I was reminded of a Madeleine L’Engle story last Sunday because Jake, one of our divinity students, mentioned it in his sermon last Sunday. L’Engle spoke of a couple with a very precocious young daughter who was not thrilled at the prospect of having to share the house with a soon-to-arrive baby brother. Soon after they brought the baby home from the hospital, the little girl announced she needed to see the baby – alone. The parents were a bit hesitant, but the girl was insistent, so they agreed, but stood with the door cracked so they could hear what was happening without her knowledge. They listened as she pulled a chair over and climbed up into the crib with the infant, and then they heard her say, “Tell me about God; I’m forgetting.”
Life, faith, and memory are inextricably connected. How, then, do we remember?
Daniel Levitin is making me think. Hard. Our brains, he explains, create frameworks of understanding, or schemas, in order to make sense of the world and to give it some sort of structure and form. Because change is a constant and because our brain is constantly receiving new information, those schemas are always under revision and are an extension of memory: part of the structure the brain creates depends on what it remembers of what happened before. We remember names, dates, experiences, smells, sounds, images – to name a few – and, of course, songs. But when we talk about remembering music, we must also remember:
The most important way that music differs from visual art is that it is manifested over time. As tones unfold sequentially, they lead us – our brains and our minds – to make predictions about what will come next. (125)
As the brain give structure and form to the good vibrations, it has to do so over time, in real time, as the melody unfolds. There’s more:
Most astonishing was that the left-hemisphere regions that we found we active tin tracking musical structure were the very same one that are active when deaf people are communicating by sign language . . . We found evidence for the existence of a brain region that processes structure in general, when the structure is conveyed over time. (130)
Making music in our brain is multi-tasking at its best, as is remembering the songs we’ve heard. Making memories is much like making sense of the vibrations: the brain goes back to put back together – to re-member – what it knew before. Our faith is as old as the songs. We’ve been singing about and to Whoever’s Out There as long as we’ve been able to imagine that there is a God and it’s not us. Faith, like music and memory, is conveyed over time.
The Genesis account of how the universe came into being uses a week as a metaphor to say God didn’t just belch us into being, but took time to let the oceans flow, the mountains rise, the creatures find their places, and the sun to set. And it was good. Jesus didn’t drop into the world as a fully formed Messiah, but came into the world as a baby born in a barn and grew up over time. On the night he was betrayed, he ate with his disciples and said, “As often as you do this, remember me.” And then they sang a song together.
How, then, do we re-member who God is? How do we put things back together over time?
A number of years ago, Ginger and I got to go to Israel and Palestine. The Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives was one of the places where our guide said we could be sure we were walking where Jesus had walked. (Some of the other sites were not so verifiable.) The root systems of the olive trees there go back to Jesus’ time. I had recently been in a production of Godspell, and as I sat in the garden I remembered one of the songs I had sung:
on the willows there
we hung up our lyres
for our captors there
required of us songs
and our tormentors mirth
saying sing us one of the songs of Zion
sing us one of the songs of Zion
but how can we sing
sing the Lord’s songs
in a foreign land
The Israelites held captive in Babylon couldn’t imagine how to re-member their songs and their faith when they were so far from home. How could they put the structure of their lives back together when they were far from what they knew to be safe and secure? But that is when we need to sing most, for it is the songs and the repertoire of memories they carry in their melodies, that help us re-member ourselves, re-member our faith, so we can do what all the king’s horses could not.
A song playing comprises a very specific and vivid set of memory cues. Because the multiple-trace memory models assume that context is encoded along with memory traces, the music that you have listened to at various times in your life is cross-coded with the events of those times. That is, the music is linked to events of the time, and those events are linked to the music. (166)
Over all the years of youth camps I have done, Communion has been a last night tradition. One year, Ginger and I were at camp with John Brashier and, as we finished Communion, I put Sarah McLachlan in the CD player:
I will remember you
will you remember me
The emotion in the room was palpable. “That song is full of memories,” he said.
“It seems like a good time to unpack them,” I answered. We stood and watched as the memories rode in on the words and music and the individuals in the room re-membered themselves and put themselves back together, again.
Come, tell me about God. I keep forgetting. Let us re-member together.