A Culture of Remembrance

America is torn in a debate at present over the building of a Mosque at Ground Zero, the former location of the Twin Towers in New York, destroyed by an act of terrorism. At the same time, an Orthodox Church that was crushed by the falling towers has been ignored by New York authorities. It is a painful time, full of the anger and recriminations that seem to accompany all political discourse in America today.

Many nations have suffered many things – most of which overwhelm the Twin Towers in their numbers and historical significance. As a planet we can be a “culture of remembrance.” The pain of our memories is something of a false memory, in that it will not last forever. Only memory that is grounded in the End of things – memory that is eschatological – has true significance. There are forces that are seeking to re-write history at this very moment. There are false believers who imagine that acts of violence can shape the outcome of history.

This is not so. The outcome of history took place in the Resurrection of Christ. Regardless of whatever madness we may imagine year by year, the Resurrected Christ is at the center of all things, He is the Alpha and Omega. He cannot be seen with eyes of hatred and anger. That vision is normatively given to the pure in heart.

For those who want to know, I do not favor a mosque at Ground Zero, and I do favor that the state keep its promises and rebuild the demolished Orthodox Church that stood until September 11, 2001. But triumph will only come if our memory is of the only meaning given to us as human beings. It is to behold fallen towers and to say, “Christ is risen!” I offer some reflections on the “culture of remembrance” written shortly after my return from pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

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I grew up in a “culture of remembrance.” By that, I mean that the history of the place in which I lived was far more a matter of discussion and meaning than the present or the future. That culture was the American South. Much of the remembrance we discussed was not true – just a left-over from the sentimentality of the 19th century. My childhood was spent in the 1950’s, which may have been the last decade in America (or in many places of America) before the modern period became the norm. Modernity is not a culture of remembrance but a culture of forgetfulness. My children sometimes ask, “Which war was it Granddaddy fought in: Vietnam or World War II?” (The answer is World War II). But their forgetfulness staggers me. It is not that they are poor students of history (they were all great students) but history plays a different role in their culture than it did in mine.

My wife and I have swapped stories about our Southern childhoods and the experience of playing “Civil War” or “War Between the States” in our youth. The difficulty came in the fact that the game always involved where you were born. My wife was born in Washington, D.C. (where her native South Carolinian father was working at the time) which automatically meant she would have to play on the Northern side, which, in South Carolina, was always greatly outnumbered.

The culture of remembrance, however, is frequently false. We remember wrongs and hatreds that were not done to us and may not have even been done to our ancestors. No one in my father’s family fought in the Civil War (my mother’s family did). But no one burned our houses down or any of the other things we saw in “Gone With The Wind.” Many of those things happened to others – but not to all.

I was struck some years back when we took my home-schooling son to the Chickamauga Battlefield near Chattanooga. It is one of the oldest Battlefields preserved as a national monument. Reading about the history of its founding as a park is to read the story of soldiers from both sides working to set aside the area as a place of remembrance. It’s dedication was attended by men of both armies who met, ate, walked the fields and wept together. This is the remembrance of soldiers and was part of the healing of a nation. The culture of remembrance that I inherited included no such stories – it was the culture of a false memory.

The world has many cultures of remembrance – many of them bitter and angry. Many have continuing stories of violence and oppression – both of which feed the poisoned memories.

One of the promises in St. John’s Revelation is: And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away (21:4).

There is a proper culture of remembrance – a culture which is born of the mercy and forgiveness of God. It abides and will remain when the former things are passed away. The toxic remembrance of past wrongs does not build a culture of life, but a culture that serves the dead. There are some wrongs that are so great that we cannot easily ask another to forgive. Forgiveness is always a gift, never a demand.

Orthodox Christianity practices remembrance in a number of ways. The Sacraments of the Church are always a remembrance – but always an “eschatological” remembrance in which our focus is on the transcendant truth of things tabernacling among us.

