Re-enchantment of the world: The state of amnesia, Part 2
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In the previous instalment of this series we talked about the modern life as being characterized by a form of claustrophobia, caused by the reduction of our existence to a very narrow, atomized state of being. Inspired by Branko’s recent podcast on “being and having”, I would like to move forward by reflecting on the role of memory as a condition for not only living any form of traditional life, but also for breaking out of the said atomized state, amnesia being a further cause keeping us in it.
Branko concluded that the essential reason for our forgetfulness and loss of memory is our condition of created, and thus limited, beings. Now, I would like to take a closer look at this faculty of memory and try to understand its essential characteristics.
Let’s start from the following question: is the object of this inquiry one or are there multiple facets to it?
Cerebral and spiritual memory
The reason why I put this question at the outset is the following excerpt taken from one of the philokalic Father, Filotheus the Sinaite Filotheus was a monk in the Burning Bush Monastery of the Mother of God, located on mount Sinai. Little is actually known about his life, the data available about him being too sketchy. The time … Continue reading :
“[…]The third gate [leading to the intelligible Jerusalem] is the remembrance of death. Seeing for one single moment its beauty and being touched by it and rejoicing in the spirit – not the sight – I wished to take it [the remembrance of death, that is] as a wife for the rest of my life[…]. This daughter of Adam did I wish to be my wife, to sleep with her, to talk about what will be after the leaving behind of the body. But too often I have been hindered from this purpose by the accursed forgetfulness, the darkened daughter of the devil. “ ( Filotheus the Sinaite, Sentences on wakefulness, sentence 6 ) Translation is my own, from Romanian. What is written in brackets and not italicized is my own comment
What does he mean when he says that in one single moment he saw its beauty? Or that he is being hindered from this remembrance by devilish forgetfulness?
Surely he cannot mean that one moment he was aware that he was going to die some day and that a few moments later he forgot completely about it and he thought he was going to live forever. And, anyway, since he was writing about it, it would seem that his memory of his own mortality was well and healthy. Then why does he mourn his inability to keep this memory? Is this just a metaphor?
In fact it is much more than a metaphor, because he is talking about something completely different from the ordinary, cerebral memory which is usually designated by this name.
But what can this be?
Starting from the traditional understanding that each process occuring in the bodily life corresponds to one coming to pass in higher states and faculties of being, and that every created form is a symbol of a divine archetype, we can try to gather something about the higher form of memory and try to find some essential element present on both levels. For example, in the Orthodox Liturgy the priest remembers names of persons – both alive and dead – at the altar, while at funerals and services of remembrance for the departed, we chant “eternal memory”.
St. Dionysius the Areopagite has something to say about this:
“[…] But observe that they [the persons whose names are remembered] are enrolled in the holy memorials,  Memorial should be here understood as the different means through which we remember, especially our mental memory of a person and event, done through the mediation of images. not as though the Divine memory were represented under the figure of a memorial after the manner of human beings, but, as one might say with reverence towards God, as beseems God’s august and unfailing knowledge of those who have been perfected in His likeness.” ( St. Dionysius the Areopagite. The Church Hierarchies, chapter III, section 9)  Translation taken from an English edition I found online.
Furthermore, we also give here a note to this quote, left by one of the medieval commentators (either St. Maximos the Confessor or John of Scythopolis):
“[…] It should not be understood that the memory of God is being renewed through the imagination [or image-building faculty] of the one reading the memorial; this happens only in the understanding corresponding to life in the body. God’s memory should be understood as God’s knowledge, through which He knows those who have reached likeness with Him, through a virtuous life and have thus been made worthy of a knowledge of Him without forgetfulness, [this higher form of memory being given to them] by Him.”  Translation is my own, from the text in Romanian.
The subject-matter treated here is admittedly difficult to understand and something beyond what most of us can truly comprehend in this life. But for our present purpose it is sufficient to note the equivalence being made here between memory and knowledge.
