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Of Memory, Metanoia, and Manslaughter

15 Oct

Oh, of thine only worthy blood
And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drown in it my sins’ black memory.
~
John Donne

An essay by historian Andrew Bacevich scrolled up in my Facebook feed, and I saw that it had been posted by my friend Shawn Storer of Catholic Peace Fellowship. That was enough to make it a must-read sooner rather than later, so I opened it up.

It was entitled “Autopilot Wars,” and it was Bacevich’s take on our nation’s numb embrace of perpetual armed conflict as a norm. “Like traffic jams or robocalls, war has fallen into the category of things that Americans may not welcome, but have learned to live with,” Bacevich writes. “In twenty-first-century America, war is not that big a deal.”

It was a depressing read, yet hardly a surprising one, for our country long ago inured itself to killing as a way of solving problems. A people who’ve come to tolerate abortion through all nine months of pregnancy is a people primed to mow down entire populations without a second thought. Death has become a way of life, and, in the name of patriotism, we don’t even question the motives or objectives. Heck, we can’t even keep count of how many wars we’re in, let alone why we’re in them.

Bacevich’s article was rattling in mind as I drove to morning Mass. NPR buzzed in the background – it was the TED Radio Hour. I could hear a researcher murmuring about manipulating the memories of lab rats.

I turned up the volume.

The researcher’s name was Steve Ramirez, a professor of neuroscience at Boston University. He and his colleagues developed a technique they call optogenetics that allows them to turn memories on and off by aiming lasers at particular regions of rodent brains. The effects are temporary, but Ramirez indicated that he anticipated further research that will lead to more enduring effects.

It creeped me out. I’d just recently seen the new Blade Runner 2049 which prominently features memory manipulation in cyborg replicants, and here was an actual process for doing the same thing in miniature mammals. However, my creepy feelings turned into alarm when Ramirez and his interviewer, Guy Raz, discussed possible future applications of optogenetics – like altering the memories of those suffering from PTSD; to erase, in effect, the crippling memories of the battlefield. Despite the possibility that such memory manipulation might be abused, Ramirez indicated that the potential for good is much too great to avoid continued research in this area.

I found myself yelling back at the radio, “No! No! Don’t do it! Can’t you see?” Consider what the Pentagon would do such memory altering therapies. We already train our soldiers to suppress their innate resistance to exterminating human life, and we push them forward to the front lines to wipe out as many enemy lives as possible. Then, when they come back to us physically wounded, we patch them up and send them forward to kill some more. Is it really all that hard to imagine that the military would draw on optogenetics to do the same with the psychologically wounded? To take, that is, those suffering from PTSD and re-program their memories to enable them to return to the front?

Even if that appalling development could be avoided – and that’s a huge “if” – the underlying premise of Ramirez’s suggestion is itself flawed. The problem with PTSD isn’t the crippling memories. The problem is what caused the memories in the first place: the dehumanizing horror of war. Isn’t there good reason to remember that horror, painful as it is? It seems to me that such remembering could help undo what Bacevich details as our “collective indifference” to war as part of modernity’s landscape.

Ramirez and Raz were concluding their radio conversation as I arrived at church. I shut off the car, went inside, and settled in for the liturgy. Entrance antiphon, sign of the cross, greeting, and then this:  “My brothers and sisters, to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries, let us call to mind our sins” – and that’s when it hit me. Memory of agonizing reality is central to our faith and essential for real conversion – metanoia in the Greek of the New Testament.

In fact, we use a different Greek word that translates as “memory” (anamnesis) to describe how it is that Christ’s singular sacrifice on the Cross is made present for us at Mass. The Reformers of the past and our Fundamentalist detractors in the present accuse us of re-crucifying Jesus in the course of our “false” worship. Yet the Mass is not a repetition, but rather a re-presentation – a liturgical and sacramental remembering that connects what Christ suffered on Calvary with our recollected transgressions here and now.

