Memories of Things Past

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.


On this day, Memorial Day, we take time to remember those who have died in the past year. We pause now to remember those from this church community who have died since Memorial Day in 2005; and we pause to remember those from our own lives who have died since Memorial Day in 2005.

In the past year, several members and friends of this congregation have died. I will read the names of members and friends of this church who died in the past year, followed by a moment of silent meditation:

Phyllis Grosswendt
Patricia Tansey
Philemon Pete Truesdale

In the past year, someone you knew may have died. If you would like, in a moment I’ll ask you to speak the name of that person, or those people, aloud; and you may say that name aloud at any time, when your heart moves you to do so, not worrying if someone else is also saying a name at the same time.

To say these names aloud is to keep alive the memory of that person. So it is that I invite you to say the name of persons you knew who have died since last May; or to sit in communal silence as any names are spoken….

We pause to remember the dead; may remembrance help to bring peace, may it help to heal. Amen.


The first reading this morning is Orphic Hymn no. 76, as translated in 1792 by Thomas Taylor. This is a hymn to Mnemosyne, the Goddess of Memory.

“The Fumigation from Frankincense.
The consort I invoke of Jove divine,
source of the holy, sweetly-speaking Nine;
Free from th’ oblivion of the fallen mind,
by whom the soul with intellect is join’d:
Reason’s increase, and thought to thee belong,
all-powerful, pleasant, vigilant, and strong:
‘Tis thine, to waken from lethargic rest
all thoughts deposited within the breast;
And nought neglecting, vigorous to excite
the mental eye from dark oblivion’s night.
Come, blessed power, thy mystic’s mem’ry wake
to holy rites, and Lethe’s fetters break.”

The second reading this morning is from Marcel Proust’s book Swann’s Way, as translated by Lydia Davis:

It is a waste of effort for us to try to summon [the past], all the exertions of our intelligence are useless. The past is hidden outside the realm of our intelligence and beyond its reach, in some material object (in the sensation that this material object would give us) which we do not suspect….

…One day in winter, as I returned home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, suggested that, contrary to my habit, I have a little tea. I refused at first and then, I do not know why, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump cakes called petites madeleines that look as though they have been molded in the grooved valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, oppressed by the gloomy day and the prospect of another sad day to follow, I carried to my lips a spoonful of tea in which I had let soften a bit of madeleine. But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me. A delicious pleasure had invaded me, isolated me, without my having any notion as to its cause. It had immediately rendered the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, acting in the same way that love acts, by filling me with a precious essence: or rather, this essence was not merely inside me, it was me. I had ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Where could it have come from — this powerful joy? I sense that it was connected to the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it went infinitely far beyond it, could not be of the same nature. Where did it come from? What did it mean? How could I grasp it? I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, a third that gives me a little less than the second. It is time for me to stop, the virtue of the drink seems to be diminishing. Clearly, the truth I am seeking is not in the drink, but in me….

[Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, In Search of Lost Time, vol. 1. Trans. Lydia Davis, pp. 44-45.]


Tomorrow is Memorial Day, a holiday originated by the African American community of Charleston, South Carolina, as a way of remembering those who had died in the Civil War fighting to end slavery. Since its origins as a holiday meant to commemorate the Union soldiers of the Civil War, the scope of Memorial Day has broadened. It is now a day on which we commemorate all those family, friends, and loved ones who have died. The central purpose of Memorial Day is captured in its name: Memorial Day is a day to remember.

So it is that Memorial Day and religion overlap. One of the central functions of religion, and of religious organizations, is to help us remember. This is true on a very broad scale — for example, one of the main purposes of the Christian religion is to keep alive the memory of Jesus of Nazareth. This is true on the local level — part of what our church, First Unitarian in New Bedford, does is to keep alive the memories of what liberal religion has accomplished in New Bedford; which is why it is important for us to celebrate our 300th anniversary this year. And this is also true at the personal level — our religion can help us to remember key moments in our lives, moments like birth and marriage; and to remember key persons in our lives who have died.

