Trailing Clouds of Glory: Whitterings, January 2005

Henry Scott Tuke ii

The beginning of the new year often leads to introspection about the past. So as I reflect on the events of the previous year I find myself in a familiar predicament. I can not remember a good chunk of it.

Memory is a strange thing. I know people who can remember the details of a dinner party twenty years ago including the conversation topics. I know people that seem to remember everything they ever did or watched or even read. I often envy them.

My memory is esoteric, impractical, and totally unpredictable. I seldom remember the particulars of my own life but can discuss at length some obscure archaic belief system long since dead. I can remember that I have visited a place but can recall nothing about it. I can remember abstract things such as poetry, history, philosophy – in other words abstract thoughts - but not where I have been or what I have done. My friends joke about the fact that they know more about my history than I do. I have come across articles and monographs which I would swear I have never seen before concerning things I swear I know nothing about only to discover that I wrote them. Once when I was doing Doctoral work at Cambridge I received a telephone call from a man enquiring about the controversy over the foundation date of a Lazarite Leper Hospital in the north of England. I thought the man had the wrong number and informed him that I had never heard of the place. There was a long pause on the other end of the telephone before he asked sheepishly if I was the author of the monograph ‘Medieval Foundation of the Order of St Lazarus in England and Wales’. You guessed it, I wrote a book in which I spent two pages discussing the Foundation date of the particular leprosarium in question!

There is some comfort in knowing that the trait seems to be genetic as my mother suffers from the same eccentric memory. After my Grandmother and Aunt both died my mother commented that not only did she lose her family she also had lost her childhood as they could remember her past and help her remember it while she is unable to do it alone. For awhile I kept journals and took photographs constantly. I no longer do so as my journal writings seem to be those of a stranger writing about people I do not recall doing things I cannot remember. As for photographs they often only seem to mock me by reminding me that I should recall the people and the event of which I only have a vague recollection.

I always thought that leading an exciting life was done not only for the adventure but also to store up treasures in the memory chest for later years. I once dated a model mostly so I would be able to take pleasure later knowing that I had done so. I shouldn’t have bothered as I have no memory of it. Overall I have been haunted with a sense of loss and guilt. I also feel cheated by my own mind.

William Wordsworth reflected deeply about this pain of forgetting in his poem Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. In it he traces the birth of man from God and the gradual losing of that memory of Him and the feelings of awe experienced in childhood to be replaced by reflective melancholy and estrangement. He sees forgetting as part of a much greater problem of the human condition: The forgetting of innocence, joy, and God.

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

Hath had elsewhere its setting,

And cometh from afar:

Not in entire forgetfulness,

And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Shades of the prison-house begin to close

Upon the growing boy.

Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind;

In the primal sympathy

Which having been must ever be;

In the soothing thoughts that spring

Out of human suffering;

In the faith that looks through death,

In years that bring the philosophic mind.

In Wordsworth I find the melancholic but freeing sense that forgetting is not just about a trick of the mind but actually echoes the end of all things, including humanity itself. The Prophet Isaiah reminds us, “All flesh is grass, and its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surly the people is grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever.”

Remembering has been a sacred thing to humans. The remembering of our ancestors, the stories of our race’s beginnings, our myths, our lives, our mistakes. Remembrance plays a central part in our faith as well. We recall the life of Our Lord with the yearly round of feast and fast, the lives of His Saints, we recall his words week after week, and we gather around the altar to celebrate the Eucharist in memory of him. Yet within the Eucharist lies the key to the solution to the problem of forgetting. The key is the word remember. The Greek word for remembrance used by Christ is anamnesis. The word does not really mean to remember something that happened before but to reach back and pull it forward again – to make it real again. By doing so the thing remembered is resurrected and given new life.

This is impossible for us. We remember darkly at best and even if we remember we too will die and our memories with us and down through the centuries the remembrance of love, and beauty, loss and pain will all vanish. There are also those who have no one to remember their stories at all. Those who die alone, on battlefields, those who have disappeared, those who have no one to witness their lives. Archbishop Williams reflected upon this in his Easter Sermon last year in speaking about the horrors of the modern world such as the holocaust and Rwanda.

“We may and we should feel the reproach of the risen Christ as we recognise how easily we let ourselves forget; and nearer home, we might think too of those who die alone and unloved in our own society - the aged with no family (or forgotten by their family), the homeless addict, the mentally disturbed isolated from ordinary human contact. But Easter tells us to be glad that they are not forgotten by God, that their dignity is held and affirmed by God and that their lives are in his hand.

When we pray at this Eucharist 'with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven', we say presente of all those the world (including us) would forget and God remembers. With angels and archangels; with the butchered Rwandans of ten years ago and the butchered or brutalised Ugandan children of last week or yesterday; with the young woman dead on a mattress in King's Cross after an overdose and the childless widower with Alzheimer's; with the thief crucified alongside Jesus and all the thousands of other anonymous thieves crucified in Judaea by an efficient imperial administration; with the whole company of heaven, those whom God receives in his mercy.”

So although remembering in the human sense will not resurrect the past and will not heal the broken lives that have gone before us, God’s remembering will. St Luke tells us that Christ said that not even a sparrow is forgotten before God. God’s remembering is like that of the Eucharist: all will be made alive again, all will be made whole again, and all will be healed. Wordsworth’s man will return to the God from whence he has come and enter back into his lost innocence. Aristotle told us that all wisdom is just a remembering of that which we already know in the secret place of our heart.

Remembering is essential for not repeating the past mistakes of our collective life as well as for keeping steady on the path of faith. However if you are like me and find that much of life seems to be lost in the unreachable recesses of the mind, take comfort that although we forget, although we die and are forgotten by the world, and that this world will also one day vanish and be forgotten, God remembers. He not just remembers us in the past which is no more, He remembers us always in the eternal present and makes us whole again.

“To me the meanest flower that blows can give thoughts that do often lie too deep for
tears.” W.W.