Sunday, January 10, 2010

Anamnesis and Alzheimer's

Anamnesis is a big, churchy, scary word. It's an important word though,referring to making something present through memory. In particular, it is used to refer to the Mass, as a means of remembering and uniting with the sacrifice made by Christ. (per 1928 BCP "Wherefore O Lord and heavenly Father, according to the institution of thy dearly beloved Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, we, thy humble servants, do celebrate and make here before thy Divine Majesty, with these, thy holy gifts, which we now offer unto thee, the memorial which thy Son hath commanded us to make; having in remembrance his blessed passion and precious death, his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension; rendering unto thee most hearty thanks for the innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same." Verbose, but lovely)

The orderly procession of the church year is an extension of this thought- Advent, giving way to Christmas and Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Trinity. Feasts,fasts, colors, images, all accompany us on a journey through Scripture, following the life of Christ and the Church. We remember and in remembering, we re-live. In The Irrational Season Madeleine L'Engle takes the concept of anamnesis beyond church and into literature, stressing the importance of being able to not just remember being fourteen but to actually *be* fourteen for a writer in creating characters.

But anamnesis isn't just about faith and literature, it's about life(and, as usual, we can't really separate faith and literature from life). In order to continue being myself,I have to remember and continue to tell stories- the time we fixed Uncle Glenn's hair so that he looked like a rock star, the pranks pulled on a certain high school teacher, the Episcopalian shield on my bumper for the purpose of antagonizing Conservative college students, road trips, hikes, fights and 3AM phone calls have made me who I am. When I can no longer remember or talk about those, I will start to become a different person.

This is what has happened (or in one case, is still happening) to both of my grandfathers, one deceased and one still living, both victims of Alzheimer's disease. It is a disease that has attacked their memory, identity and essence. Alzheimer's is a threat to everything I hold dear and I find myself wondering who will be the next person I lose- my father, a beloved aunt or uncle, a sibling?

In one of her books- I think The Irrational Season, though I can't find the passage- Madeleine L'Engle reports that in the Eastern Church worship is viewed as communal...and that one person is not at complete attention in a service is compensated for the fact that another person is...that in our attention and efforts as a congregation we are truly one, the sum of all "efforts." This is the only thought that can make dementia tolerable to me. That although my grandfathers have lost themselves, the rest of us remember. As my aunt retells the story of my grandfather's model train tracks running throughought the entire house, and his attempt to build a spiral to the ceiling being squashed by my grandmother when the track reached her height, that man exists once again. Sleepovers in the barn and the pounding of my grandfather's hammer are real when we speak of them. We must remember, whether we are a family or a Church. Because unless we remember, actively, with our entire selves, we can be neither family nor Church.

1 comment:

Will said...

Makes you wonder about "spiritual" Alzheimer's inflicting those who are away from Christ and his church body too long. They forget who they are and how they fit into what God may have planned for them.

I know I've had that affliction many times. And just like physical Alzheimer's, it is tragic and deadly. At least the spiritual version can be fixed.