The ancient Greeks personified memory into a minor goddess, the goddess Mnemosyne; her opposite was the goddess Lethe, the goddess of forgetfulness. As we heard in the first reading this morning, Mnemosyne was supposed to link the intellect with the soul; she was the goddess of reason and thoughtfulness; it was she who could break us free from the bonds of the dark oblivion of forgetfulness. Because of her ties to reason and thoughtfulness, I think of Mnemosyne as the Greek goddess who is of perhaps greatest interest to those of us who are religious liberals today. Memory links our souls, our spiritual selves, with our intellect and our reasoning selves.

1. A dozen years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet Barbara Marshman. A lifelong Universalist, Barbara became a religious educator, an ordained minister of religious education. She was perhaps the most creative and interesting religious educator I have known, and she had a deep insight into children.

Once I went to a workshop that Barbara led, where she said that her key to success was to ask children in her Sunday schools, “What do you remember?” Unitarian Universalist Sunday schools do not require children to memorize Bible verses, nor would we count our Sunday school a success if the children memorized lots of Bible verses; nor do we have formal testing, for we don’t require children to memorize facts about religion. We want children to learn how to lead religious lives, and from a pedagogical standpoint it’s an interesting problem to figure out how to test them to see if they’ve learned what we hope for them to learn. So pedagogically speaking, when Barbara Marshman asked children what they remembered, she was testing them to see if they had learned what we hope for them to learn. But asking children what they remember is more than some kind of test.

I remember the first time I tried asking a group of children what they remembered. It was a Memorial Day weekend, and I gathered together the few children who actually came to Sunday school and sat down with them and asked them what they remembered from a year at church. Of course, I anticipated that they would tell me things they had learned in their Sunday school classes. Well, it took a little while to explain to some of the younger children what I wanted, and to remind them that the church year started in September, and when September was. Then an eight-year old girl raised her hand and said, “Do we have to talk about the things we did in Sunday school, or can we talk about anything?” Somewhat surprised, I replied, “You can talk about anything, I suppose.” And then they began to raise their hands to tell me what they remembered from church. I still vividly remember that the first child who raised her hand remembered seeing a baby get dedicated during a church service. And I also remember that less than half the children remembered something they learned during Sunday school.

Over the years, I have continued to ask children what they remember from going to church, often on Memorial Day weekend. I still some notes I took a few years ago when I asked children this question at another church. Here are some of the things those children remembered from a year at that church: they remembered singing the doxology every week during the worship service; they remembered playing card games at an intergenerational potluck dinner; they remembered acting as an usher with their parents and greeting people coming into the worship service; they remembered lighting the flaming chalice during a worship service; they remembered participating in the no-rehearsal Christmas pageant; they remembered helping to take the offering during the worship service. What strikes me about what children remember is that they have the most vivid memories of participating in worship services, and they also have vivid memories of times when they are allowed to participate with adults in various church events. In short, one of the most important things children learn at church is that they are a part of a community.

Now these children also remembered specific church school lessons as well. But I have noticed that the lessons children seem to remember best are the lessons when they are doing something together with others. When we tell them a story, they may or may not remember that story; but if we help them to act out the story together, they are far more likely to remember it. They remember games, and they remember cooperative projects that they do together. Here again, the children are learning what it means to be a part of a religious community.

Barbara Marshman said to ask children what they remember about church, and what they seem to remember best is the communal aspects of church. To be entirely honest with you, I don’t think we Unitarian Universalists are very good at getting children to learn what is popularly known as “Bible literacy,” that is, characters and stories and facts from the Bible. Nor have we been very good at getting children to know much about world religions, nor much about Unitarian Universalist history. But in the past couple of decades, I think we have been very good at teaching children how they can be a vital part of a religious community, which is a far more difficult thing to teach them — and, I think, far more important in the long run. I don’t care as much about Bible literacy as I want children to know that this church is safe community for them; I want children to know that there are lots of caring adults out there besides their parents, adults who want them to succeed in becoming wonderful human beings. Those memories will shape them, shape them in positive ways, shape them for years to come in ways we can barely imagine.

