Memory and Faith

And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. And Moses could not come into the Tent of Meeting, for the cloud abode upon it and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. And when the cloud went up from over the Tabernacle, the Israelites would journey onward in all their journeyings. And if the cloud did not go up, they would not journey onward until the day it went up. For the Lord’s cloud was over the Tabernacle by day, and fire by night was in it, before the eyes of all the house of Israel in all their journeyings.

Exodus 40: 34-8

 

Today we read the stirring and poetic final verses of the Book of Exodus. It speaks of the presence of God, the glory of the Lord as so overwhelmingly powerful that even Moses cannot enter the Tent while the cloud abides upon it and glory of the Lord fills the Tabernacle. The presence of God to the people is palpable; it is real and experienced. It is only as directed by this presence that the people journey onward or stay where they are. Finally, the conclusion of the Book of Exodus identifies Israel as those perennially on a journey, yet it is a journey which is always guided by this palpable sense, this experienced and determinative sense, of the presence of the Lord.

Abraham Joshua Heschel says that “I believe” means that “I remember.” What we remember in belief is the immediate and palpable sense of God’s presence that the Israelites knew. To be and remain faithful is to continue to remember that presence.

Many years ago as a graduate student in Formative Spirituality, I was repeatedly drawn to the topic of memory. The reason for this was a sense I had, I was in my early 30’s at the time, that I lived much of my daily life in forgetfulness. What I so often was in forgetfulness of was what I knew to be the truth of who I was. I could not understand how I lived so much of my time in frustration, anxiety, fear of the future, and resentment about the past when I had known so powerfully at moments where I had come from and to whom I belonged. I lived in the world so often from the perspective of defending from it or attempting to manipulate it, when I had experienced moments of being a part of the whole, of participating in, and not being set against, all that is. I was always forgetting the possibilities of what Adrian van Kaam calls consonance, that is of times when I harmoniously sounded with all of creation and of the deep joy, at least momentarily, to which this would give rise. In my forgetfulness I experienced far too  many moments when it seemed as if my life was on the line, that I would disappear into an abyss of shame and nothingness, even though I had known moments where my life was in the hands of One who would never let me go. Perhaps to put this all more simply and directly, I wondered why it was that what I had been shown in experience to be the truth seemed to have so little influence on my daily consciousness.

What we call the “spiritual life” or spiritual practice is, in this light, a deliberate and focal act of remembrance. If, somehow, the demands of our daily lives, as perceived and received by our pride form, lead us to forget who and whose we are, then to be true and to be whole requires that we deliberately take time to remember. The Lord’s cloud and fire are “before the eyes of all the house of Israel in all their journeyings.” Somehow this is also true of us despite the fact that, although every single one of us has known the cloud and the fire at some specific moments, we usually cannot “see” them. If we do not commit ourselves to remembering, then we shall live most, if not all, of our lives in the illusion of autonomy and self-determination, that is we shall live condemned to our false sense of loneliness and abandonment. The world will be only something to defend ourselves from or to appease, or else to dominate and manipulate. Love will be a task and not a gift that is already and freely given to us, and our daily work will be but drudgery or control.

In faith everything we are and do is an expression of relationship and responsibility. As we enter a new day we do so with the question, “What is being asked of me?” We do what we do in response to One who is calling us to serve humbly, that is, only within our limits and capacities. We recognize that it is not power but love that is the energy of creation, and so we see the possibility in each moment of acting and responding in that love. The dominance of “the will to power” in our life and world is, in large part, the result of our “losing faith,” of our failure to remember. When we forget what we know and who we most deeply are, we than behave in light of the pre-transcendent dimensions of our personalities that are all that is left to us. Then, our survival or our flourishing depends on what we alone must do, how we alone must care, how the mere surface of the person we take ourselves to be is seen by others.

As I moved into adulthood, I carried with me the great and dominating fear of the only child, that I would be alone. So much of how I would unconsciously behave toward others and the world was motivated by the need to be accepted, liked and welcomed. From that place, it is difficult to really care for and serve the other, because the need for a certain response from them is so great. This was who I was in the world when I lived in forgetfulness. What I was failing to remember was that in some moments of deepest solitude, I knew that I was not alone; I knew that I was not only related to everyone and everything else but that we lived a common life, “a life common to all” as Jan van Ruusbroec says. When I lived my “ordinary” life (as Ruusbroec defines it), when I was present to who I truly was, then I knew the truth of living in communion and that I did not need to live in the fear of being alone and isolated. The power of what Freud called the unconscious and van Kaam calls the “infraconscious” to make us forget this deeper truth tends, however, to dominate our daily lives.

At moments where the fire and the cloud are perceptible to us, we know the truth of John’s teaching: “There is no fear in love, for perfect love drives out fear.” (1 John 4:18) Yet, the power of our fears leads us so often to forget the love. And so, if our faith is not to descend into mere creedal or behavioral formality, we must deliberately choose to remember. “If the cloud did not go up, they would not journey onward until the day it went up.” Faith is remembering, not merely notionally but actually. It is a living memory. It is the cloud in which we are to journey and to give direction to our lives. For far too much of life, we journey as if the presence were not there. We act and we react and we build up a form of life and social forms of life that are no longer connected to our experiential knowledge of the Presence. Faith is not what we think or the beliefs we hold, it is living in and being responsive to the glory of the Lord that we have known.

Because we tend to live in forgetfulness, this must often be done by deliberately remembering. Living in faith, then, requires of us that we spend whatever time during our days is required in order to remember. In honesty and humility we recognize that without the effort and practice it takes to remember we would spend our lives in forgetfulness of the truth of who we are and of our true place in the world. Without remembering, our days would pass without our truly ever having lived the reality that “in all our journeyings” we are the Lord’s.

Belief likewise depends on memory. “I believe” means: “I remember.” For what is belief? Every one of us, at least once in our lifetime, has been able to perceive the existence of the Creator. Every one of us, at least once, has merited a glimpse of the beauty , the serenity, and the strength which flow from the souls of those who have walked with God. However, such feelings and inspirations are not common occurrences. In the lives of most people they are as meteors which flare up for a moment and then disappear from sight. There are, however, people for whom these flashes ignite with them a light which will never be extinguished. Faith means: If you ever once merit that the Hidden One appears to you, be faithful to Him all the days of your life. Faith means: To guard forever the echo which once burst upon the deep recesses of your soul.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 64

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