I think of that scene in The Mission (1986) when Robert De Niro’s character, Rodrigo Mendoza, a former slave trader and mercenary, is lugging the tools of his inhuman trade up a muddy jungle slope. He repeatedly slips and falls until one of his Jesuit companions cuts the burden free. Mendoza subsequent silent descent back down the hill, his angry reattachment of the bundle to his back, and then his slow ascent back up the hill again is a powerful image of real repentance. Rather than forgetting the past – cutting it away and rolling it out of sight – authentic conversion requires remembering. It requires revisiting our painful histories and our damnable decisions. Mendoza was a murderer, and his redemption requires that he thoroughly avow his murderous past before he can experience the grace of forgiveness.

Our faith is dependent on remembering violence, for all sin is violence – a violent battering if not rending of our relationship with God. Similarly, our entire civilization also depends on such remembering, and the tragedy of our times is that we’re already re-programming our memories to avoid unspeakable realities, even without optogenetics. “Responding to the demands of the Information Age is not, it turns out, conducive to deep reflection,” Bacevich notes with reference to our war-making amnesia. “Our attention span shrinks and with our time horizon.”

This is the point that Nicholas Carr made in his recent WSJ essay on our contemporary smartphone dependencies. “Now that our phones have made it so easy to gather information online, our brains are likely offloading even more of the work of remembering to technology,” he wrote. “No matter how much information swirls around us, the less well-stocked our memory, the less we have to think with.” No wonder we don’t care about how many wars we’re in – or how many babies are being slaughtered in our abortuaries.

Granted, remembering more means suffering more, which is a tall order for a world bent on avoiding suffering – at least for ourselves. Remember more anyway, and then choose to suffer alongside those whose memories of killing cause them the deepest kind of distress – coming alongside them figuratively and prayerfully, at the very least, but in reality as well if given the opportunity. Such compassionate companionship might embolden them to speak out on behalf of peacemaking and nonviolent solutions to our problems. We’ll be wise to listen to what they have to say – and commit it to memory.
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Of Creeds, Conversion, and Cribbing at Mass

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Discovering Good Friday on Queen Anne Hill

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Of Aging, Angst, and Anticipating Holy Week

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Of Theologizing, Conversion, and the Magisterium

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socratesattheschoolofathens_raphael

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Of Godchildren, Detox, and RCIA

22 Jan

old-fashioned-baptism

“Three times a week Sister Aloysia came to give me a catechism lesson….”
~ Dorothy Day

My students were finding their seats, pulling notebooks out of bags, silencing their phones (praise God!). One of them, Michaela, had recently started a regular babysitting gig for a former student of mine and her young family – a young family that happens to include my godson, Dominic.

“How’s my godson doing?” I asked Mic. “Didn’t you sit for him last night?”

“Yes,” she replied. “He’s doing fine – he’s so cute!” I smiled – no argument there.

Next to Michaela sat Kat, another of my med-surg students, who piped up, “How many godchildren do you have anyway?”

I teach at an Evangelical college, so few of my students are practicing Catholics, and I’ll generally jump on opportunities like this one to do some simple catechesis. Besides, my students are accustomed to my answering straightforward questions with anecdotes and long digressions, and I didn’t want to disappoint.

“Let me tell you a story,” I said. “A friend of mine in Chicago, the man I call my godfather, used to tell me that he couldn’t remember all the godchildren he had.” It’s true. Jim, longtime resident of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood and a legendary pillar of the do-gooder community there, has served as godfather for countless babies over the decades – including one of my own. “I always thought it was scandalous,” I told Kat and Mic, “because baptism and godparenting duties are so sacred and important. I used to think that I’d never forget my spiritual children should I ever have the privilege of becoming a godfather.” They nodded their understanding, and I continued.

“After I became a Catholic myself, I got my chance,” I said, “and I’ve gotten my chance again and again. Now I can’t remember the exact number any more, although I do pray for my godchildren collectively every day – sometimes by name if God brings them to mind.” I added that I’m certain my godfather does the same, and, by way of catechetical clarification, I added, “Jim’s not really my godfather by the way – I was already baptized when I became a Catholic. Really he was my sponsor when I joined the Church, but I just call him my godfather.”

