October 21, 2020

Buechner on Memory

A Street from My Childhood (2014)


There are two ways of remembering. One way is to make an excursion from the living present back into the dead past. The old sock remembers how things used to be when you and I were young, Maggie. The faraway look in his eyes is partly the beer and partly that he’s really far away.

The other way is to summon the dead past back into the living present. The young widow remembers her husband, and he is there beside her.

When Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24), he was not prescribing a periodic slug of nostalgia.

• Frederick Buechner

• • •

A Crazy, Holy Grace: The Healing Power of Pain and Memory

By Frederick Buechner
Zondervan, 2017


  1. Careful, CM – talk like this might bring Martin Luther back from the dead past to whack you with his living shoe. 😉 “Hoc est corpus meum!”

  2. Burro (Mule) says

    The only thing in which I would take issue with Buechner is in his characterization of the past as ‘dead’. “For God is not the God of the dead, but the living, for all live to Him.”

    …and Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist is, thankfully, more corporeal that just a momentary firing of neurons that brings Him briefly to mind. THIS, I think, is the major difference between Evangelicals (Christianity 2.0) and catholics (Christianity 1.0)

    • Agreed.

    • Christiane says

      I had thought that Lutherans had a rather high doctrine about the Eucharist . . . . not ‘Catholic’ exactly, but not ‘symbol’ either.

      I know that Southern Baptists do not have the Eucharist, but they have ‘the Lord’s Supper’ and I always wondered if maybe the Holy Spirit helped them along with their ‘ordinance’ so that it was more to them than they realized . . . . (hard not to think of other Christian people without Eucharist).

      • Burro (Mule) says

        Lutherans have a high view of the Eucharist. I’m have more sympathy with the Missouri/Wisconsin flavors than I do with the Scandinavian brand favored around here, but I believe that if the ELCA can be said to confess anything certainly, it is that the elements are far from symbolic.

      • Stephen says

        Christiane, my experience growing up as a rural Southern Baptist is that the “Lord’s Supper” was taken quite seriously, but not so much as “Communion” as an opportunity to reflect on one’s “personal” relationship with Jesus.

  3. I put this up, not so much as a statement about the Eucharist, but more as a reflection on memory, and how it “brings alive” those we’ve loved and the experiences we’ve had. This is a very Jewish perspective, as at Passover, when Jews are taught to consider that it was they themselves who came out of Egypt.

    I find that my best memories, as FB says, transcend nostalgia and actually do something for me in the present, refreshing my life inexplicably.

    • Mike, we often hear about the “seven generations” of Native American philosophy. Most of the time people refer to it as our obligation to seven generations into the future, but I think the original meaning was this: that we are to honor and be responsible to our own generation; also three in the past, namely our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents; and three in the future—our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

      Not that we shouldn’t have concern for seven or more in the future, but I think it’s more practical to consider the present and past as well, and makes us more connected. I just found this article:

    • Burro (Mule) says

      It’s always kind of a cog-diss generator for me to see ‘progressive’ center-left types complain about the lack of connectedness in our lives and extol the value of tradition and ancestor-veneration in restoring it..

      …considering that our most salient belief about our ancestors is that we know vastly more than they did about a whole plethora of things, so much so that we need not take their advice about much at all.

      Compare to this the healing of the Chalcedonian schism. Here you have two bodies of Christians who resemble each other very closely, who have many, many organic links, and who very badly want to be united, but one of the main problem is working out what saints should be included in the common roster. Although I searched several websites, I was not able to find a single Orthodox Church dedicated to Saint Justinian, although he remains a canonized saint in our communion. I can’t imagine any Copt imploring his intercession.

      • Progressivism at its worst does have this tendency. Just as conservatism, at its worst, will cling to patently unjust and heinous social constructs just because they have been practiced for ages and defended by all the Right (no pun intended) thinkers.

        Not all change is good, and neither are all traditions good, even church traditions. Humility and wisdom are needed by all sides.

        • Burro (Mule) says

          I think you’ve outlined the DNA of both progressivism and conservatism, not just their extremes.

          • Robert F says

            You belong to a church that has a more positive anthropology than that of most Western churches, but your own seems quite pessimistic.

        • GK Chesterton wrote something to the effect of “it is the job of progressives to forever go on making new mistakes, and it is the job of conservatives to forever prevent the old mistakes from being corrected.”

          Pretty well sums it up.

  4. Much as a former fundamentalist who disdained routine and liturgy as shallow and soulless might hate to admit it, there is a place for liturgy, regularity and predictably. Not every event must be spontaneous (spirit led). The communion table is a great ceremony that can foster a vital sense of Christ’s love for us and how far He was willing to go to express it. It is not so much reminiscence as it is presence.

    • I have to agree with your thought about regularity and predictability.

      As a life-long Baptist (currently ABC but started out SBC), I can say that there is not much more predictable than a Baptist Order of worship. The scandal that breaks out if you try to mettle with it (for more than a special Sunday or two) can be epic 🙂

      Even the words the pastor will say during the various ordinances will not vary much for a particular pastor.