The same is true of us adults, too. Think about your own religious past; and think about how those memories have shaped you; and think about how you can shape those memories as you move forward in your spiritual journey. And then think about the times this church has provided a safe community for you; a safe place to reflect on who you are; the times when this church has been a community which supported you as you strive to become the best person you can become.

To put it another way: we become our memories. Thus one of the most important religious acts is the act of shaping our memories, such that we turn ourselves towards wholeness and becoming the best persons we can become.

2. Part of moving towards wholeness is not just remembering, but also learning how to keep our memories from taking over our lives. An obvious example of this would be the person who has suffered serious grief, the worst grief you can imagine. It would be easy to let an unbearable grief take over your life; but letting grief take over your entire life is unlikely to lead towards spiritual wholeness. This is an extreme example, but there are less extreme examples.

In the second reading this morning, we heard a charming anecdote written by Marcel Proust. Proust tells us that one day when he was an adult, his mother served him tea with a little cake called a petite madeleine; he dipped the cake into his tea and when he tasted it, something he hadn’t tasted since childhood, that taste released a whole horde of childhood memories. Tastes and smells seem to prompt old memories; you’ll taste or smell something and suddenly you’re transported back in memory to another time. For Proust, this initial memory led him to start writing a massive six-volume novel, a project that took him the rest of his life to finish. The fact that Proust lived with his parents until they died, and never really went out on his own, and spent the last years of his life in a sound-proofed bedroom, may make us view him with a little bit of alarm: yes, he was a great artist, and yes he wrote great books, but I’m not sure I would want my memories to take over my life like that.

Yet this does happen to many of us. Sometimes our memories take over our lives. I don’t think it’s a good thing to have memories take over our lives; it’s just as bad as forgetting completely. So what I’d like to do is to talk with you for a bit about grief, and how memory and grief are linked together.

What happens when someone close to us dies? If you know someone close to you — a family member, friend, or loved one — is going to die, grieving might start even before that person is dead. When someone close to you does die, most people experience numbness for about three months. Of course, everyone is different, and there are no absolute rules. But for most of us, when someone dies, you’re numb, and you don’t feel much or think much or remember much. Because they are numb, some people make the mistake of thinking the grief is over, they no longer need to remember, and they can just get on with life.

Usually, after about three months of numbness, serious grieving sets in. More than one person reports that they think they’re doing fine when suddenly they start crying for no apparent reason — it’s not uncommon to be driving by yourself in the car, when suddenly you burst into tears; for some people the crying is so violent that they have to pull over to the side of the road. However it happens, the real deep grief begins. It is a peculiar state of affairs; as I have both witnessed it and experienced it, this deep grief mixes up recent memories, often of the last month or day of the loved one’s death, and much older memories. I believe this is may be because the pain of deep grief is so intense that the memories get all jumbled up.

Most people experience at least a year of deep grief when someone close to them dies, and then another year of serious grief when the memories really start to bubble up. Thus, grieving is a time to feel sad, and it is also a time to devote oneself to remembering, a time to let memories bubble up, a time to come to terms with memories. This intensive time spent remembering can and should be a time to deal with powerful memories; which is another way of saying, it is a time to deal with our deepest selves, and to grow spiritually and emotionally.

I want to be sure to acknowledge that there are other kinds of loss besides losing someone to death:– there’s the loss of innocence, there’s the loss of self, there’s the loss that comes with the end of a relationship. Each kind of loss requires a greater or lesser amount of grief. I am told that the death of one’s child leads to the greatest grief possible; but I have also seen other kinds of loss, the loss of innocence for example, lead to debilitating grief; so I refuse to predict or judge which loss will cause how much grief. I also want to acknowledge that loss and the memories that come with loss can be unmanageable, and more often than not we have to accept help from those around us in order to deal with grief, loss, and the associated memories.