Now, to approach this question from both ends, we will furthermore employ the help of St. John of Damascus, with an excerpt about, this time, the ordinary faculty of memory, the one which we experience everyday:
“The faculty of memory is the cause and storehouse of remembrance and recollection. For memory is a fantasy that is left behind of some sensation and thought manifesting itself in action; or the preservation of a sensation and thought. For the soul comprehends objects of sense through the organs of sense, that is to say, it perceives, and thence arises a notion: and similarly it comprehends the objects of thought through the mind, and thence arises a thought. It is then the preservation of the types of these notions and thoughts that is spoken of as memory.
Further, it is worthy of remark that the apprehension of matters of thought depends on learning, or natural process of thought, and not on sensation. For though objects of sense are retained in the memory by themselves, only such objects of thought are remembered as we have learned, and we have no memory of their essence.
Recollection is the name given to the recovery of some memory lost by forgetfulness. For forgetfulness is just loss of memory. The faculty of imagination then, having apprehended material objects through the senses, transmits this to the faculty of thought or reason (for they are both the same), and this after it has received and passed judgment on it, passes it on to the faculty of memory. “ ( St. John of Damascus. Dogmatica (or: An Exact Exposition on the Orthodox Faith), Part II, section 20, in: The Fount of Knowledge)  Translation from an English edition, by a Philip Schaff.
So remembering as such is an act that brings once more into possession something which has been lost. The act of memory is a perfect unity of two distinct elements: sense experience and the notions arising from it, or learning and the thoughts generated by such a process. This means that each stored in our memory comes with an external wrapping – composed from the exterior circumstances, events and supports – and an internal essence, which is the inner meaning of either sensory events, which we experience or abstract ideas, which we may learn.
We will return to this topic in-depth when we explore some of the dimensions of symbolism, but for now let’s just say that both external events and whatever learning material we use are supports for meanings which transcend them and which cannot be observed at the same level as the supports themselves.
This is important to note because it is a matter of everyday observation that, more often than not, our memories of the external facts, which we have gone through at certain points in time, are very sketchy, selective and subjected to all manners of distortions; and yet, beyond these external details, there always seems to be a main or essential idea or impression we associate with a certain event. For example, we may remember and consider a certain period in our lives to be a very happy one, although one can always point towards certain aspects which could be considered as being contrary to this overall impression. Somehow that general impression overrides all these peripheral considerations. The same, when we learn a certain subject, or we read a novel, to take a more immediate example. That certain book can shape our understanding of life and our existence in such a way as for its influence to extend for the rest of our lives, in spite of the fact that after a certain time we may forget many details in it.  his section raises many questions, but I do not want to deviate from the main theme. They will be the subject-matter for future articles.
I mention all this because it ties-in with the next point: what else can we observe regarding ordinary memory, a common ground with what is being described by the Areopagite, an element which can tie together both types of memory and be present on both poles of a vertical axis of analogy?
Let’s think about it this way: when we learn or experience something new, we learn and experience something which is: something real, existing outside our will and ourselves. At the same time, we understand through the mediation of the faculties which are in-born to us and, finally, also through a certain common element which is found both in the knower and in that which is known; were it not for this common element, there would be no possibility for the two ever to meet and be united in the act of knowledge. Two forms of existence with no potential point of intersection could never meet, nor achieve any form of knowledge of each-other. So we could say that any form of knowledge we do gain in our lives is, to a certain extent, pre-existing and, in a certain way, always present. But this pre-existence as well as this presence are not actual, but potential.  Of course, from a the point of view of everyday life, something which is only potential is as good as non-existing, but when we adopt a higher point of view things stand otherwise. And gaining a certain form of knowledge can be described as being the transformation of potentiality into actuality. But is this not something which can be said to occur even when we remember something of which we had previously already learned or gained knowledge of? In a sense, each act of memory is a bringing forth from potentiality into actuality. It would be fitting here to speak of the two ways in which potentiality can be spoken of. The first is “absolute potentiality”, or potentiality in the most proper sense: it is learning … Continue reading
Let’s now go back to a certain fragment from the commentary on St. Dionysious’ text:
“God’s memory should be understood as God’s knowledge, through which He knows those who have reached likeness with Him, through a virtuous life and have thus been made worthy of a knowledge of Him without forgetfulness, [this higher form of memory being given to them] by Him.”