      • I was part of a very small born-again group that developed a disdain for anything rote as Catholic and wrong. Funny thing is that when you get any group of humans meeting regularly, whether it’s church, business, hobby or otherwise, they develop a lingo and a routine. Not even spirit led Christians are immune. They will tell you they are in a fair number of cases but independent observation is all it takes to discover their liturgy. That doesn’t mean the Spirit isn’t there. Why would God leave? He loves us in routine and He loves us in spontaneity. If we are welcoming He is entering.

    • Rick Ro. says

      –> “there is a place for liturgy, regularity and predictably”

      Our worship leader (Nazarene church) often has read-response moments. Quite liturgical in feel. I love ’em, wish we had more such things.

      –> “Not every event must be spontaneous (spirit led)”

      A-frickin’-men. I get the feeling that the leadership team of this same Nazarene church believes it must create moments “where the SPIRIT shows up!”

      –“The communion table is a great ceremony that can foster a vital sense of Christ’s love for us and how far He was willing to go to express it. It is not so much reminiscence as it is presence.”

      Yep. Over the past few years, I’ve developed a new regard for importance of communion. Not that I ever didn’t understand it, just that I UNDERSTAND IT BETTER now…LOL.

      • I hope to join you at that table one of these days if I head up to the great northwest!

  5. Stbndct says

    Being a Catholic of course I believe in the presence of Christ to meet me in the Eucharist in the here and now. But what CM is alluding to is the feeling I get from good memories that cast a ray of sun on the present. Sometimes it’s just a smile on my lips but often a challenge to change some present situation. That I can even have good memories is a gift of God .

  6. Perhaps I should read this-I really don’t have many good/happy memories that I’d want to remember, much less reflect on. But I have been intentional with my own children to create a more open, happy, Christ-centered lifestyle—so their connections to past and future are well worth reflecting on and remembering.

    I’ve been shaped mostly through the negatives that occurred, and while I cannot (completely) shed family ties, I can reduce their influences, as well as, having walked away from evangelical/fundie…so much negativity there.

    My focus is to be present wherever I am – Jesus was-and I think that is my calling.

    My past is past…and really don’t want to camp there, and my future is in the hand of a sovereign God.

    Thanks, CM

    • “Forgetting what is behind .. [and] .. pressing forward” is a necessary thing.

      But I pray that your present in Christ is tomorrow’s good/happy/helpful/encouraging memory.

    • Rick Ro. says

      –> “I have been intentional with my own children to create a more open, happy, Christ-centered lifestyle—so their connections to past and future are well worth reflecting on and remembering.”

      Excellent. What memories am I leaving my daughter with: ones she’ll want to remember, or ones she’ll want to forget?

  7. Laura W. says

    The photograph at the head of this post strongly reminds me of the small Iowa farm town my in-laws lived in. Such quiet peacefulness! Such memories of bringing our young family to visit grandma and grandpa. I was very sad when we had to sell their home after they had both passed away.

  8. Rick Ro. says

    By my count, there are seven sentences written here.

    The depth of profundity contained within these seven sentences can’t be measured. Incredible!

  9. Christiane says

    “The other way is to summon the dead past back into the living present.”

    makes me thing of the Jewish Passover celebrations where the people are to imagine that they are ‘there’, present with the ancestors of their people . . . . as though ‘time’ and ‘place’ could not separate them

    I think ‘Eucharist’ is similar: we are ‘present’ to Our Lord as if we were there at Calvary . . . . it makes sense that ‘time’ and ‘place’ seem to fade in the Presence of the One Who transcends all boundaries

    to be ‘with’ . . . . in ‘the present’ . . . . and to derive nourishment and strength from His Presence; that is ‘gift’ indeed

    • Christiane says

      “Then they roasted the Passover lambs as prescribed; and they boiled the holy offerings in pots, kettles, and pans, and brought them out quickly so the people could eat them.” (2 Chronicles 35:13)

      The Passover lamb: food, to give strength for the great journey ahead away from slavery towards the Promised Land

      ” John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (from John 1:29)

      What is ‘anamnesis’ to ‘the mysteries’ spoken of in sacred Scripture? When Our Lord tells us that He is ‘food indeed’ ?

      We family members were privileged to receive communion along with my father on the morning of the day he passed, because the hospice nurse was also a Eucharistic minister, so the idea of Eucharist as ‘food for the journey’ has an even greater meaning for me, yes . . . that is a treasured memory

    • Christiane, I just finished re- reading Madeleine L’Engle’s book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. She mentions this sort of thing, transcending time and space (and it’s a theme in Wrinkle in Time), and one of her illustrations is a discussion of El Greco’s painting of St Francis and St Andrew, although separated by 12 centuries. The Transfiguration is something about that, too. Thanks for your reference to Passover.

  10. Robert F says

    I’ve never been good at, or even able to, “summon the dead past back into the living present” through memory. As I get older, my memory of the past, and of those who populated it, gets even dimmer and dimmer, and less certain. There are certainly enduring images and pieces of memory, but the connections between them have become gossamer at best., and the narrative is falling apart, being worn away just as any natural object would be by the elements over time. In the end, my memory along with my body will fail utterly, and also fall (I hope) into the grace of God.

  11. john barry says

    And the things of this world will grow strangely dim as you look into his wondrous face