by Father Kevin Grove, C.S.C.
Tonight, we are going after God, and we will take up that adventure by means of desire and memory, in that order.
Now, Genesis describes three desires that would have been intelligible across ancient near eastern civilizations. The first is the desire of the flesh — food, drink, sex. The second is “delight to the eyes” — the desire for ownership of things of the world, anything that one might see with his or her eyes and seek to have, control, or use. And the third desire was for that which would make one wise — pride, worldly ambition, etc.
I am not here to throw a theological wet blanket on human desire. I do not want to squelch or repress it. No: I want to claim that it is at the core of our tradition, that desires were created as good, but that they very often are out of balance. You know the struggle, as I do: We are always flopping back and forth between self-denial and self-indulgence. We do whatever feels good, sometimes at the expense of what is good (desire of the flesh), want more than our fair share (desire of the eyes), and always run the risk of becoming all about us (pride of life). Jesus, before he ever calls disciples, or performs miracles, or preaches, goes out into the desert to face his three desires. (That it lasted forty days indicates that it was no small undertaking). But his desire for God trump-
ed his other desires. Later, when he does preach, he gives his famous Sermon on the Mount and then continues on to describe how it is that people might live out this blessedness. He gives instruction on three practices and how to do them with integrity. To counter desire of the flesh, fast and abstain. To invert the desire to own and to control, give away possessions and control. To counter the desire for self, give away the self; he or she who truly prays Thy will be done places the will of another before that of themselves.
Interestingly, the entire religious life — priests, brothers, sisters — is built around this system of trying to work out these three desires. At its best, the religious life is understood as a school wherein its members, by their vows, might learn to desire — to love — well. It is not the only way, of course, but it is an ancient one, and sometimes admirable.
This brings us to the heart of the matter, memory, which is a term that we use to describe much more than what we had for breakfast or where we hope we left our car keys. Memory is a term for how you and I have any sense of a stable reality. Because, if the present is just an instant that is constantly slipping away, we have to stitch together our expectations of the future as well as our recollections of the past, to have any coherent account of who we are right now. “Memory” is part of our most intimate self; we are not who we are without it.
And memory gives identity to desire. Memory is a way to participate in the past. That’s why attending a Jewish seder meal is about more than consistently eating bitter herbs for three millennia. It is about participating in the same freedom which God gave to his people in the Exodus. Or, in the case of Catholic Mass, the Eucharistic narrative of the last supper is a not a historical recreation of the upper room in Jerusalem, but a present participation in the very same event on account of the substantial presence of the very same God.
Remember Jesus’ few last words? Remember “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” He’s remembering. He is not delivering a newly crafted line that will be quoted for all time. He is remembering the Psalms, and quoting the first line of a prayer he’d known his whole life. Yes, at the hour of his death, there was poetry on his lips… but what an odd thing to remember, isn’t it? And if Jesus was God, as we believe, how could he ask God a question? It would be like the divine aspect of Jesus and the human side were chattering among themselves. Or, as your theology professor Michael Cameron has put it, it could be like “divine ventriloquism” — divinity using humanity like a puppet. But no: as Saint Augustine, helpful as
usual, points out, when Christ cries out in abandonment and commends
his spirit to God, he has never stop-ped being the creator of the universe. He has taken up more than our skin — he’s taken up our life, our voice, and our death. He cries out in a human voice the sound of human agony at its very worst. Christ, who suffers unjustly, speaks in our flesh, in our words, so that we might speak in his. Suffering doesn’t disappear in our world. But no longer will the suffering of sinners ever be undergone alone. We will cry out in him, with him; when we suffer it will be in him, with him; when we breathe our last, yes, that too will be in him and with him.
In that moment the cross became hope.
But such closeness of our human with his divine could not even be conceivable unless… we remember. We remember Christ’s death not to hear a story, but to listen to him speak in our flesh — listen to him speak in us, uncomfortable though his words of agony may be. We remember so that we might then practice speaking in him: that whenever we might need to cry out “my God my God why have you forsaken me?” it will be because our savior speaks and hears our cry with us.
Not quite a decade later, Augustine works through another version of the same question of memory, when he heard the same Christ say, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” You know the story: a Pharisee named Saul binds the followers of Christ in chains to haul them before religious magistrates. Somewhere between Jerusalem and Damascus, he is blinded by light and hears a most amazing question: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He asks the voice to identify itself and Jesus says that it is him.
But why did not Christ say why are you persecuting “my saints,” or “my servants,” “my people” or “my holy ones”? Why me? Augustine’s conclusion is that when Christ spoke to Saul he is saying the equivalent of “‘Why attack my very body, my limbs?”
First, Christ took up the human cry on the cross and transfigured it, made it his own. But his cry did not end with resurrection and ascension. He cries out every time that one of his members is hurt or persecuted. Christ and us form one whole Christ. And inasmuch as you and I or any other member of Christ speaks or prays or desires or acts in him, we become ever more who we are; we are becoming Christ.
Don’t miss that: We are becoming Christ.
This is terribly exciting. We remember Christ in order to become him. It gives a whole new meaning to why and how we bother remembering at all. We remember Christ sacramentally by eating his body and drinking his blood. Augustine’s way of preaching that was “be who you are, become who you receive.” We remember Christ in the poor; they are Christ.
But we cannot remember alone. We do it as Christ — as his very body. It is a way of recalling that moves us beyond ourselves moment after moment such that we might say with Augustine: “I could not have seen it myself if I had not seen it through the eyes of Christ, if indeed, I had not been in him.” By being members of the body, we learn to speak, see, smell, taste, and understand in ways that are characteristic of that body. One sees neighbors in need, one learns to speak the Word that leads beyond words, and one is transfigured into Christ.
This essay is drawn from Kevin’s recent Father John Zahm Lecture on The Bluff. The Zahm Lecture honors the man who, as Holy Cross provincial in 1901, lent us books, money, and men to begin operations. Kevin, now a Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge, is the author of You Have Redeemed the World and editor of the excellent Basil Moreau: Essential Writings.