“However, take care and be earnestly on your guard not to forget the things which your own eyes have seen, nor let them slip from your memory as long as you live, but teach them to your children and to your children’s children.”
Yesterday at the reception after the funeral of one of my cousins, another of my cousins was speaking with me about the guns and violence in our country. His insistence was that he and many people he knew had owned guns their whole lives and would never think of harming another person with them. I feared that the stage was set for a contentious political argument. Yet, quite quickly, he slightly altered the topic to say that he and his wife spoke often of how the greatest mistake we made in this country was to remove religion from the public schools. Here, too, I suspected that we did not hold precisely the same position on the issue, but, fortunately, the conversation then turned positively to the need for tradition in human life and formation.
He spoke both of his own upbringing and of the way he attempted to raise his children. He was happy that, even though they did not engage in regular religious practice, they had received a formation in a basic human tradition that gave them a sense of who they are and their “right relationship” with the world. Human beings are “traditional” by our very nature, that is we need a framework of wisdom within which we can give form to our life and to the world. As Adrian van Kaam points out, however, the dynamism and life we experience in and from that tradition will depend on the degree to which we have uniquely appropriated it, that is, that we come to know in our own way and by experience the deep truth to which it points.
In the summer of 1921, the Jewish turned atheist philosopher Edith Stein visited the home of her friend Hedwig Conrad-Martius. In the course of a single night, she read the Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. As she finished it in the early morning, according to her own account, she put down the book and said to herself: “This is the truth.” Human integrity lies in our living in the truth, not truth as cognitive speculation, but the truth that we recognize when we see it for ourselves. Tradition, at its best, is a description of the truth that we know in light of our experience of attempting to live in consonance, that is, by expressing in our lives a “sounding with” the call that we are.
We all have moments in life corresponding to that described by Edith Stein as she reads Teresa of Avila for the first time. Often such an experience is realized after the fact, when we see that in a moment of presence or work on behalf of another or others we have given expression to the truth of who we are. At such moments we realize that to really live our lives is, as Jesus said, “to do the work you have given me to do.” Sometimes we experience the truth in a moment of complete rest and stillness. For a brief instant, we touch Life, in the experience of ourselves and our true place in the cosmos and in history. At such moments “the love of God” is not an abstraction or theological concept, it is rather the truth of our being.
Today we read the injunction from Deuteronomy “not to forget” the truth that we know. I often think that my most pervasive “spiritual problem” is not so much grave sinning as it is forgetfulness. Most of the time I don’t remember the truth that I have come to know and of which my tradition speaks. I don’t just forget the doctrines and dogmas of the tradition; I actually forget my experience of my own truth. When I do forget, which is most of the time, my life is not given direction by the truth of mercy, love, and compassion but rather by the pulsations of my culture, the impulses of my body and emotions, and the ambitions of my ego.
Traditions develop practices that are designed to keep us mindful of the truth. One of my favorite works of art is The Angelus by Jean Millet. It pictures two peasants working in the field who have stopped working and have bowed their heads in prayer. In the distance there is the church from which the sound of the Angelus bell is emanating. The bell that rings morning, midday and evening is a summons to remember, in the midst of hard and grueling work and all the joys and difficulties of our lives, the truth of who we are and why we are. Comparably in Islam the muezzin summons faithful Muslims to prayer five times per day. Judaism is full of rituals and practices that are meant as reminders that everything in the world is God’s and is to be blessed by the faithful lives of its adherents. For the Hindus and Buddhists, the repetition of the mantra (like the Jesus prayer in Christianity) is the way to move our continuing awareness from our heads to our hearts.
The great Wisdom Traditions all recognize that the reality of our human condition is that we live, most of the time, in forgetfulness. This is why the Buddha is “the one who is awake.” It is why Jesus asks the disciples in the garden to stay awake with him, although they are unable to do so. My cousin who died last Thursday was discovered dead on his kitchen floor by his son who had gone to check on him. As his son told me, the night before had been an ordinary night in which they had said goodnight to each other and promised to see each other in the morning. The truth is that our lives are not our own and that our plans can be changed and interrupted at a moment’s notice. Yet, we live as if we are immortal, as if our needs, our responsibilities, our designs are ultimate. Put simply, we live most of our lives mindless of who we really are.
Most of my worries and anxieties are based in this forgetfulness. If I could remember the truth, if I lived mindful of my actual place in the world, these anxieties would fade into insignificance. In the Christian tradition, based on John’s gospel, we might say that to be put in our place is to live where Jesus lives, in the presence of the love of God for the world. Perhaps the most powerful reminder of the truth for us is the blessed community with and in which we are called to live. We most forget the truth to the degree that we live in autonomy and isolation. For, we are called, as Henri Nouwen wrote, to be “living reminders” for each other. We can feed each other’s amnesia, or we can be presences that awaken each other to life to the full. To the degree we are the latter for each other, to that degree we live out our call to be a community within which each of us remembers more often who he or she is than we ever could alone.
If you grow accustomed to having Him present at your side, and He sees that you do so with love and that you go about striving to please Him, you will not be able — as they say — to get away from Him; He will never fail you; He will help you in all your trials; you will find Him everywhere.
St. Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, 26.1