The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.
More Sermons from the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.

[Chalice] What Mean These Stones? [Chalice]
Cultural Memory and the meaning of the past.

Presented November 11, 2000, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

What special day is it today? Do you remember? Of course we all know that today is what in our culture we call Veterans' Day. In Canada, this day is called Remembrance Day. I like the Canadian version better, I think, because today is all about remembering. I think today is a good day to think about and to remember not only veterans and wars, but also bout the human activity of remembering.

Did you remember to set your clocks back a few weeks ago, to turn off the stove before you left the house, to put the dogs outside? Do you remember why it is that Veterans' Day is always today, always November 11? And what happens to you, inside of you when you try to remember, when you think back to that history class, to that knowledge of world wars, and try to remember just why we remember Veterans' on this particular day?

This is in fact how we live in memory, with memory, mostly on the shallow side of memory. Oh yes, we remember. We call some thing back to our minds: the date, oh yes the 11th , or a physical thing like our keys (I remember where I put them), or a fact thing like "Well, Nov. 11th is the end of W. W. I." The shallow side of our memory is the way our mind is oriented in the world and in time principally toward things, toward that which our mind understands in terms of their thingly nature.

This past Friday I asked about 40 of my students what holiday or special day was going to be observed over the weekend, and perhaps you would not be surprised to hear that only a couple knew it was Veterans' Day. And no one knew that Veterans' Day is remembered on this day because World War I ceased at the 11th hour of the 11 day of 1918. And I wonder: if my industrious colleagues and I taught our students about this so that when they were asked about Veterans' Day they all knew and were able to say: Oh yeah, I remember that. World War One ended on that day, if we were able to accomplish this with our students, would we then have reason to think ourselves successful? Do you think if we did that would we have taught our students something important about the past, about World War One, about America, about who they are, and about the human capacity of memory?

Who can think about memory without remembering St. Augustine, that great thinker who opened up for thought that other side of memory, the profound side of memory. To Augustine, human memory has is so much more important in human life than merely a function through which we call to mind facts, things. For Augustine, the human capacity to remember is almost a divine quality. The fact of our human capacity of memory radically changes how we live in and experience time. Because of memory, time doesn't just slip away into nothingness. Time is not simply a ship that disappears into the horizon because of memory. For Augustine, our human capacity to remember means that time both passes and is preserved and is miraculous. Human memory means that we are somehow miraculously connected not just to the present, to what is happeing now, but to all that has been, that is now almost gone but never entirely gone, because of memory. Human memory for Augustine is ultimately about connection, and he is thoroughly grateful to this human capacity to remember because it is through this profound side of human memory that connection doesn't end. Augustine even believes that our human power of memory connects us in some mysterious way with God's experience and the divine life because God is eternity and our human experience of memory gives us a little glimpse of God's power to preserve time in eternity.

But of all the amazing things Augustine says about memory, this is my personal favorite. At one point in the Confessions when he is explaining how amazing memory is and how it transforms our experience of the present he says: "I can remember the difference between the smell of lilacs and the smell of violets even though at the moment there are no violets or lilacs." This is the miracle of the deep side of memory, and we shouldn't forget that. As we think about our friend Mary Belle and what she is going through right now, we should remember that even now she lives in a present where she can remember the difference in the smell of lilacs and violets, and she can remember so many moments with friends now gone like Charlotte Winters, and she can remember and live even now in the live memory of so many of her friends here in this place and of how many wonderful times she had with you. That miracle of how humans live in time is happening now, and that is the deeper side of memory.

If we are to remember and to celebrate this day as Veterans Day or Remembrance Day, let's do so with reflection and awareness of just what human memory is and can do for us humans living temporarily on this earth. Nov. 11, the 11th hour of the 11th day of 1918, the end of W.W. I. Sure, I remember. A fact comes back to the mind thanks to the memory. But something so much more important happens thanks to memory. I remember being a very little boy and across the street where we living, in the house right across the street lived an old man, Albert Hunter, who to my five year old eyes may just as well have been named Methuselah. And he would tell me stories of the time when he was just a teenager and he had to leave his family's ranch in Wyoming and go to Europe in 1917 and fight in France in the First World War. And now everything I know or can remember factually about W. W. I know is somehow in the context of this relationship with this much older friend. Everything I know or can remember factually about W. W. I has meaning and relevance, is important, at least partly because of this relationship, and because of this narrative of someone's personal experiences.

And the same thing with World War II. Even before I knew much, had much factual knowledge about World War II to remember, to call to memory, I had a relationship with W.W. II. Through a narrative of someone else's experiences. I remember being very small and being interested in my grandfather's hunting guns. My grandfather explained that there was one particular gun that meant most to him. It was his cousins' squirrel hunting rifle, and his cousin gave it to him to hold in safe keeping while he was in World War II. And my grandfather told me he still had the gun because his cousin was killed in that war in the Pacific. And my grandfather told me that that was the only time a human being should pick up a gun, only when you have to to save your freedom or someone else's. And somehow everything I know about W.W. II is within my grandfather's narrative, or perhaps that everything I know about W. W. II factually is given meaning and significance and relevance already through this narrative.

When it comes to the question of our culture and history, of our culture's embarrassing ignorance of history, isn't it largely a matter of a lack of narrative experience, of a personal connection. What teacher hasn't heard: When did W. W. I end or when did W. W. II begin…why do we have to know that? Who cares? Is that going to be on the test? Students think of these things only as facts to be forgotten and remembered and forgotten. The only way they think of memory is in terms of its shallow side, perhaps because no one through narrative has initiated them into an awareness of the deep side of memory, of its ability to fill even fleeting and always passing time with relevance and meaning.

This of course brings us to the story of the crossing of the Jordan in the Hebrew Bible. One member of each tribe carries a stone from the other side of the river to commemorate the miracle that stopped up the flow of the river and enabled Israel to pass to the other side. And the stones are carried with the people but after a generation or two the children won't know why these stones are carried about with them. To the children, the stones will just be stones, and they will turn to their elders and ask: "What do these stones mean?" And of course the elders of the community will have something like a sacred obligation to tell a story, to connect the children with and within a narrative, and to teach them the deeper side of human memory.

When you are preaching to Unitarians you are always preaching to the choir. You don't need me to tell you about the importance of narrative, personal experience and connection, and the deeper side of memory. Yet, as Metz and a lot of people in education will tell you, narrative seems to be dying out, replaced unfortunately not so much by books but by TV, and video games, and other forms of visual entertainment. That deeper sense of memory seems to be losing out to the shallow side of memory. And that is something to remember and to think about as we all remember Veterans Day, as we remember what it is and why we remember it, and what meaning that memory could have for us. And I would like to learn more in the talk back period about what narratives are remembered and narrated in your families and told to your children so that this day, Veterans Day, can continue to take on meaning and significance.

©2000 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Robert J. S. 2000. What Mean These Stones? Cultural Memory and the meaning of the past., /talks/20001111.shtml (accessed July 16, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.
More Sermons from the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.