Memory and Imagination

As a boy growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, I must say—quoting Evelyn Waugh’s description of his own youth—that “I had an idyllic childhood.” At the end of our street was Lake Erie and as kids, my friends and I would go swimming, fishing, sneaking around the backyards and beaches of the rich people whose houses were on the lake. The houses in our neighborhood were mostly built in the 1920s and 1930s; rare was the one that didn’t have a fireplace and they all had basements, many with fruit cellars or small rooms tucked under stairwells in them. I recall one time when we were young and playing at one of our friends’ homes, that we were near one of these rooms in the basement. Our imaginations were fired when my friend (whose home this was) indicated that his father or someone told him behind the door and beyond the room there was a passage that led underground to the shore of Lake Erie. Immediately we all wanted to explore! We began to ask questions: what was this tunnel used for? Who built it? When was it built? Were there pirates on Lake Erie? I don’t think any of us were thinking of the exploits of Commodore Perry and the War of 1812—but we did have a passing knowledge of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

A number of years later, I recalled this moment of my childhood when I was an undergrad at Loyola University of Chicago. I worked at the old Jesuit Residence answering phones and greeting guests at the old porter’s office. The Chapel of Madonna della Strada was about ½ a football field away from the residence and legend had it that there was an underground passage from the old JR to the crypt chapels of Madonna della Strada. Of course, having found this out, I had to leave the porter’s office one day to explore. Sure enough, I believe it was old Brother Brutus Clay, S.J. (of the famous Clay Family of Kentucky) who pointed out to me the door to the old passage. When I was there, it had since been almost permanently closed off and so I never got to explore it. In the past it was a convenient way for both the maintenance guys (i.e., the Brothers) to work on things in both buildings and for the Fathers to get over to say Mass.   But, once again, I had that same excitement and fired-imagination that I did years earlier in my friend’s house. So why this trip down memory lane? I use this as a means to introduce two things that are very important and are essential to our understanding if we are to speak of education generally and Catholic education in particular: memory and imagination.

Memory may be defined as “the faculty by which a person preserves, reproduces, and identifies his or her past experiences.” It is through memory that a person learns. An example: an infant climbs up on a chair to see what is atop a stove. Not recognizing the danger of a hot burner, he touches it and is burned. He feels pain and cries and, unless there is some sort of anomaly, he will not approach that burner again. Or consider another instance. A child is told that four quarters equals a dollar. When seeing his older brother with two dollar bills, he will be confident that he has the same value with his eight quarters; and that, if there is jealousy of any sort, it will be merely aesthetic, in that he prefers paper currency to coins (or a lighter pocket rather than a heavier one).

Memory is individual to each person (as we have just seen), but it may also be spoken of collectively. We speak of the Western Tradition or the classical tradition or the West and we know that it refers to the culture, mores, literature, and artistic tradition produced by the three great cities of Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome.   I have often thought that when the Sacred Author of the Gospel refers to Our Lord’s coming at “the fullness of time,” he very well may have been referring to the fact that these three pivotal cities were in the very bloom of their power and influence. Firstly, Jerusalem was the focal point of God’s self-revelation to man from the time of Fall and the promise of the Redeemer (Genesis 3:15), to His self-revelation to Moses and the Prophets, to the consummation of the Incarnation and Redemption wrought by Christ. In a word, it was the locus of faith. Athens was the seat of the Greek genius–from the world’s first imaginative literature of Homer, to the heights of philosophy in the 4th Century B.C. with Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Greece was also an artistic leader in sculpture and architecture. In a word, it was the locus of reason. Finally, Rome. During the time of the late Republic within the century that preceded the Incarnation, Rome had extended her influence throughout the entire known world. She controlled most of Europe and extended her influence as far west as the British Isles, as far East as modern-day Iran, and as far south as the middle of Africa. Roman organization and law was the envy of the world. In a word, it was the locus of government, law, and organization.

