The Spiritual Practice of Remembering

Maybe it’s the desperate hope that somehow the tide of the pandemic will finally turn and we’ll see a return to some semblance of the life we knew before. But I’ve been feeling the need to mark the days lately, to remember. 

As summer unofficially ended in the U.S. with Labor Day, I noticed something strange in the air. Lately, each passing day has felt like another bead on the string of weeks woven together in this unending loop we’re in. We’ve rounded this corner half a dozen times now as we mark six months of pandemic life. 

As the days have blurred together, we’ve had to be intentional to find things to make important days stand out. We didn’t plan to commemorate Labor Day in any sense. I needed to write, so I stole a few moments away at a nearby lake. I enjoyed the silence of nature but noticed the noise as well: families laughing, children screaming, dogs barking. Many had come out to enjoy the last day of summer.

While picnic blankets were spread farther apart than previous years and masks reminded us of what we’ve lost in recent days, the rhythmic beating of shallow waves against the rocks reminded me of what stays the same. I realized we can still hold onto those things if we’ll stop to notice them.

I stopped writing and called to tell my husband and kids to get ready. We needed to observe this day together. We needed to remember in hope. We sat distant from other families but united by the joy of the changing seasons. Our son would return to in-person school the next day after three weeks of virtual learning that was a daily battle for focus. In that beautiful liminal space that is looking back at summer and forward to autumn, we found a way to cling to hope that the next season would be better. 

Later in the week, my newsfeed was filled with people making promises that they’d never forget. As my daughter read her virtual lessons that morning, she asked me what it was like nineteen years ago when the first plane struck the twin towers. I told her how the day changed me, changed our nation, and the world. I also lamented the lessons of unity in the days following the tragedy that we have now lost, the ways we’ve slipped farther into division and hatred. I asked God to help us truly never forget, to learn how that kind of suffering should lead us to love every day of our lives.

It’s not just the good days we need to immortalize. There are days we need to remember in lament so that we know the God who never leaves us in suffering or joy, not even through all the horrors we can inflict on each other. Still, God’s love remains. 

In just a few days we’ll remember in celebration. We’ll tell our son the story of the day he was born, just like we’ve done for the past nine years. We’ll pull out the special birthday plate and fill it with sweets. We’ll make a point to look both back and forward, to remember and to dream.

In a time that has forced us to slow down our frenetic pace, pulling the special moments out of these days seems more important than ever. God isn’t surprised by our need to place these markers on the calendar, this longing to look back. I believe we were created with the desire and commanded to fulfill it. God knows how forgetful we are, how fleeting this life is, and how easy it is to let the urgent overtake the beautiful—to lose hope in God’s faithfulness amidst hard or mundane days.

Moses said to the people in Deuteronomy 4.9-10a (NASB): “Only give heed to yourself and keep your soul diligently, so that you do not forget the things which your eyes have seen and they do not depart from your heart all the days of your life; but make them known to your sons and your grandsons. Remember…”  

By the time Moses commanded the Hebrews to remember God’s faithfulness, they had much to celebrate and much to mourn. They had seen God deliver them and they had cursed God for that same deliverance when they looked back on slavery in Egypt as easier than life in the wilderness. They had stood on the banks of the Red Sea and sung of God’s goodness and forgotten the sounds of the waves moments later when their bellies rumbled with thirst.

Today I’m back at that lakeside alone pondering these things. It’s easy in silent moments like this one to remember God. But when the days keep slipping through our fingertips, unnoticed or unmarked—are we able to keep our souls in those days? Are we able to still find God there? I think that’s exactly why God tells us to be diligent in our remembrance. It’s too easy to lose ourselves and our God in the endless shuffle of days.

Through the years, I’ve recorded the days in journals. I have a habit of retreating to a monastery every year-end to look back. My family has created stones of remembrance together. I’ve found a love of ritual: in sacraments like the eucharist and in rhythms like observing Lent to remember Christ’s suffering. It doesn’t matter how we remember, but it matters that we do. 

Some days the year 2020 feels like it has been stolen right out from under us, as if we will look back on it as a year missing from our lives. Other times, I imagine it will be one we will always remember and could truly change us if we let it. So today I commit anew to look back, to rummage through the mess of life, and ask God to show me where there have been glimpses of glory. 

I turn on the words of a guided weekly Examen prayer and let them wash over me, like the nearby cleansing waters: “Remember that you are in the presence of God who rejoices that you have come here now no matter how distracted or forgetful you may have been.” I breathe in and I begin.

Lord, I remember; Help my forgetfulness…

 

Nicole T. Walters
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