This is understood as follows: God’s memory equals His knowledge. The one who is practicing virtue has the potential of receiving the gift of this attribute of God, whereby creature and Creator are united in a single act of knowledge. The creature receives, as a gift, what God has “naturally”, thus being able to remain in the presence of God for eternity – which is memory without forgetfulness. In other words, it can be further stated that God’s memory is also that through which he sustains the creation in existence. Forgetfulness, on the other hand, is the free act of the creature who turns away from this gift, breaking this communion and thus weakening its own existence or shattering it completely.
We can, at this point, refer to the universal understanding of Sheol/Hades/Hell, as a state of darkness, confusion, decay and forgetfulness. A state of larval existence, a shadow-like ambiguity at the border between existence and non-existence. A state in which the creature has made itself incapable of receiving the life bestowing energy of divine memory.
“I have sunk into the miry depths, where there is no footing; I have drifted into the deep waters where the flood engulfs me”. Psalm 68: 2-3 (Septuagint) / Psalm 69, same verses, Masoretic text
If memory is understood as an engraving of a certain experience, then water, flood, mire and all these images bring to mind a state in which no engraving can take place.
For the one last time, let us return to our everyday faculty of memory and draw a conclusion.
It is part of common experience to “relive” past events through memory. No memory is ever lost, but many things sink beneath the surface in a sort of personal Sheol, which is the unconscious. We sometimes experience a certain mood which we intuitively know that it relates to an experience from our past, but we cannot bring it to light and we cannot even say which one or when. Then, all of a sudden, it re-surfaces and we are once more in the presence of that certain event. We re-live it, we see, in front of our eyes, the scene from the past and the feelings and thoughts we had back then are once more aroused in us. Sometimes, in cases of very intense recollection, we momentarily forget our surrounding and our present state, being, in a certain way, transported into the past. But a more accurate description would be to say that the past is once more made present.
Indeed, memory never occurs in the past, it is actually an act which is always in the present. And the event itself, it is not such a far stretch to say that it is not only a past event which has happened at a certain point in time and is now no longer existing, but also something which is always present and always will be present, because it has, in a certain manner, become part of us. We would not be who we are today without it- for better or worse. Memory is that through which we become aware of that which always accompanies us.
So we can conclude: memory is the faculty through which a certain aspect of our existence is made present, is brought into our full awareness, is transported from potentiality to actuality.
Bodily, mental and spiritual memory
Having established the previous conclusion we are now in a position to understand the quote from Filotheus the Sinaite.
But this very conclusion forces me to adjust the previous thesis and say that a further distinction can be made within the type of cerebral memory we experience each day. We can say that this lower type of memory can be split into bodily and mental, both being a lower image of a higher faculty of the soul.
The first level is that of the bodily type of memory, being the more obvious the more traumatic a certain memory is or, purely and simply, the stronger the impression made on the senses. A memory of an event associated with a person towards whom we manifested anger or hatred back then, arouses these feelings in us once again, no matter how far back in the past and irrelevant that certain event has become.
However, in relation to the remembrance of death, this can be called an instinctual reaction, in which the main driving force is the body’s instinct of self-preservation. The awareness of one’s mortality brings in a state of mental and physical paralysis (the proverbial chills up the spine), followed by an attempt precisely at forgetfulness- of trying to force this sudden awareness back through all sorts of mental and physical noise. The instinctual increase in consumption when one feels threatened (regardless if the threat is real or only personal fancy) brings with it the tendency to consume more, in a desperate attempt at re-affirming the body and its reality.
The second level is that of purely mental memory. It is abstract and detached, arousing neither a bodily reaction, nor a spiritual insight. A somewhat impersonal theorizing or reflection.
In relation to death, it is a contemplation of its reality with the same detachment and state of mind one has when ordering a pizza. The notion is only a mental reflection existing apart from one’s personal existence, in the same way one can stand in a T-shirt during a hot summer day and view photos of frozen landscapes, without feeling any cold himself.
