Meaty Memory

Because I function as a chaplain to the residents at my workplace, I’m known to wear a clerical collar from time to time. It always seems to catch residents off guard the first time they see me in it–here is this linebacker of a man with spiky hair, spikes in his ears, and tattoos running down his arm in the garment of a religious professional. To be honest it still catches me off guard a bit when I see myself in the mirror with a plastic rectangle digging into my neck–when did I become this contradiction of life and brokenness?

The last time I came to work collared up, one of my residents asked me, “what does a pastor do?” Despite having been to seminary for four and a half years and writing page upon page of ordination paperwork, I was more or less at a loss for a succinct answer to her question. So I rattled off the usual things: pastors take care of people, they’re there to help people when needed, pray for people, preach about Jesus, and so forth. Seeing that my off-the-cuff answer was not satisfying my resident’s question, I thought about it a little bit harder, and this unexpectedly fell out of my mouth:

“A pastor is a person who helps people remember things.”

What the hell does that even mean? What’s interesting to me is that, for as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve had some concept of what a pastor does. My dad is a pastor, so naturally what I see him doing is what I understand pastoral ministry to be. And since I made this observation about the role of the pastor, I’ve been thinking through what I’ve seen him do, and what I’ve seen other pastors do across the entire spectrum of Christianity, and what I myself have been doing as I’ve grown into my vocation–it’s all been the heavy-duty work of remembrance.

The “remembrance” I’m speaking about here isn’t simply walking through significant events as a mental exercise–“remember that time when…”–but rather, a kind of participatory remembrance that refreshes and enfleshes the experience of a person’s identity as they live their life in community. It’s that kind of meaty memory, anamnesis (as the liturgy nerds say), that isn’t simply remembering that “this happened to me,” but rather, “this happened to me and it is shaping my soul.” It’s that kind of memory we’re digging into when we throw water at folks and ask them to remember a baptism that many have no ability to recall mentally as it happened when they were so young. And yet, we still call them to remember things lost to the fog of time! The depth of anamnesis is something that happens in the community psyche, not the intellect of the individual, and in that depth there is great power.

With water and oil and ash and bread and wine the pastor gives the people footholds of memory:
“You are sealed as Christ’s own forever.”
“The body and blood of Christ keep you in everlasting life.”
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
“Even at the grave we make our song: ‘alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!'”
As the community gathers around its members and sees its members scaling the wall of human experience using these footholds, the community itself becomes a witness to the collective, meaty memories that have formed its individual members.

Clinging to the mountainside on her own footholds of memory stands the pastor, from Sunday to Sunday and in the 167 intervening hours ever beckoning: “remember who you are and whose you are! You are Christ’s own!” And she offers the bread and wine once more, she prays once more, she offers another sandwich, writes another benevolence check, baptizes another baby, buries another beloved friend, and stuffs another bulletin. More footholds emerge, and as the community scales the wall they begin to shine brighter with the radiance of Christ’s likeness.

So, that’s what a pastor does. I think. I’m still learning. But with joy I remember the footholds of memory that have formed me more into Christ’s likeness–my baptism, the temple of my childhood, Eucharists and mountaintops, tears and despair, confessions and penances, my orders and my doubt. And I am finding my voice, so that from my place on the mountainside I can call out: remember!

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