Prayer as the Practice of Memory

Prayer begins as the most spontaneous of acts: pain, gratitude, anger. It occurs in fragments. It is experienced abruptly without transitions.

But as it continues, it develops subterranean connections – gathering and arranging – and it becomes our most comprehensive action. Prayer matures into the practice of memory…

So writes Eugene Peterson in his little book on the Psalms as tools for prayer titled, “Answering God.” Praying the Psalms he suggests is a process of recovering our memory, including the memory of our sin.

The most persistent manifestation of sin is to obliterate the memory of sin. This is accomplished by blurring our connection with God…

The erosion of memory is about the deterioration of knowing God as the centre and circumference of our lives.

Most of our lives consists in what God has done – creating us, speaking to us, loving us. If we are not able to remember any of this, we are bereft of the richest dimensions of our being.

Peterson says that without memory we are prayerless, and being “prayerless we speak gibberish.”

Memory is the mysterious capacity we have for gathering the fragments of experience into a large context that is comprehensive and coherent…

Prayerless we repeat a dreary round of pious, or not so pious, emotions. Nothing “adds up” in such a life. No meaning accumulates. Prayer develops our memory with God…

The Psalms train our memories, Peterson says, as they help us “establish connections with the deepest experiences of which we are capable”; they connect us across the generations.

It becomes evident as we do this that memory is not nostalgia. Memory is not an orientation to the past; it is vigorously present tense, selecting out of the storehouse of the past, retrieving and arranging images and insights, and then hammering them together for use in the present moment…

Prayer is an act of memory. If we confine ourselves to one-generational knowledge here, or even worse, to our own conversation-experience knowledge, we are impoverished beyond reason.

From Chapter 9: Memory, “Answering God.”

Interestingly Susan Phillips affirms that this is the job of spiritual direction:

Spiritual directors extend the gift of memory to the directee…

… the memory of that sacred moment floats to the side of the stream and rises to the surface where the water stills and pools. There in that shattered estuary we look and marvel at it… we cease our forward motion across the surface of time and space, experience sensation and feeling, and notice what vibrates beneath words and concepts. We touch and examine the memory, breathe in its fragrance, sense its texture. Stopping to attend to it allows its reality to sift down into our experience, becoming more deeply sedimented in memory and flesh…

Spiritual directors help preserve such memories.

From “Candlelight: Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction“, Susan S. Phillips, p.38ff

In this dis-membering world, where memories erode and blur, we are continually invited back to remember: remember His blessing, remember His story, remember Him – as in communion we “do this to remember me” Jesus reminds.

So much of spiritual healing and spiritual maturity has to do with how we engage with God in our memories, of looking and finding Him there at every stage, every event, every moment. So much of our prayer is an act of sacred memory – of holy re-membering in a dis-membered world.


About R.H. (Rusty) Foerger

As I enter the third third of life, I am becoming aware of the role of elders today “to enlarge spiritual vision, being devoted to prayer, living in the face of death, as a living curriculum of the Christian life” (Dr. James M. Houston). I am a life long and life wide learner who seeks to: *decipher the enigma of our worth *rescue from the agony of prayerlessness *integrate spiritual friendship.
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