By Gregory Wolfe
The following post is an adapted version of the commencement address for the 2008 graduating class of the Seattle Pacific University MFA in Creative Writing Program.
I’d like to say a few words today about memory, inspired by St. Augustine, whose Confessions we have been reading together.
The Confessions are the first great work of autobiography in Western culture. And they have much wisdom to offer to writers, and perhaps especially to writers who care deeply about matters of faith. As a trained rhetorician and a self-described “vendor of words,” Augustine’s story is intimately bound up with the power of language, for good and for ill.
The structure of the Confessions has posed problems to many readers. As many of you know, after Augustine has recounted the story of his life and conversion to Christianity, the book doesn’t stop there. Book X steps back to treat the subject of memory itself, and Books XI to XIII contain an allegorical interpretation of the first verses of the book of Genesis.
Students down the ages have groaned over having to read these last four chapters, for the simple reason that they shift from narrative to philosophical and theological reflection. And I mean no disrespect when I say that a groan or two could be heard in our Art and Faith seminar…
And yet a close reading of those chapters often makes converts of the groaners.
Book X, a passionate and lyrical meditation on the nature of memory, certainly has its rewards. The process of telling his story forces Augustine to reflect on how God enters our lives. He concludes that one way in which God becomes present to us is through memory itself, which he calls “the stomach of the mind.”
For Augustine, memory is more than mere recollection; it involves the imagination, and the skills which come from the disciplines of the liberal arts, including, as he points out, the realm of literature.
Drawing on Plato and his followers, Augustine comes to believe that memory is not a looking back to something long gone, but a “making present.” The Greek word for this is anamnesis. But unlike Plato, Augustine does not believe memory derives from a prior existence, but from the presence of God within the heart, within the fundamental constitution of our being.
Without memory, we literally would not know who we are, as all those movies about people with amnesia remind us.
Writers are among the chief guardians of memory and hence of identity. But how can a writer, such as Augustine, say, or one of you, succeed in this business of “making present”? Isn’t the sheer fact of putting something down on paper a way of entombing it in amber, rendering it as a mere account of what has happened and now gone?
Augustine did not believe this, and I am inclined to agree with him. His understanding of his own faith told him otherwise. If Christ were merely a historical figure, lost to the past, then faith in him would be meaningless.
Those who met Christ in the flesh experienced something exceptional, something supremely beautiful, beyond any form of beauty they had known before. Their encounter with him became an event that changed them. When the apostles finally recognized this exceptionality as God incarnate, they realized that in taking on our nature he is closer to us than we can be to ourselves. This is why Pope Benedict XVI can say: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person.”
So Christianity is not about communicating an idea or a message but the making present of an event. For Augustine, as for us, this happens in two ways: through our encounter with someone who has experienced the event in her life and through the Eucharist.
This explains why Book X of the Confessions ends with a celebration of the sacrament of Communion. In the Eucharist the presider says, repeating the words of our Lord, “Do this in memory of me.” Do this as an anamnesis of me.
At that moment, the human making of bread and wine is met by the divine making of God’s presence among us.
So, too, the making of literature can become the making present of the truth and goodness that are beautiful. For this to happen, our writing must not merely transcribe a past event but through its creative form meet the reader in a dance of shared discovery—one act of creativity meeting another, as in the Eucharist.
As we’ve discovered in reading Augustine together, for all his reputation as a stern moralist and dogmatist, the Bishop of Hippo understands faith as something closer to what he calls an “investigation.” “Human beings can put a question,” he writes, “so that the invisible things of God are understood and seen through the things which are made” (Rom. 1:20).
The Confessions are written in the form of a prayer. To prayer is, in essence, to ask a question. At their best and purest, prayer and literature are questions, forms of investigation, sonar pings sent outward seeking the shape of what lies beyond. They summon, or make present, what they seek. They enable us to see the beauties of the created order not as ends in themselves but in relationship to their origin, and thus to see them in their proper place. When that happens, we finally understand who we are.
As Augustine says in one of the most sublime passages in Book X:
“Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”
So, to the class of 2008, I say: strive to be true custodians of memory, deep investigators of truth, crafters of beauty who enable that beauty shine forth with transcendent meaning. Congratulations to you all.