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The destruction of Mr. Thompson's memory drove him to this strange, desperate tale telling because, as Sacks theorizes, "to be ourselves, we must HAVE ourselves -- possess, if need be re-possess, our life stories...a man NEEDS such a narrative, a continuous inner narrative, to maintain his identity, his self." Human nature appears to be so structured that without a continuity with the past, our lives would feel random and totally topsy-turvy.
To be sure, all amnesia is not drug- or alcohol-related. Some is due to injury or disease...Alzheimer's. Some comes naturally with age as a brain becomes stuffed with so many memories that, like an overloaded computer, some of what we try to access is no longer easily located on the disc - in my own life I call it a "senior moment." Some memories are too painful to recall, so we engage whatever mental powers at our command to keep them buried. But as Dr. Sacks' work says, when some of our history is blotted out, some of US is lost in the process.
I wonder if that might not be a problem in the church. What brings that to mind is the word we read in scripture from the Apostle Paul concerning the Lord's Supper. It seems from what he writes that the good folks at First Church, Corinth were having some trouble in the congregation. Cliques had formed. Divisions between rich and poor had sprung up. As they gathered for worship from week to week and sat down to the common meal they regularly shared to commemorate the Last Supper, there was no sense of "communion" - it was a caricature of the big family with everyone diving toward the fried chicken at the same time with the one with the short arms being left with the empty plate. Hardly appropriate for a church, would you say? Paul thought not. He blamed it on a sort of spiritual amnesia - they had forgotten what the Lord's Supper was all about. "This is my body...this do in remembrance of me...This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this...in remembrance of me. Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's DEATH until he comes."
In a way, Paul's choice of words might be surprising. Why would he not have said, "In eating and drinking, you proclaim Christ's RESURRECTION?" After all, is not the resurrection the focus of our hope? Do not the modern liturgies open the Communion service with "This is the JOYFUL FEAST?" Where is the joy in emphasizing something as morose as DEATH? We would rather focus attention on something more pleasant.
The modern church needs Paul's reminder. True, no one is elbowing his way past another to get to the table as in Corinth, not for the cube of bread or the sip of juice. But remembering Jesus, and in particular his horrible death, are not at the top of our mental agenda. We too seem to have developed a Christian amnesia. The cross has become a lovely gift of jewelry to be worn on a chain around the neck or a shiny golden symbol to be displayed prominently in the front of a sanctuary. No longer is it the vivid reminder of suffering and sacrifice endured on our behalf. Perhaps that is why so many church members evidence a kind of take-it-or-leave-it religion. They forget what was done for them on that dusty hill so long ago. As has been said, a clear conscience is often the product of a cloudy memory.
At this time of year, as we recall our nation's birthday, I am reminded of a scene from the Revolution. A father took his son up to the top of a hill overlooking a valley where the American patriots had just driven the British back with sacrificial courage. Before the father and his son lay the battle-ridden valley; the smoke of the cannon still lingered in the evening sky; the stench of dying flesh hovered heavily in the air; the moans of injured young men, cut down in the prime of their lives, sanctified the silence; the blood of the bold stained the snow-covered ground. The father placed his arm about the shoulder of his son and said, "Look long and well, and remember, THIS is the horrible cost of your freedom."
I am told that in the sign language used by the deaf, the way to say "Jesus" is to make an imaginary nail print in the hand. In this day of comfort and convenience, of padded pews and comfortable sanctuaries, of religion designed more to make us feel good than be good, we need the reminder that the center of the Christian faith is the symbol of agony. "Look long and well, and remember, THIS is the cost of your salvation."
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life my all.(2)
Of course, the cross is not the end of the story. Neither
our memory nor Paul's stops with the Lord's death. Thus, we
gather at the table on Sunday, not Friday. The concluding phrase
of the apostle's sentence is instructive: "Whenever you eat this
bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death...UNTIL
HE COMES." The final word is victory...over every enemy, even
death. The Lord's Supper is not simply a sad memorial meal; it
IS a joyful feast, and our host is the risen Savior.
1. Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, (South Yarmouth, Ma. : J. Curley, 1986). Ten years later it was reintroduced as a musical, "The man who mistook his wife for a hat" : chamber opera / Michael Nyman ; libretto by Oliver Sacks, Christopher Rawlence, and Michael Morris, London : Chester Music ; Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk : Exclusive distributors, Music Sales, c1996
2. Isaac Watts
3. Clifton Fadiman, Gen. Ed., Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, (Boston, Little, Brown, & Co., 1985), p. 106