Our Churches are usually filled with icons – some are covered in frescoes from floor to ceiling. And these icons are always a remembrance – of Christ, His Mother, the Saints, the Parables, etc. But icons, when painted according to traditional norms, are never mere historical records. We do not walk into a Church of photographs of the past. Rather, the saints – everything and everyone – is painted in an artistic grammar that points towards the final truth of things – the world to come which is already coming into the world.

Thus as I visited the Holy Land and stood in the chapel of the Monastery of Mar Saba, I saw in a side transcept the skulls of the monks of the monastery who have been martyred for the faith – the largest number of which died in 618 A.D. It was a remembrance of the most vivid sort, and yet not a reminder of a wrong that had been done, but of the transcendant power of the prayers of the saints. We venerate their relics – and do not mourn their martyrdom.

I noticed during my pilgrimage that Jerusalem itself is like a monument of remembrance. The Jerusalem whose streets were walked by Christ is some 30 or 40 feet below the surface of the present city. To visit those streets and other sites, you often have to go underground. Below that layer is the city of Jebusites (and perhaps others still lower), and the city of David. And above the city through which Christ walked are yet more layers – the city of the Romans – the city of the Byzantines – the city of the Muslims – the city of the Crusaders – the city of the Turks – and today the city that holds all of those things in one place – a center of pilgrimage. For some, to be there is a pilgrimage to a lost past and the pain of wrongs not forgiven. For a Christian, it must be a place for pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre – which belongs not to the past but to a past transcendant – for it is not a place of the dead but a place where tears are wiped away.

For all the peoples of the world – the reality of that Sepulchre is the only way forward. Modernity would move forward, not in forgiveness but in forgetfulness, which is not the same thing at all. For tears to be wiped away, they must also be shed. For the dead to rise again, they have to die. To remember the truth is, finally, to remember the End of all things when the Truth shall be revealed. The former things – which were always distortions – will pass away. What remains will abide forever.

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28 Responses to “A Culture of Remembrance”

  1. Thom Crowe Says:

    As always, very well put Father.

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  3. Wendylady Says:

    I just heard a lecture by Dr. Stephen Lloyd-Moffett. He had some beautiful thoughts about icons…he made the observation that in the U.S. the West (Protestants as well as Catholics) have lost their sense of community. In his opinion, it is partly because they don’t have icons surrounding them in their churches. He said for the East, icons are a remembrance of our community. So sad that America is losing it’s culture of remembrance AND community! Thank you for this post. I truly hope we won’t have a mosque built at Ground Zero; but for remembrance and community pray that we’ll see the demolished Orthodox church re-built!

  4. William Gautsch Says:

    Dear Steve,
    Your post moved me. I have been deeply disturbed by the proposed mosque construction. It is like plugging an already lit fuse into dynamite. When we were young and in Jr High a favorite challenge to pick a fight was drawing a line in the dirt and daring the other fellow to cross it. The building of that mosque is exactly that.
    On another note, if you hear of an effort to restore the Orthodox Church please let me know. I would like to help. I possess just the skill set they need.

  5. Darlene Says:

    Father,

    I remember those layers of civilizations while in the Holy Land. At one point, I was able to look down into an excavated area and see them all at once. And so it is that our memories have layers upon layers. The layers of our childhood, which are beneath the layers of our adolescense, which are beneath our teenage years, which are beneath our young adulthood, so on and so forth.

    Sometimes I think that my memories of those days gone by have changed, or developed. The mind can play tricks like that.

    But as an Orthodox Christian, I pray that the truth of what I have learned of our Lord and Savior remains in tact and that whatever is built upon that memorial truth will strengthen me to the end of my journey here on earth and my entrance into Heaven.

  6. davidperi Says:

    Last week I saw on tv “Millhouse..the white comedy.” Video clips of Nixon´s political career from the late 40 to election in the early 70s. What he said about honor, education, America´s leading the way in the world was the same old rhetoric I´ve heard since the 50s. So what has or is happening in the U.S. has been put on the back burner for several years because the Orthodox liturgy and Eucharist has been drawing me more and more into worship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Even though I am not a priest, I feel like the priest praying in every situation.

