Sacramental Memory

In one of the leadership training videos produced by the Church a woman talks about a particularly chaotic, frustrating day she had with her four year old. She told him she was at her wit’s end and didn’t know what do anymore. He suggested she sing “I am a Child of God,” which, of course, she then did. She said she was grateful for the opportunity to be reminded of who her child was.

There is a significant distinction between knowing (or understanding) and remembering in this little didactic story. It’s unlikely that this mother had stopped believing that her child was a child of God, and likewise it seems wrong to interpret her as becoming uncertain about her child’s eternal identity, whereas once she had been much more confident.* She said that she needed to be reminded of this. What she had known was never in doubt; it would be wrong to say that her knowledge about this thing was incomplete or had broken down. She had forgotten and needed to remember.

Remembering has a crucial religious function, distinct from though related to knowing. Perhaps the most significant example of remembering as a divine injunction is found in the Sacrament prayers, where we are enjoined to eat and drink in remembrance of the Son giving his body for/to us. Remembering implies once having experienced something, forgetting it, and re-membering or reconstituting it anew. Yet we are told that we eat and drink in remembrance of a physical body we have no memory of because we have had no experience with it. We have not seen it, felt it, heard it, etc. What, then, are we re-membering, re-constituting?

It is significant that the Sacrament is, ideally, administered to the community as a whole and not individuals (though as with all things there are necessary exceptions). Thus, sacramental memory is collective in nature. Collective memory sometimes functions in an additive way, combining individual memories of particular events in order to more accurately reconstruct the events after they have happened. But collective memory can also serve a community that seeks to memorialize events long past, events of which individual members have had no personal cognitive experience. Collective memory is at work when we memorialize, re-present, and re-frame significant past events that none of us have personally experienced. Because the Sacrament symbolizes the event that is most important for us as Christians and Latter-day Saints, the collective memory at work in administering and partaking of the Sacrament is particularly important to us.

In this way, as important as tying our own subjective feelings, experiences, and repentance to partaking of the Sacrament is, these become much more powerful and transformative when embedded in the experience of partaking of the Sacrament as a whole community. Personal witness then becomes communal witness; personal repentance becomes communal repentance, for the sins we might have committed or omitted as a group; personal reception of the Spirit becomes the collective reception of the Spirit, working through the various members of the one body of Christ. Collectively we remember the Atonement and seek at-one-ment with God and with one another. Together we ritually reconstruct, re-member, re-constitute, re-tell the event/person that saved us all from sin and death.

In Kierkegaard’s writings, re-collection is an even stronger enabling of remembering. He says that in recollection we  consciously re-collect the fragments of memory, re-assembling those fragments into a unified person we recall inwardly in love. The same might be applied to our own approach to the Sacrament, as we ritually reassemble Christ/the Body of Christ as a unified person who blesses us with his Spirit. In this way it might be said that the community always has his Spirit, though we as individuals might separate ourselves from it from time to time. It is also noteworthy, I think, that what we remember is the materiality of Christ and his atonement, his very flesh and blood, and not merely a metaphysical principle (The Catholic transubstantiation of Christ’s flesh and blood in the Communion meal also points to this). We remember, repent, and witness in and through bodies, and our remembrance and recollection of Christ’s body makes the entire process of atonement and transformation a material, embodied experience, or better yet, it indicates the earthy, temporal materiality of spiritual experiences.

Conceptually, we might always be able to assent to knowing something, to having a sure knowledge, yet forget those significant, formative experiences by which our knowledge was gifted to us in the first place. Thus, the work of collectively remembering, perhaps most importantly symbolized in the Sacrament, becomes absolutely crucial to our identities as members of the one body of Christ, an act that cannot be fully accomplished individually, but finds full expression when enacted as a community.

In this way, affirming, “We remember” becomes as vitally important as testifying, “I know.”

*Though we shouldn’t discount those times when we become convinced that our children have been created by demons meant to torment our existence. But that’s another post.

Comments

  1. Orthopod says:

    We really need to knock it off with the Wonderbread. That is just ridiculously tacky and embarassing if I invite friends along on Sunday.

  2. Um. Ok.

  3. Orthopod says:

    Um, optics matter, and the Wonderbread shtick looks lazy and almost borderline mockery. Pita? Crackers? C’mon, peeps!