The third level is where we finally reach our goal: spiritual memory. Being at the opposite pole of the bodily type, it has with it the existential element in common, the one completely lacking on the purely mental level. Both experiences are personal and unmediated, but their respective qualities are at the opposite extremes. No longer an instinctual reaction of self-preservation, the spiritual, ontological remembrance of death is a direct insight into the essence of our mortal condition and of the corrosive nature of time to which this life is subjected, of the ephemeral character of every moment, encounter and relation in this present state of existence. It is the bringing into awareness, the making actual of the inner meaning of death and its consequences, not mentally, but experientially. This meaning can only be experienced at a higher level, implying a certain amount of detachment from the ambitions and the busy-ness into which we lose ourselves as we go about our daily tasks.
Once again, St. John of Damascus gives us a glimpse of the fruits of such a contemplation in these verses which are sung to this day in Orthodox funeral and memorial services:
“Where is the pleasure in life which is unmixed with sorrow? Where the glory which on earth has stood firm and unchanged? All things are weaker than shadow, all more illusive than dreams; comes one fell stroke, and Death in turn, prevails over all these vanities. Wherefore in the Light, O Christ, of Your countenance, the sweetness of Your beauty, to him (her) whom You have chosen grant repose, for You are the Friend of Mankind.
Vanity are all the works and quests of man, and they have no being after death has come; our wealth is with us no longer. How can our glory go with us? For when death has come all these things are vanished clean away. Wherefore to Christ the Immortal King let us cry, To him (her) that has departed grant repose where a home is prepared for all those whose hearts You have filled with gladness.”
I Called to mind the Prophet who shouted, “I am but earth and ash.” And once again I looked with attention on the tombs, and I saw the bones therein which of flesh were naked; and I said, “Which indeed is he that is king? Or which is soldier? Which is the wealthy, which the needy? Which the righteous, or which the sinner?” But to Your servant, O Lord, grant that with the righteous he (she) may repose.
Weep, and with tears lament when with understanding I think on death, and see how in the graves there sleeps the beauty which once for us was fashioned in the image of God, but now is shapeless, ignoble, and bare of all the graces. O how strange a thing; what is this mystery which concerns us humans? Why were we given up to decay? And why to death united in wedlock? Truly, as it is written, these things come to pass by ordinance of God ”  The English translation taken from https://www.goarch.org/-/funeral-service
We can clearly see here that the fruits of this form of remembrance are: humility, peace, detachment from the usual egoistic ambitions and desires, sympathy and understanding for all fellow human beings and even a sense of irony in regards to the importance we attach to some of our most cherished things in this life, knowing that boasting and pride in the current condition and with that which has an end in this life is the worst kind of delusion in light of the equal and common end of everything. Repentance is, certainly, a further component, followed by a re-ordering of one’s priorities in life. But the crown of it all in the Christian tradition is the simultaneous presence of the real- not abstract- faith in the Resurrection. It is an awareness of death within the Faith and not outside it as in the previous cases.
Remembrance and the shadow of forgetfulness
Having understood this particular topic – which, by the way, is fundamental, even central, to our lives – we can now begin to extrapolate this question of memory to all aspects of our existence – being at a personal or communal level.
First of all, however, the question should be asked how can such an experience be brought about. We see that even an ascetic living in a quiet monastery on mount Sinai had trouble keeping it in his presence. Studying the Christian tradition, we always see the question being handled from two different ends. In itself, even a momentarily glimpse of such a higher type of memory is a gift from Above, will-power being useless in the attempt to bring it about. On the other hand, the proper orientation of the person and the placing itself in the proper state so as to be able to receive it is also an essential component. The Gospel tells us to keep on knocking at the door, until it is opened. So it is not up to us to open the door, but we are expected to knock at it.  Matthew 7:7-8 and also other places.
This “right ordering of one’s being”, as I call it, is the condition of acquiring a symbolic vision of the world and of everyday experience, such a vision being not an intellectual effort, but relating precisely to that higher type of memory we have been speaking about in this article.
To return once more to the remembrance of death, anything can serve as a support, as a gateway to such an experience, not only an actual funeral (though this might be the best opportunity): an autumn landscapes with leafs turning pale and falling off of trees; the daily spectacle of the Sun at sunset, or even its course up to the winter solstice, reaching ever lower with each passing day; or maybe a picture of self or an acquittance taken 20 years ago as a reminder of the corrosive nature of time.