  7. Dean Arnold Says:

    In my book on Chattanooga, I entitled the section that includes the North-South reunions you referenced as “The Power of Forgiveness.”

    A key leader of the movement, William Crutchfield, publicly confronted Jefferson Davis who was staying at the Crutchfield Hotel (now the Read House) in Chattanooga on his way to Mississippi to accept the Confederate Presidency. Known to be quirky, and the son of the hotel owner, Crutchfield jumped on a table as Davis was speaking and called Davis a “despot, a renegade and a traitor,” and predicted the carnage that would ensue from his rebellion. Guns were drawn, and It almost led to a riot, and became national news in 1861.

    The man escorting Davis that evening, David Key, was the other early leader of reconciling soldiers in Chattanooga a decade later. Broke and nearly starving after the war, he wrote Crutchfield a letter as to whether he should return to Union-controlled Chattanooga. Instead of remembering past wrongs, Crutchfield welcomed Key with open arms. Such actions led to Chattanooga becoming a city friendly towards manufacturers and carpetbaggers, and soon the South’s industrial giant.

    A few years later, David Key was back on his feet, and ran for Congress. He lost to his old enemy-turned-friend William Crutchfield.

    Not long after, Rutherford B. Hayes needed a cabinet member to attract Southerners for his presidential bid. He chose Key, who became the first Southerner, Democrat and Confederate officer to join a Presidential administration since the Civil War.

    It was Key and Crutchfield who were key leaders behind these first and great reunions between North and South that led to the Chickamauga military park, the country’s first and largest. The main speaker at the founding event was Union Supreme Commander William Rosecrans. “It is difficult to find in history an instance where contending parties in after years meet together in perfect amity,” he said. “It took great men to win that battle, but it takes greater men still—I will stay morally great—to wipe away all the ill feeling which naturally grows out of such a contest.”

  8. Margarita Says:

    I used to wonder unhappily at how it could be that we would forget all sorrowful things in heaven. What I thought the Bible said–that in heaven you can only be happy–seemed to some extent a false heaven, denying pain and the depth of the human person. Now I understand a little better.

  9. Merry Bauman Says:

    Wow. This was such a timely piece – for all of Christianity in this country – not merely the Orthodox. I am printing and sharing it with others of different Christian faiths here at work. We have all struggled with these issues – especially those of us in our 50’s and 60’s. This is such a clear and calming way to put things. I don’t want the mosque either – to stand as a tribute to the “victory” of the terrorists and their religion. I DO want to see the Orthodox church there rebuilt. My husband said if they build the mosque, they MUST rebuild the Orthodox church, and that ALL Orthodox, not just the Greek, must go there and pray very hard – sending up prayers to pray for the people who go to the mosque too.
    He thought it would be a great way to overcome thru prayer what violence will never achieve. Imagine the converts! It has happened.
    Thanks for this today. It was really wonderful.

  10. Micah Says:

    The Abbot of one Russian Orthodox Monastery in the US recently said that that if the powers-that-be determine that an Islamic Centre is to be built so close to where the WTC once stood (about five blocks away), then at the very least such an act of clemency should usher in a climate of reciprocity as far as the financial backers of said centre – i.e. the Saudi government — are concerned.

    I can’t help but think how much of an opportunity this is. All pious Muslims eagerly await the return of Jesus Christ — unequivocally Messiah — who will lead the faithful in an eschatological battle against the devil and the forces of darkness that tear at the human soul from within.

    Of course in the Quran, God the Merciful does not permit the Son of Man to be killed so mercilessly on a holy cross, thus do events conspire to present to latter-day “Nazarenes” (as Christians as known in Islam) an unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, Son of Man.

    The Lord loves all, irrespective of race, colour or creed!.

