Monday, July 16, 2012

"Memory awakens hope"
Ratzinger/Benedict on how the past grounds the future

As the author of My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, one of my favorite parts of the book is something I didn't write. It is a quotation from Seek That Which Is Above, a book of short reflections published in 1985 by Joseph Ratzinger, in which the future Pope Benedict XVI writes about how "memory awakens hope":

In one of his Christmas stories Charles Dickens tells of a man who lost his emotional memory; that is, he lost the whole chain of feelings and thoughts he had acquired in the encounter with human suffering. This extinction of the memory of love is presented to him as liberation from the burden of the past, but it becomes clear immediately that the whole person has been changed: now, when he meets with suffering, no memories of kindness are stirred within him. Since his memory has dried up, the source of kindness within him has also disappeared. He has become cold and spreads coldness around him. In other words, it is only the person who has memories who can hope. ...

Recently a counselor who spends much of his time talking with people on the verge of despair was speaking in similar terms about his own work: if his client succeeds in recalling a memory of some good experience, he may once again be able to believe in goodness and thus relearn hope; then there is a way out of despair.
I was rereading that passage the other day and realized that there was something about it that was very familiar. This idea that calling to mind the past was necessary for building hope in the future ... where had I read that before?

Then I remembered. I had read it in another essay of Ratzinger's, published nearly twenty years earlier in December, 1964, just after the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, Lumen gentium, was promulgated. That earlier essay ends with a section titled "Renewal from Origins—toward Hope," in which Ratzinger asserts that renewal of the Church, in order to be true renewal, must be rooted in the Church's history:

The obligatory norm of renewal can only come about by a new orientation from its origin. The Church cannot be manipulated at will. The Church cannot become up-to-date according to the wishes of the times; Christ and his Church cannot be accommodated to the times and their fashions; it is the different times that must be measured by the norm of Christ. Here lies the diference between genuine and false reformation and renewal which, at first sight, may look so much alike that they are apt to be confused. ...

As the faith of the Old Testament has a twofold orientation, in terms of time: one toward the past, namely, the miracle of the Red Sea by which Israel was saved from the Egyptians and which was the founding of its existence as the People of God; and one forward, toward the days of the Messiah, in which the promises made to Abraham would be fulfilled; so the historical existence of the Church has two poles: it is referred back to its founding in the death and resurrection of the Lord, and forward to his Second Coming when he will fulfill his promise of making of the world a new heaven and a new earth.

Thus, the Church, while, and exactly because, it is based on the past, is turned toward the things that are to come "in hope." The basic attitude of the Christian is not marked by restoration but by hope. In its effort for renewal the Church sheds the entanglements of history not to restore an ideal state of the past, but to move toward the Lord, to be free for his new call. In turning to him the Church moves into the future knowing full well that the ultimate future can be no other than Christ.
It seems that, for the Church as well as the individual, memory awakens hope.

Something tells me that Benedict probably developed this idea in his habilitation thesis, The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, especially since he said something very similar yesterday in his Angelus message on the Seraphic Doctor:
[Ephesians 1:3-14] contains the Pauline view of history that St. Bonaventure has helped to spread in the Church: all of history is centered on Christ, who guarantees novelty and renewal in every age. In Jesus, God has spoken and given everything, but because He is an inexhaustible treasure, the Holy Spirit never ceases to reveal and actualize His mystery. Therefore, the work of Christ and the Church never regresses, but always progresses.
As priest, bishop, and now Pope, Benedict has been trying to deliver us this clear-eyed understanding of Christian hope—what it means to live between the "now" and the "not yet"—for a long time.

*From "The Pastoral Implications of Episcopal Collegiality," Ratzinger's contribution to volume 1 of Concilium (1964).