But in order to read all these in a symbolic key, will-power or mere intellectual understanding do not suffice. Our in-born or acquired habits, our instincts of self-preservation, our passions relating to survival or the acquisition of glory, our self-importance and the constant agitation and bombarding of the senses with the stuff of this world and this life shut us off completely from any higher state of being, bringing about forgetfulness, a state in which the things of this world are regarded as the only real and concrete forms of existence. Glimpses of higher states and higher understanding which we might have experienced become, in such a context, distant memories; even though in that moment of Remembrance there could be as little doubt of their reality as there is of the visible light of the Sun, in the state of forgetfulness they become abstract, cut-off from our condition in such a way that we begin to doubt their reality.
So what is the remedy to forgetfulness? This will be the topic of the next article.
I will simply preface it, for the moment, by saying that the transcending of the atomized state of mind and being cannot be achieved while remaining in the atomized individualism itself. Real participation to the Tradition is necessary.
We see that our individual state reflects perfectly into our communal life as well. Forgetfulness at the communal level is precisely this modern phenomenon called “the generational gap”. It is simply another way of saying that any organic notion of continuity and community has been lost even down to the most fundamental unit of communal life: which is the family. We have grown forgetful of any belonging which transcends the most base individualistic interests and ambitions. We do not have any sense of Origin or Destination, nor do we feel any responsibility towards anything other than our present interests. Everything is an indefinite space-time continuum with no reason of being, except for the ever-shifting ones dictated by the individual will. Just as we are alienated from a deeper understanding of our existence as persons, so we are alienated from any organic form of community with all its consequences, which is by no means distant and theoretical, but very present and palpable and religious life is no exception to it.
This is nothing new and I have to say that, at the collective level, no solution is readily at hand at the moment. But one thing is clear, namely that any work of re-orientation can only begin at the personal level and it is here were the question is fully within our responsibility.
So the topic of the next article will be: obedience as necessity for participating in the Tradition, where we will explore the question of dogma and asceticism and their indispensable nature in a spiritual life worthy of the name.
Read/listen to Part 3: http://en.kalitribune.com/re-enchantment-of-the-world-the-state-of-amnesia-part-3/
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|↑1||Filotheus was a monk in the Burning Bush Monastery of the Mother of God, located on mount Sinai. Little is actually known about his life, the data available about him being too sketchy. The time frame in which it is possible for him to have lived is pretty wide, some historians placing him at the beginning of the Middle Ages (~600 AD), others much later (~1000AD).|
|↑2||Translation is my own, from Romanian. What is written in brackets and not italicized is my own comment|
|↑3||Memorial should be here understood as the different means through which we remember, especially our mental memory of a person and event, done through the mediation of images.|
|↑4||Translation taken from an English edition I found online.|
|↑5||Translation is my own, from the text in Romanian.|
|↑6||Translation from an English edition, by a Philip Schaff.|
|↑7||his section raises many questions, but I do not want to deviate from the main theme. They will be the subject-matter for future articles.|
|↑8||Of course, from a the point of view of everyday life, something which is only potential is as good as non-existing, but when we adopt a higher point of view things stand otherwise.|
|↑9||It would be fitting here to speak of the two ways in which potentiality can be spoken of. The first is “absolute potentiality”, or potentiality in the most proper sense: it is learning something completely new, from scratch. For example, one does not have any knowledge of a certain mathematical theorem and learns it from scratch, both in theory and in practice. The second type of potentiality can be called “relative potentiality”, which is potentiality in a more improper sense: it is when we already have actualized a certain form of knowledge but are not making any use of it in the present moment. To take once more the example with the mathematical theorem: we have learned that certain theorem under all its aspects, but we are not making any use of it at the moment, it is not being brought forth into our minds – either because we have no use for it or because we face a temporary impairment, such as an inability to remember for one reason or another.|
|↑10||The English translation taken from https://www.goarch.org/-/funeral-service|
|↑11||Matthew 7:7-8 and also other places.|