  11. Laura Says:

    The community center being called a mosque is actually two blocks away from ground zero. From what I can tell from the news, the two buildings are being held up by various separate issues, but their comparison is being politicized for an upcoming election, with the intention of inciting anger in people.

    It seems important to me to avoid this politicizing if we are to have a remembrance that helps to heal our nation.

  12. ernie Says:

    I do not understand religious opposition to the Islamic center and mosque being built near graound zero. Muslims as well as Christians were in the WTC when it was attacked and they suffered and died just like the Christians, Buddhists and others who suffered and died. The attack was not an attack on Christianity by Islam. It was an attack on innocents by the brain-washed puppets of a bunch of gangsters.

    We are all children of Abraham. We should pray for each other, not fight one another.

  13. Micah Says:

    Thanks for clarifying Laura. Amen Ernie!

  14. fatherstephen Says:

    Ernie,
    It’s a matter of sensitivity, not of absolutes. However, the modernized accounts of world religions is less than accurate – born of a world that speaks in theory and has never had to live side-by-side. What the government seeks to achieve by accommodation will not occur by accommodation. The situation is tragic.

  15. Fr. Vasile Tudora Says:

    Fr. Stephen,
    Your remembrance of Jerusalem brought up a vivid memory from the Holy Sepulcher. I had the opportunity to go there in a short pilgrimage a few years back and got to the Sepulcher very early, maybe 5:30 AM, even before the Greek Cerberus monk arrived. So being alone there I went inside the tomb, knelt and was thinking about how we killed Christ with our sins. I have to tell you I was very sad. As I was sitting there, feeling sorry for all humankind I felt the impulse of raising my head and above the tomb was a small embroidered picture with two words: Hristos Anesti! I just realized, as you said, that the tomb was not a place of sad remembrance and death but a place of life, a place of a new beginning. I left very happy after that!
    Thanks again for your post.

  16. Barbara Says:

    St. Nikolai, in his prayer XXX, said the following about memory…

    Blot out, O Lord, all my memories –except one. For memories make me old and feeble. Memories ruin the present day. They weigh down the present day with the past and weaken my hope in the future, for in legions they whisper in my ear: “There will only be what has already been.”

    But I do not wish for there to be only what has been. I do not wish and You do not wish, O Lord, for the future to be the past repeated. Let things happen that have never appeared before . The sun would not be worth much, if it only watched repetitions.

    Worn paths mislead a wayfarer. Earth has walked over the earth for a long time. Earthly walkways have become boring for they have been travelled again and again from generation to generation throughout all time. Blot out, O Lord, all my memories except one.

    Just one memory do I ask You not to blot out, but to strengthen in me. Do not blot out but strengthen in my consciousness the memory of the glory that I had when I was entirely with You and entirely in You, before time and temporal illusions.

    When I, too, was a harmonious trinity in holy unity, just as You are from eternity to eternity.

    When the soul within me was also in friendship with consciousness and life.

    When my soul also was a virginal womb, and my consciousness was wisdom in vriginity, and my life was spiritual power and holiness.

    When I, too, was all light, and when there was no darkness within me.

    When I, too, was bliss and peace, and when there were no torments of imbalance within me.

    When I also knew You, even as You know me, and when I was not mingled with darkness.

    When I, too, had no boundaries, no neighbors, no partitions between “me” and “you.”

    Do not blot out this memory, my Father, but strengthen it.

    Even if it reveals to me the abyss along which I am journeying in humbleness and nothingness.

    Even if it separates me from friends and pleasantries and demolishes all the barriers between Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.

    Even if it leads me outside of myself, and makes me seem mad in the eyes of my fellow wayfarers.

    In truth, no companionship pleases me except Yours, and no memory pleases me except the memory of You.

    O my merciful Father, blot out all my memories except one alone.

  17. Seraphim Says:

    Well said Fr. Vasile!

