I read the man’s notebooks and letters as I listened to a song on repeat. The bridge runs something like this:
Oh but please
Please wake me
For my love lies patiently
Please baby please
And my love life waits for me.
This track remains embedded in my memory and linked to what I read. I read of the young man’s loneliness and his home, and of the ennui and despair of wartime service that, compounded by broken appointments, lingered on leave. And I read of Advent’s hope-sowing and of Handel’s aria, “I know that my Redeemer lives.” The man wrote the following upon experiencing the aria: “In music I encounter an endlessly multifaceted realm. In its wake many things appear completely different to me.” I listened to Handel as I recognised in the author the power of redemption amidst deep longing for intimacy—a desire to get so close to another that one can not only hear the other’s heartbeat but hear what makes her heart beat. Though the author passed away long ago, the writings had such force of reality they moved me to tears. As with music, so too for texts: I was moved to consider the world otherwise.
Such an encounter with reality, mediated by the texts of someone long dead, is available to us all, even if reading these texts is not an enticing or even plausible prospect. Memory is at issue for us. Forgetfulness characterises much of Western modernity, and herein lies our task: we must remember and remember well as we read Scripture and as we listen to those voices that speak to and after Scripture. When we do, we grapple with the world as it really is—we encounter reality. The question of memory is important because it ultimately concerns who we are. It is a question of identity. We cannot take our identity whole cloth from our host culture, for such is to abandon what defines the “Christian thing” and what defines us as recognisably Christian. We must instead draw an essential aspect of our identity from that community whose culture traverses time because it receives its life from beyond time. That is, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. This will incur not only an exercise in remembering well but an expansion of our very selves in doing so. We moderns tend to negotiate the world from within the cramped space of our individual sovereignty, where we assiduously figure our desires and reconfigure them in moments of frustration. Faithful memory expands us. When we remember, we come to see ourselves truly as those who live from Christ’s own life, and we find ourselves stretched not only over our loved ones but many others besides, past and present.
I want to provoke you: when we dip into the orthodox Christian tradition and sit down to read a text, we sometimes find ourselves experiencing time so full of reality it is replete. The experience is not the primary reality. It is an indication that we bear witness to the deep mystery and truth of the Christian vision as it is given in different ways, over and over, to the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This is part of the theological context that locates Christian texts within the giftedness of all reality. I begin, therefore, with gift before speaking directly to the challenges of Western modernity. I close with a reflection on Joseph Ratzinger’s patient walk with Augustine and how we might grow as we read and grow in reading well. Throughout, I interweave three ways of thinking about Christian texts: as gifts, as icons, and as letters. My purpose is to encourage us to take time and read texts from the tradition, and not to whitewash problematic Christian texts. I’ll address the latter as we go.