    (East coast convert)

  4. Um. Ok.

    Wonderful sentiment, Jacob.

    I agree we miss out on a lot of the potential power of the ordinance when we divorce it from the communal aspect of our worship, even as it is touching to be able to administer it to the one who cannot join us as we partake.

  5. Very nice post, Jacob.

  6. “We remember, repent, and witness in and through bodies, and our remembrance and recollection of Christ’s body makes the entire process of atonement and transformation a material, embodied experience”

    I love this sentiment. In the sacrament we collectively remember Him, and re-present Him. He is made present again in the emblems of the sacrament and in our collective sharing in His name and, as you say, in our composition—then and there with our own bodies in the pews—of the body of Christ. And from there we are to go forth and serve and re-present/remember Christ to all the world.

  7. Orthopod says:

    I don’t think mocking (at least) the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican branches of Christianity by using Wonderbread for Sacramental purposes is bringing anyone closer to Jesus. I’m going back to my mommy’s Greek Orthodox Church, where men are men, women are women, and Communion is taken seriously rather than mocked. Thanks for the ride, guys, don’t know what I was thinking when I converted (you are very nice people on the individual level, so honestly, thanks for some good times and fellowship).

  8. Seriously, orthopod?! You consider bread to be mocking more than a wafer?! Neither is an actual body, so each is completely symbolic. There is absolutely no difference, whatsoever.

    If you are using this as an excuse to leave the Church or this blog . . . I just don’t get it – at all. If you are trolling, um, OK.

  9. Jacob, your post reminded me of JS’s statement that it is by union of feeling that we obtain power with God. Although not give in a context directly related to the sacrament this statement has always felt sacramental in nature. With that in mind I wonder whether re-membering Christ as a community in the way you describe is predicted somewhat on a unified conception of Christ within that community.

  10. In the Idaho ward where I grew up, there was a couple who ran a health food store. They went into the Bishop one fine Sunday and announced that it was offensive to Jesus to use unhealthy white bread to represent His body. Seriously – would He want us to use bread that had all the vital nutrients and fiber and everything else good artificially removed, with dangerous carcinogenic chemicals? And what kind of message did it send to the children and youth in our ward – that white bread was Institutionally Good and Wholesome and Approved?

    The bishop said fine, if it means that much to you, you bring the bread. And they did. Flaxseed, whole wheat, nine grain, fifteen grain, black bread, you name it. It eventually got to the point where there was more attention paid to trying to identify the latest health food bread than there was attention paid to the ordinance itself. People couldn’t remember the talks, but they could criticize that millet bran monstrocity for hours.

    So the Bishop in his infinite wisdom told them they could knock it off, and if it was that big of a deal to the family, they were welcome to administer the ordinance at home. Got the attention focused back where it belonged – seven minutes of thinking about Christ and what He did for us.

  11. Jacob, I really like this way of looking at it — thanks for the uplifting post and reminder.

  12. Thomas Parkin says:

    More than anything I appreciate the ‘renewing of covenants’ trope. The Sacrament prayers do indeed explicitly lay out a covenant. I make those covenants with God, not with the ward (although they have secondary ramifications for how I am in and with the ward). So that I continue to see the Sacrament as primarily an individual matter. I remember, whatever the disposition of the congregation.

    Really, the sacrament is one of the only remaining points at which may religion contacts what is going on around me. When I attend church, the Sacrament is the main reason, sometimes the only reason. So, the thought that I am in any way dependent on the people around me to realize something of its full efficacy is … actually pretty depressing.

  13. Thomas Parkin says:

    may = my

  14. In my old Idaho ward, there was a flap about using any commercially-made bread. Homemade bread became the norm for a while, until folks complained about the (quite!) tough and chewy crust. Ugh. When my mom was going through chemo, her Sacrament was tea and saltines. If I could choose, my Sacrament just might be diet coke and twinkies. What is consumed doesn’t matter – but what consumes our hearts and minds during the ordinance matters tremendously.

  15. This reminds me of the last time I visited a non-LDS church service. Communion there felt more like an act of worshiping and remembering/honoring Christ than my typical experience of engaging in a covenant. Of course both worship and covenant aspects are important, but I always appreciate the reminder that the sacrament is much bigger than the individual.

  16. Excellent post, Jacob.

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