  18. Darlene Says:

    Dear Frs. Stephen & Vasile,

    As I recall during my journey to the Holy Land, the Protestants claimed a different location for Christ’s tomb, and also the place where He was crucified. The only location that the Protestants didn’t dispute was that of His Nativity, His birth place. Am I remembering the facts correctly?

    It was during that pilgrimage to the Holy Land (although I was a Protestant Evangelical at the time and wouldn’t have called it a “pilgrimage), that the seeds were sown, which would eventually lead me to the Orthodox faith. I discovered that there were no Protestant churches built there during the first millenium. One just can’t find any Protestant influences there from antiquity. Rather, it was the witness to the Orthodox Church that was quite evident. I might add that such a witness at the time seemed quite foreign and peculiar to me. “Who are these strange, eccentric-looking Christians with their cluttered and elaborately decorated churches?” I wondered. But the question was tucked away in the recesses of my mind to resurface several years later. 🙂

  19. Darlene Says:

    Barbara,

    Such a beautiful prayer, really and truly glorious! “Glory to You for a heart touched by You.”

  20. Yannis Says:

    I personally don;t think that perceiving things of the past in a different light is always a mind trick or game – although sometimes it is.

    It is otfen because we change and perceive differently, usually understanding what was under our nose more consciously or because we simply at the time did not had the conceptual scheme to understand what exactly was happening to us – typical example is the adolescence and youth.

    It is probably important to re-think past events, in order to understand their significance, however it is also important to stay focused in the present once the answers sought are found.

  21. mic Says:

    “The outcome of history took place in the Resurrection of Christ.”

    What an amazing sentence!!! A most excellent post indeed, but that sentence is amazing!

    peace
    mic-

  22. James the Brother Says:

    Darlene,

    I had a very similar Holy Land experience about 15 years ago. What I would give to have had an understanding of Orthodoxy then. At least today I still have great images in my mind and given my coming into the Church last year, these images are crystalizing slowly over time. So I am with you as I can still sense the slight conflict of being in the “Holy Land” while wondering about these unique churches and people.

  23. Seraphim Says:

    Well said Mic!

  24. Barbara Says:

    Darlene,

    All of St. Nikolai’s “Prayers by the Lake” are available at http://www.sv-luka.org/praylake/

    They have been a great encouragement to me throughout my journey into Orthodoxy. I don’t always understand their depth and can’t say that the words have become mine in that I can pray them the way someone Holy would, but they represent a radiant possible way of being that I long for. They are also like the Psalms, new layers of meaning are discovered in every reading.

  25. Jeremiah Says:

    This post reminds me of the verse “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.”
    It seems like a lot of the public face of the Orthodox Church (at least hear in the U.S.) to people outside, is a Church that is divided along racial lines and a tension that is born of wrongs remembered. I know that the tradition, life and theology of the Church is a stark contrast to this behavior. We “crack pots” hold a true treasure in our Apostolic Faith. No wonder we pray ‘Lord Have Mercy’ so many times, every service.
    Do you suppose Father Stephen, hat these international talks between various jurisdictions, and such will bring about an understanding that allows for healing of our schisms? (at least among the Apostolic Traditions) I pray that they do.
    I do pray for myself that the Lord will heal me of the false remembrances that weigh me down. Thank you for this post.

  26. Michael Bauman Says:

    Ernie, while I tend to agree that the controversy over the mosque is primarily political in a western sense, it is religious and importantly so.

    I would suggest that you do some further research into the attitude of Islam to Chrisitanity and the fate of Chrisitans under Islamic rule–not a rremeberance, but current reality.

    Sharia law and freedom as we Christians and as westerners know it are incompatible.

  27. Glory To God Says:

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  28. Mike Farley Says:

    Thank you, Father, for this beautiful reminder of the truth of our life in Christ.

    “For tears to be wiped away, they must also be shed. For the dead to rise again, they have to die. To remember the truth is, finally, to remember the End of all things when the Truth shall be revealed.”

    Those words will remain with me. Thank you again, truly.

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