by Erik Vardem
Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.
According to the author the purpose of the book is modest. It chronicles an apprenticeship of remembrance. I have structured it around six biblical commandments to remember: commandments that, to me, have been beacons to navigate by. I have endeavored to write from experience. My book, therefore, will have many limitations. I offer it companionably, as an invitation to set out. Those who leave me behind to go further on their own will give me joy when I see their white sails in the distance. Ancient monks often prefaced their writings by saying: ’May what I have written be of use to you.’
The experience of loneliness is as universal as hunger or thirst. Because it affects us more intimately, we are less inclined to speak of it. But who has not known its gnawing ache? The fear of loneliness causes anguish. It prompts reckless deeds. No voice is more insidious than the one that whispers in our ear: “You are irredeemably alone, no light will piece your darkness.” The fundamental statement of Christianity is to convict that voice of lying. The Christion condition unfolds within the certainty that ultimate reality, the source of all that is, is a personal reality of communion, no metaphysical abstraction. Directing us towards this communion, Scripture invites us to remember who we are, where we come from, where we are going. This book examines different facets of Christian remembrance, complementing biblical exegesis with readings from literature. It aims to be an essay in theology. At the same time, it proposes a grounded reflection on what it means to be a human being.
In each chapter, a frieze of spiraling tendrils serves as a visual divider. It is a detail from the Vita Humana cycle uncovered at the abbey of the Fontane in the 1960s, during rebuilding. The cycle is a product of the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, a delightful example of Christian humanism in the Cistercian patrimony.
To be a monk is to inhabit a limitless universe. It is to be pulled towards a height and depth, length and breadth that touch infinity. When lived sincerely, monastic life is a habitat of transformation The Fathers describe how the monk’s heart is crushed, then opened, and, in the point containing the whole world, calling its plight to mind before God, recalling the world to God’s mercy. The monk’s heart, conformed to Christ’s is a tent of meeting. It tends upwards in a joy that is the more confident for having been tested. The joy that often eluded me as a young man is given me now. It is at once well-known and new. I see the darkness still. But it has lost its fascination. I know it has been pierced. ‘Even darkness is not dark to you”. Says Psalm 1:38.12) To speak of remembrance is to speak of identity. We remember what we have been, what has made us who we are. At the same time, we become what we remember. Our remembering is never confined to just experience, be it narrow or broad. We discover that memory is more than a stagnant pool of private recollection. To remember, really remember is to slip our moorings and set sail on the open sea. with all that entails of peril and exhilaration. Great minds have analyzed this process, from Plato through Augustine to Carl Gustav Jung and, in his own way, Proust.