Monday, September 2, 2013

Pope St. Gregory the Great & the Memory of God

Although Pope St. Gregory died on March 12, his feast day is celebrated every September 3rd by the Catholic Church. He is the second pope to be styled “the great” who lived from 540 to 604 A.D. And if there was any Saint that inspired him the most, it had to be St. Benedict who had died just as Gregory was coming into this world.

In Gregory’s book called, The Dialogues, the Holy Father detailed the life and miracles of St. Benedict. At this time, in the late sixth century, the Roman Empire had fallen into ruins. Christian civilization or what is better known as Western Civilization, was in its embryonic form. The ideals which inspired the people of God at the time were, to put it simply, Christ and eternal happiness. Indeed, the Christians were not held back from the nostalgia of the good old days of Rome like the pagans were. No, they were pressing forward. Daily, as the Church gathered before the altar, they petitioned the Father, “Thy kingdom come.” It was in this where their hope rested.

But in order to garner this hope and make it come alive, each Catholic was called upon to meaningfully meditate on the kingdom of heaven. In book four of The Dialogues Pope St. Gregory the Great provides an insight as to why the average person might have difficulty in doing this. He begins by saying that although Adam was expelled from Paradise, he still retained the memory of what he enjoyed. And I would add that it is Adam's memory of God that Christ came to restore in each of us:

“[F]or although he was exiled from the joys of Paradise, yet did he still keep in memory what he had lost, because he had before beheld the same: but these men [i.e. people who struggle to believe that such a world exists] can not by any means call to mind such things as they hear others speak of, because they never had of them any former experience as our first father Adam had.”

Yet, it is believed by some, including Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, that when the Lord creates each soul, that soul retains a vague memory of God. This memory and longing for the Divine is particularly fresh and alive in children whose innocence inspires such an enchanted imagination about the world in which he or she lives. The world is full of dreams and possibilities to children. It is only later, in the adulthood years, that the world becomes smaller and our outlook on life becomes more skeptical.

Unfortunately, our memory is unable to recall an image or a face that we so desperately want to see. But God, nevertheless, leaves a divine impression on our soul; a kind of longing for him lingers in each person as a result. It is not until we meet God face to face upon our passage that we can say, “We are home! This is what we were created for!”

In the meantime, we press forward in this dark world and experience God indirectly through faith but not by sight. We read the Gospel story, we hear about miracles and have even experienced God’s providence through answered prayer, but we still have to rely on our dim memory of God in order to believe. Sometimes it can happen that we wonder: "Is this really true? Does heaven, angels and Saints really exist?" To help us, Gregory the Great used an apt analogy to convey the truth about our impaired memory:

“[I]f a woman pregnant with child should be put in prison, and be there delivered of a son, which never went forth, but were there continually brought up: for if his mother should tell him of the sun, moon, stars, mountains: and speak of the fields, the flying of birds, and running of horses; her child, that had continually been brought up in the prison, and acquainted with nothing else but black darkness, might well hear what she said, but with a doubt whether it were true or no, because experience taught him not any such thing. Even so, men that are born in this dark world, the place of their banishment, do hear that there be wonderful, strange, and invisible things.”

This is where the Church comes in. Gregory’s successor, Pope Francis taught in his recent encyclical, The Light of Faith, that the Church has a memory to guide and strengthen our own memory of God. He writes:

“As a service to the unity of faith and its integral transmission, the Lord gave his Church the gift of apostolic succession. Through this means, the continuity of the Church’s memory is ensured and certain access can be had to the wellspring from which faith flows…The Church is a Mother who teaches us to speak the language of faith. Saint John brings this out in his Gospel by closely uniting faith and memory and associating both with the working of the Holy Spirit…”

The Holy Spirit, sent by God the Father and God the Son, infallibly preserves the memory of himself in the Church. But through the Church the Holy Spirit is given to us precisely for the purpose of making our memory of him more explicit, more credible and more animated. As such, our hope in the coming of his kingdom is made more secure.

And even when civilization seems to falter and the world in which we live does not deliver on its promises, we are assured, like the son who was born in prison, that the small world in which we live will release us into a much bigger and more beautiful world.