The Cure for Amnesia

Year A, Maundy Thursday

I Corinthians 11:23-26

I once read a book by a famous neurologist, Oliver Sacks, entitled The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales. The book is about odd brain disorders, such as amnesia. Most of us are familiar with amnesia through cartoons and soap operas. Amnesia is usually portrayed as a sort of comic or melodramatic loss of memory: Bugs Bunny whacks Elmer Fudd on the head with a mallet, and he forgets who he is for twelve hilarious minutes, until an anvil falls on him and miraculously his memory returns.

Such are the popular, and often funny, associations we have with the word “amnesia.” But in his book, Dr. Sacks describes the very real and very sad case of Jimmie, who suffers from amnesia brought on by years of heavy drinking. Jimmie’s amnesia is so severe that he must live in a nursing home, which happens to be run by an order of nuns. Dr. Sacks meets him there in 1975, when Jimmie is fifty years old, but Jimmie believes it’s 1945 and says he hasn’t turned twenty yet. Jimmie has absolutely no memory of the thirty years between 1945 and 1975, and he is incapable of creating or retaining new memories.

At one point, Dr. Sacks confronts Jimmie with his own reflection in a mirror, and Jimmie reacts with horror: “Is this a nightmare? Am I crazy? Is this a joke?” Two minutes later, Jimmie greets Dr. Sacks as if they’re meeting for the first time. Episodes such as this one lead the good doctor to wonder whether Jimmie has a soul. Dr. Sacks writes:

One tended to speak of him, instinctively, as a spiritual casualty– a ‘lost soul’: was it possible that he had really been ‘de-souled’ by a disease? ‘Do you think he has a soul?’ I once asked the Sisters. They were outraged by my question, but could see why I asked it. ‘Watch Jimmie in chapel, they said, ‘and judge for yourself.’

I did, and I was moved, profoundly moved and impressed, because I saw here an intensity and steadiness of attention and concentration that I had never seen before in him or conceived him capable of. I watched him kneel and take the Sacrament on his tongue, and could not doubt the fullness and totality of Communion, the perfect alignment of his spirit with the spirit of the Mass. Fully, intensely, quietly, in the quietude of absolute concentration and attention, he entered and partook of the Holy Communion. He was wholly held, absorbed, by a feeling. There was no forgetting, no [amnesia] then, nor did it seem possible or imaginable that there should be; for he was no longer at the mercy of a faulty and fallible mechanism– that of meaningless sequences and memory traces– but was absorbed in an act, an act of his whole being, which carried feeling and meaning in an organic continuity and unity, a continuity and unity so seamless it could not permit any break.

Clearly Jimmie found himself, found continuity and reality, in the absoluteness of spiritual attention and act. The Sisters were right– he did find his soul here.

In the Mass, Jimmie finds the cure for his amnesia—not in a miraculous healing of his body, but in a cure that restores his human dignity and reveals the depths of soul that lie unplumbed at the core of his being. In a way, I believe that Jimmie’s case is merely a more advanced state of our own amnesia. We all forget from time to time what makes life meaningful and we neglect our baptismal promise to “respect the dignity of every human being.” I also believe that the same cure for this kind of forgetfulness and neglectfulness on our part is to be found where Jimmie found it: in the Mass.

Who knew that in the Eucharist we would find the cure for amnesia? But that’s exactly what the Eucharist is. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.”

When Paul wrote these words of Christ to the Corinthians, he used the Greek language. As a rule, I try not to bring Greek words into my sermons, because they either bog down the sermon or make the preacher look like a know-it-all—or both. But since most of you already know that I’m a know-it-all, I just can’t resist telling you that the word for “remember” in Greek is “an-amnesia,” the exact opposite of amnesia. We could translate the Greek word for remembrance quite literally as “un-amnesia.” So when I read Dr. Sacks’ account of Jimmie’s encounter with the Eucharist, I had to wonder whether Dr. Sacks realized that “This do in remembrance of me” was literally, “This do in un-amnesia of me.”

