Remembering Theologically: Augustinian Reflections on Memory
Memory for St. Augustine is not a neutral faculty. That is to say that in fact remembering is a moral activity. Or if not strictly moral, it is morally determined.
This is clear as Augustine narrates his own life. Consider this passage from Confessions book 5:
This is how I remember my time with Faustus, Lord and Judge of my conscience. Before You my heart and memory are open. You started then to direct my thinking by Your mysterious providence. You set those shameful errors of mine in front of my face and forced me to look closely at them, so that I might recognize them for what they were and learn to hate them.
See what happens here. Augustine looks upon his past sins and recognizes them for what they are, all in order to “learn to hate them.” This is a kind remembering that we usually call repentance. It is a kind of truthful recounting of past actions that judges them in light of the righteousness of God. And as Augustine gestures toward, this is a formative practice – it is a kind of liturgy of the self, in which we train our hearts to despise sin and love God.
Not only is the heart trained through remembering past wrongs, but it is also formed through consideration of God’s providential care throughout one’s own life. All throughout Confessions Augustine is seeking to identify the ways in which God led him back to Himself. Those who are familiar with Augustine’s scriptural hermeneutic will quickly recognize the parallel between his way of reading Scripture and his way of reading his own life.
Both are done with a kind of teleological orientation toward love of God. And consequently, both require a certain kind of posture of humilitas in order to accomplish that end.
So for Augustine, proper remembering leads to praise and thanksgiving, as the soul recognizes God’s hidden mercy and care throughout life. This is why the whole of Confessions is directed as a great prayer of praise toward God, because that is the proper response of the Christian as she recalls her story in light of God’s saving action. Yet this is no easy process, just as identifying Christ’s presence throughout the Hebrew Scriptures is no easy process. It requires a certain measure of discipline – as a kind of ascesis – as we seek to read our lives in light of Christ’s story.
Granted Augustine is correct on this, which I think he is, then that means the evangelical practice of “sharing one’s testimony” is in fact a justified and important practice.
Though, and here we may be uncomfortable with this, it is not a morally neutral practice in which all self-narratives get a pass. Self-narration – remembering one’s own life story – is a practice that must be learned. And as such, it can be done both well and poorly. It can be both truthful, and false.
And in a culture that is hyper concerned with crafting a presentable self through social media, yet finds itself bankrupt when it comes to truthful self-reflection and understanding, learning to remember well and speak our lives truthfully is a vital practice to be relearned.
May we, with Augustine, learns to confess our lives in such a way that exalts the goodness and lovingkindess of the God who has moved us from death to life.