“Sponsor?” Kat asked, raising an eyebrow. “You mean like AA?”

There was a weighty pause as I considered her comparison – one I’d never considered before. “Well, yes,” I finally agreed, “yes, a lot like Alcoholics Anonymous!”

I think Kat’s onto something there.

Consider: Without grace, we’re addicted to sin, aren’t we? We develop dependencies on our self-destructive behaviors, and we come to crave the evils that keep us separated from God. In fact, we routinely refer to “habits” of vice, just as we refer to “habits” of virtue – perfidy and purification as moral extensions, in opposite directions, of our human reliance on rote action.

Baptism is the drunk tank of our withdrawal from sin. It’s an ecclesial intervention to disrupt the downward slope of our unregenerate routines – a sacramental wake-up call, a liturgical splash of cold water in the face. When we receive baptism as adults (or seek full communion with the Church via the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), we’re in effect embracing the first step of AA’s famous 12-step program of recovery:We admitted we were powerless over alcohol (read: sin) – that our lives had become unmanageable.” Simultaneously, we’re also ticking off our acquiescence to the next two steps as well – namely, that we believe that a “Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity” and that we’re turning “our will and our lives over to the care of God.”

The overlap between Catholic conversion and Alcoholics Anonymous is all the more illuminating if you take the full communion route, for while non-Christians will require baptism when they join the Church, those who were baptized previously need only make a profession of faith and make a good first confession. With that in mind, get a load of the next four AA steps:

  1. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  2. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  3. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  4. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Sound familiar? Whether you stumbled through it as a second-grader, or sweated through it as a grown-up, you’ll remember all those elements in your own first confession.

Then there’s the last two AA steps which constitute the essence of Christian praxis – communion and witness – regardless of when we’re initiated. Step #11 starts off, “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God,” and step #12 follows with a restatement of the Great Commission: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics (read: other sin-addicts) and to practice these principles in all our affairs” – that is, get out there and preach, but be sure to practice what you preach.

I know a little about this stuff because my dad was an alcoholic and he was an AA meeting regular – at least when he was sober. In fact, I seem to recall going to a meeting with him once as a teenager, but that might be wishful thinking on my part. In any case, I definitely grew up yearning for his sobriety constantly, and I came to associate his teetotalling lulls with his participation in AA programs.

And I remember he always had a sponsor.

“How does sponsorship help the newcomer?” reads an AA pamphlet. “It assures the newcomer that there is at least one person who understands the situation fully and cares – one person to turn to without embarrassment when doubts, questions, or problems linked to alcoholism arise.” For one thing, the AA sponsor is a recovering alcoholic himself – he’s been there; indeed, he is there. The sober sponsor can truly empathize with the fellow addict at the very cusp of recovery. But, even more important, the sponsor will be there long after sobriety is reached, because it’s a “continuing responsibility for helping a newcomer adjust to a way of life….”

Precisely. The same goes for the RCIA sponsor – at least, the same goes for Jim.

“The candidate should be accompanied by a sponsor,” reads the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. “If someone has had the principal part in guiding or preparing the candidate, he or she should be the sponsor” (#396). And what’s the sponsor supposed to do? The RCIA gives us a clue in paragraph #75.2: Prospective Catholics “become familiar with the Christian way of life and are helped by the example and support of sponsors….”

Jim was there for me when I had doubts, questions, and problems as I considered the outrageous claims of the Church. He was that one person I could rely on to shepherd me through controversy and qualm, and to assure me that my stumbles and scruples were not exceptional – he’d been through it all himself.

He’s continued to be there for me after 30 years. Thanks, Jim. I can only hope and pray I’ll be the same kind of sponsor/godfather for Dominic – your spiritual God-grandson.
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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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