I also wish to say that I worry when people get frozen in grief, loss, or memories. Unfortunately, the wider culture prompts us to become frozen in one of two ways. On the one hand, the surrounding culture tells us that we should ignore grief. On the other hand, the dominant Christian culture that obsesses on the death and execution of Jesus while ignoring his life can prompt us to cling to death or loss while ignoring life. Neither extreme is productive; both extremes are life-denying.

Thus it seems to me that a central purpose of a religious community should be to help us cherish our memories, while making sure we don’t get frozen in the past. On the grand scale, religion should help us remember a great religious prophet like Jesus, but above all religion should help us remember the living teachings of that prophet rather than the manner of his death. On the communal scale, religion should help us remember the whole story of our religious community — in our case, all three hundred years of our story — so that we may remember how our religious community has successfully lived out our values in the world, rather than dwelling on whatever defeats we may have suffered. Finally, on the personal scale, religion and religious community can help us remember the lives and deeds of those who went before us so that we may live out the best in their lives.

3. On the personal scale, one of the most important functions of a religious community is to help us remember the dead. To remember the dead is, of course, an intensely personal act. But it is also a communal matter. When we hold memorial services in this church, what we try to do above all is to remember the person who has died — that’s why we call it a memorial service. In other religious traditions, there are different customs: thus, in the dominant religious culture of our immediate area, it seems to be very important to have the dead body present during the funeral service, and it seems to be very important to talk about abstract beliefs in God; this is because in many religions what is most important is to focus on the fact of death, and relate that fact of death to belief in God and the afterlife. This is perfectly fine, but I prefer what our religious tradition generally does, which is to focus less on the fact of death and instead focus more on how that person lived his or her life; rather than focusing on one moment of death, we try to focus on a lifetime of memories.

And we do that in a communal setting. What is most powerful to me about our memorial services are the people of the religious community that show up, often at an inconvenient time, to bear witness to the memories. So it is that those memories take on a larger significance.

What we’re really doing at a memorial service is telling the story of someone who has just died. These stories are powerful, powerful things: these stories pass on the stored memories of other people; these stories pass on the accumulated wisdom of our religious community. And this, by the way, is what we’re doing with our children in the Sunday school: we are preparing them to take their place in the religious community, to become a part of this community of memory, so that they can pass along the stories to the next generation.

A trend that I have observed I find very encouraging : and that is the trend of asking people to tell their own stories before they die — preferably long before they die! I don’t know about you, but more than once I have walked out of a memorial service thinking, I wish I had known more about that person before she or he died. So I am encouraged when I see things like small groups ministries where people can tell their stories, or spiritual autobiography classes, or times in worship services where each week someone get two or three minutes to tell their own story.

Let me end by telling you a story about a Sunday school class from another church:

There was a Sunday school class for fifth and sixth graders. Three adults signed up to teach that Sunday school class, including one retired man who had never taught Sunday school before — he told me that the main reason he signed up was that he was trying to get over the death of his wife, who had died a year previously. Well, these three adults planned everything very carefully, and took their responsibilities very seriously, and they were all prepared on the opening day of Sunday school — and only one child showed up. They came to me afterwards, and said that maybe they had better let that one boy join another Sunday school class. But we asked him, and he said he had a pretty good time, and that he would be back. But the teachers had to change all their lesson plans, for they had planned for a big class. The retired man taught the next class, and he devoted the whole class to field grass, something he cared deeply about since he had been a botanist who spent his career studying field grass — of course, what he was really talking about was himself, he was telling that boy who he was. Time went on, and I discovered that the boy’s father was suffering from a debilitating disease that took about ten or fifteen years to kill. And at the end of the church year, that boy went to Sunday school just about every Sunday, and when we asked him what he remembered best about church that year, he said — the class when we talked about grass.

So we move forward through the ages, learning from the generations that precede us, bringing up the generations that follow us.