I’m probably one of the most forgetful people you will ever meet, and I don’t know how it happened. I played piano growing up and managed to memorize seven-page pieces. I’ve memorized countless Bible verses, too, through a Christian kids program called AWANA. But now, for whatever reason, I forget the stupid easiest things to remember. My poor students at school this last year had to deal with me asking them, over and over again, “What’s your name?” By May, some decided to begin their conversations with, “Mr. Holowaty, I’m [insert name], about my grade….”
It’s not all my fault. None of us purposely choose to forget where we left our keys or wallets. But a lot of the time, I’m not entirely blameless. There are times when it’s not so much that I forget as it is that I choose to not remember. And nowhere is this tendency more dangerous than in my Catholic faith.
The book of Psalms is the biggest book in the Bible. It contains around 150 songs of worship in it. And when you read through them, you begin to see how preoccupied the composers were with remembering. This one sums it up well:
“If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget,
May my tongue stick to my palate if I do not remember you,
If I do not exalt Jerusalem beyond all my delights.” -Ps. 137:5-6
In this Psalm, the singer is singing as a captive in a foreign land. His holy city, Jerusalem – and by extension his old way of life, his old culture, his religion – had been smashed to pieces. And he cries from his heart that even in a place where no one knows God, he will never cease to remember.
The Psalm right before this one is like a mini history lesson, recounting the great deeds God had done for Israel. The lines actually go back and forth between describing some miraculous work God had done for Israel and then declaring (to lay it on thick) “for His mercy endures forever.”
“Who alone has done great wonders
For His mercy endures forever,
Who skillfully made the Heavens
For His mercy endures forever…..
Who split in two the Red Sea
For His mercy endures forever,
And led Israel through its midst
For His mercy endures forever….”
Ps. 136:4-5, 13-14
Repetition, repetition, repetition. Never forget!
You might think, though, “Isn’t that what makes the Catholic faith so boring?” I can see the glaze come over the eyes of some of my students when I start talking about a Bible story they’ve heard maybe a thousand times before. Goodness, I remember the glaze that would come over my eyes when some preacher would bring up David and Goliath or some other familiar story making the same exact point the previous hundred speakers made before him – “His mercy endures forever!” I feel like shouting, “I know! I heard that the first 99 times!”
But the longer I trek in the faith, the more those same stories push down deeper and deeper. It’s how we slowly discover our spiritual blind spots and connect the dots.
“We’re on the verge of divorce. Does God’s mercy really endure forever?”
“My child has left the faith. Does God’s mercy endure forever?”
“I have cancer, and it’s terminal. Does God’s mercy endure forever?”
The words are the same, but they mean something more profound. Our eyes see a little more. Our hearts get a little wider.
Remembering God or remembering our faith in the Biblical sense isn’t just a matter of recalling something we haven’t thought of in awhile. It’s remembering in the moments when we need to – when we are about to succumb to fear or anxiety, or when we are about to make a really stupid decision we’ll regret later. We say the same words every week in the Catholic liturgy, pray the same prayers, read the same passages from the Bible year after year, and perhaps, for some of us, even recite the same Hail Mary each day. In the wisdom of the church, our mother, we do this not as an incantation to ward off evil, but at least partly in an effort to remember what matters. If we don’t do this, we know we’ll quietly, almost imperceptibly slip into all sorts of sins.
All sorts of sins. . . preceded by that tiny little mustard seed of another sin, so small you could almost call it an innocent mistake: the sin of forgetfulness.
©2018 Jon Holowaty