I stood for a little while in Westminster Hall last night as a dear friend reflected on the building. Just imagine, he observed, that when St Thomas More, St Edmund Campion and the proto-martrys of the Henrician revolution stood condemned in this very building, they probably looked up and saw the same immense angels carved in wood and the same expansive medieval ceiling. Breathing the same air, their eyes raised to the same glorious architecture, they were then led away to their deaths.
As he was speaking a gaggle of parliamentary guests came streaming across the hall and bustled passed us, so many...
I had not thought death had undone so many ...
Well, that's a little bit harsh perhaps! But their obliviousness was suddenly fixed in my mind as a symbol of the obliviousness of us all as we totter around on a daily basis, treading on the graves of deep, Christian history and saintly fact.
A couple of years ago I was asked to organise a little trip around Wessex for some visiting American students. I did so happily and we have just done it again barely two weeks ago. What struck me the first time, and once more on this occasion, was again the depth and richness of our past and the extent to which it goes mostly ignored. Who in the Thames Valley enthusiastically celebrates it as the scene of the mission of Saint Birinus, sent by Pope Honorius, or the location of Alfred the Great's many battles against the Danish pagans? Not many, that's for sure, although such events are rather more crucial to its deepest identity than the presence of Microsoft or Huntley and Palmer's biscuits.
One of the main arguments in a recent paper I gave on the Ballad of the White Horse was that the ballad reflects very powerfully on the problem of remembering and forgetting, not as pure cognitive processes or failures, but as essential signs of our moral life. What we remember and what we forget are indicative of who we are and of the direction in which our moral compass points. Generally speaking, remembering is associated with continuity, gratitude, stability or perseverance; forgetting with an inward-turning fracture in our identity. The only two kinds of forgetfulness which are in fact allowed are humility (forgetfulness of self) and acceptance of forgiveness (forgetfulness of our offences).
But remembering and forgetting are no simple processes. As I write France is gearing up for a day of celebrations to mark the liberation of the Bastille Prison during the French Revolution. This seems to be an example of what one historian has called 'invented tradition' in which a community commemorates some past event and attributes to it some meaning which it did not possess. The Bastille Prison after all contained few prisoners.
If one sin against memory is the sin of forgetting, another sin against memory is the sin of false recal. On the social level, we can call this invented tradition; on the individual level, I suppose it can be associated with nostalgia. But nostalgia is not so much invented as blurred; nostalgia, in other words, involves a heavy dose of analgesia. I need hardly say that this is one of the great dangers of the conservative moment which is pressing itself upon the Church currently. We are passing successfully out of the period of great forgetfulness (and, yes, frank denial) which marks the years since Vatican II. We must not now counter its profound ills by turning instead to an equally false recall of the past.
There is a third category of sin against memory for which I fail to find a name. It is the kind of memory which asserts itself over authority in the supernatural order. Because I remember it THIS way, that is the way it was and is. In other words, individual memory can be privately canonised, just as much as individual judgment can, and, I would argue, with similarly disastrous consequences. In the natural order, this is a much more vexed question. We have already commented on false recall on the public level, and individual memory might well assert itself against official invented traditions. On the other hand, individuals themselves are quite capable of false recall or indeed of inventing the past in their own interests; this is often the case with war criminals who try to deconstruct the past actions of which they stand accused. In all cases, memory stands in need of purification, just as much as our judgments do.
My theme is memory, as Charles Ryder says. Last night I went out onto the terrace of the Houses of Parliament and recognised a lady whom my friend and I had known many years ago and whose daughter is now an MP. We approached her and greeted her enthusiastically, asking her how she was.
'Do I know you, young man?' she said to me somewhat coldly.
'You do,' I replied, as I gave her my name.
'Ahhhh,' she cried, dropping her walking stick and flinging her arms around me in a genuine, rib-cracking Scouser bear hug (for she is from Liverpool).
And that is another thing memory can do for you.