If we think of the Eucharist as the cure for amnesia, however, we are led inexorably to ask: What does our remembrance of Christ in the Eucharist actually do? Well, first off, memory makes the thing remembered present. When we remember Christ, we ask for his presence among us. “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am also,” Jesus said, and to be gathered together in Christ’s name is to remember Christ. I am reminded of the Gospel story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They do not recognize Jesus, they do not remember Jesus, until he breaks bread with them. Until they participate in the Eucharist of the Risen Lord, they are amnesiacs. But Christ’s Presence in the breaking of the bread cures them through un-amnesia, remembrance. When Christ says “there I am also,” he means he is present not merely in mind and heart,
but in reality.

Now this would be a lecture on psychology and not a homily if I were to offer up the view that our remembrance of Christ only makes Christ metaphorically present, “as if” he were here when we remember him. For we have all had, perhaps, moments of sentimental reminiscence, when we remember fondly how a loved one used to be: we see Grandpa’s old easy chair and remember vividly, if only for a moment, all the heroic stories he would
tell about the war, or we step back into our second grade classroom and remember what a strict disciplinarian Mrs. Obenaus was, and for a moment we can even feel her pulling painfully at our earlobes! Reminiscence, however, is not the same as remembrance.

For there is something about the Eucharist that makes Christ’s presence in and among us more than metaphorical, more than sentimental, more than merely psychological. And this something is the Holy Spirit. In the magnificent words of Thomas Cranmer’s majestic Eucharistic Prayer, after we remember Christ’s words, his “do this in remembrance of me,” the Celebrant prays:

“And we most humbly beseech thee, O merciful Father, to hear us; and, of thy almighty goodness, vouchsafe to bless and sanctify, with thy Word and Holy Spirit, these thy gifts and creatures of bread and wine, that we, receiving them, according to thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ’s holy institution, in remembrance of his death and passion, may be partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood.”

We invoke the Holy Spirit, in essence, to show us what the bread and wine of the Eucharist truly are, so that recognizing Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, the Holy Spirit may also cause us to remember ourselves as the Body of Christ, the Church. We remember Christ’s Body broken for us in the Eucharist so that the Holy Spirit may, through that broken Body, re-member, reconstitute us, as the Body of Christ present in the world.

In short, when we receive the Body of Christ, we become the Body of Christ. This is not a psychological truth or a metaphorical truth, but a truth of God’s Presence in, among, and through us. We are mysteriously brought into the life and work of Christ by being remembered as his Body. There’s a sentence derived from one of St. Augustine’s homilies that some celebrants use at the presentation of the gifts in place of the “Behold the Lamb of God:” “Behold what you are. Become what you behold.”

This bold statement reminds us—or rather, it helps us not to forget—that the Eucharist is not a thing but an act, the act of giving thanks to God in Christ, through Christ, and with Christ. As the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann has put it, “Remembrance is an act of love. God remembers us and His remembrance, His love, is the foundation of the world. In Christ, we remember. We become again beings open to love, and we remember. The Eucharist is the sacrament of cosmic remembrance: it is indeed a restoration of love as the very life of the world.”

Amnesia is a terrible thing not because it erases the past, but because it does not hold out any possibility of a future, or even a present. We experience memory in the present. And this experience of present memory enables us to have a future, to build a future, as well as to learn from our past. Without memory, community is impossible, but in the Eucharist, our memory of Christ is a memory not merely of past events, but of the promise of a future for the community of the Church. For when we remember Christ’s death, we also remember his resurrection. And when we remember his resurrection, we also remember his ascension. And when we remember his ascension, we also remember his coming again in glory, and are thereby equipped to do the work he has given us to do in this present age, now and in the future.

We have gathered here this evening to remember the night before Jesus was betrayed, the night, “yea, even this very night,” on which he instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper, the night in which he gave his disciples the example of love as service when he said “the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” We are here to remember, and to prepare for still further remembering. What strange amnesiacs we are, who need to be reminded to remember! But we have the cure for our amnesia in the Eucharist, in the Real Presence of the Body of Christ, which makes us a part of his Body. The remembrance, or un-amnesia, of the Body of Christ, is the cure for amnesia.

This Maundy Thursday, don’t forget to take your medicine.

About the Author

Fr. Humphrey is the rector of St. John’s. He’s happy when people read and appreciate his sermons online, but he really loves it when folks decide to hear them in person.

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