today and to draw a little closer to Christ is by learning about his friends the saints. A good place to start are the Wednesday General Audience addresses given by Benedict XVI between 2006 and 2011. They are all available from the Vatican website. Some of my favorites are Christ and the Church, St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Francis de Sales, but with 12 dozen from which to choose, there are paths to the sanctification of memory for each of us.
Christopher O. Blum is co-author with Christopher Shannon of “The Past as Pilgrimage: Narrative, Tradition & the Renewal of Catholic History” (Christendom Press, 2014).