Memory was the very means by which Our Creator extended his Church and his plan for salvation for the whole human race. From the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, through Moses and the Exodus, we recall the constant admonition to “remember your Lord who led you out of the land of Egypt.” The inspired words of the Psalmist—the very prayers from God Himself that give voice to the longings of the human heart were remembered and passed down through generations of Hebrews in the story of salvation. Even the sublime chant we call Gregorian is, in reality, the same tones and cadences that the ancient Jews would have used to sing the Psalms at the time of Our Lord. Our Blessed Lord Himself constantly appealed to the memory to reveal the mystery of God: “What did Moses say…,” “What do the Prophets say…,” “It is written….”   Our Lord’s admonition to his apostles at the Last Supper was to “do this in memory of me” and as the Word is eternal it is still his admonition to the Church today. In in another place He says “go out to all the world, making disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all I have commanded you….” The implication in this latter passage is that the apostles recall and hold onto the teaching of Our Lord. Not simply the moral teaching, but all of his teaching—the entire revelation of God to the human race. It should also be mentioned here that we also ask Our Blessed Lord to remember us and not our sins. How many times have each of us echoed St. Dismas, the good thief, when we have asked our Lord to “remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Memory is spiritual and perhaps a touch of divinity within us.

If we have the conviction that God is our Creator, we must ask the question why did he give me a memory? Further, why does he ask us to use this memory? I would submit that the cultivation of memory is essential to any authentic education. Especially in the younger grades, memorization of the multiplication tables, poetry, and grammar is the very foundation upon which deeper thought can be built. The memory of the West is also a necessity to understand our culture and tradition. It is one thing to learn something, it is quite another to recall and use the thing learned to gain deeper insight or to build upon it. The former, a transient experience; the latter, wisdom.

The imagination is another place where man can know that he is a spiritual being. He can extend himself to places he has never been; he can create worlds through literature and art and storytelling; he can give expression to his emotions and plumb the innermost depths of his soul through music or poetry. In this way, one can share his imagination with others. Others can come to understand the truly human things: love, virtue, vice, suffering, joy and laughter not only through one’s own experiences but also through the imaginations of others. Aesop, in personifying the natural world and its inhabitants, articulated in a pithy way virtue. Our Lord engaged the imagination of his disciples and others when he taught through parables.   People understood the size of a mustard seed and the size of the bush that it produced; they understood the basics of an agrarian life and how a seed needed certain conditions for the success of its growth; and people understood how radical an expression of love it was in caring for a hated enemy suffering on the side of a road.

In the medieval era, fairy stories—grown and nurtured in the fertile soil of Christendom—were analogues to the working of grace in the human soul. We all know these stories: there is a problem; an admonition to do or not to do something; a spell put on a house or a kingdom (perhaps deserved, perhaps undeserved); there is a way out, a feat to be accomplished, an heroic action to be done, a dragon to be slain, and, in every case, to be done virtuously (i.e., selflessly). And the resolution: the beautiful princess, good crops, a good marriage, many children, and…”they lived happily ever after.” These are true stories, because they hold up a mirror to reality. We do live in a fairy story: we enter into a world beset by many problems, each of us has a dragon to slay (primarily our own selfishness), and while doing the right thing may not bring us worldly acclaim or wealth—it brings us to the gate of the kingdom prepared for us, where the King will welcome us and say “well done good and faithful servant.”

The world is “charged with the grandeur of God.” The imagination is the means by which we can learn profound truths about the world, man, and God. As St. Paul says, “For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity: so that they are inexcusable.” One need only to look around, along with Paul and Fr. Hopkins, at the mystery behind the created realities that surround us. Immersion in fairy stories and the conviction that miracles can and do happen places us and our children squarely in a posture to be receptive to the gifts God wishes to lavish upon us. For then, the smallest of everyday things become enchanted pathways to another world. Like Lucy and Edmund walking through a wardrobe to a new enchanted land or my attempting to find the secret passage to Lake Erie in the fruit cellar of my friend’s house, we can come to understand the reality of the miracles that happen every day. We can see, really see, for the first time the hidden architecture of things and the mysteries of creation. We can see the realities of miracles and the supernatural like a multifaceted diamond. Not only do we recall and rejoice with the wedding guests that the Lord gave them more wine—and even the best wine!—but we, with an imagination firmly fixed on truth, also have the conviction that the reason for this wonder was that the “water blushed at sound of her Lord’s voice.”

Ed. Note. This reflection on “Memory and Imagination” by Mr. DeJak was the introduction to a longer talk on Catholic Liberal Arts Education given to Catholic educators in the Diocese of Albany at Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine, Auriesville, NY. July 21, 2017.


This article, Memory and Imagination is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.

John M. DeJak

John M. DeJak is an attorney and Latin teacher and works in academic administration. He writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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