A child getting lost in a store—this is a familiar scene in movies. Mom tells her rambunctious boy to stay very close to her. With all the honesty of intention he can muster he promises to do so; no one wants to get lost. But he is a little boy, with a very short attention span. Soon he finds himself fascinated by the sight and sound of things around him. First one step toward an especially enticing display, then a second, a third and a fourth … until unexpectedly, unintentionally he realizes that he is separated from his mother. He had forgotten her, but suddenly he remembers her. This memory makes him aware of his own dependence on her, and, without her, his fundamental vulnerability. Not knowing how to find her, he begins to cry.
Straying from God by sinning bears several resemblances to this episode. The significant difference is that the Old Testament accounts of sin concern adults, not children. Time and again the chosen people become spiritually lost, even after stern warnings. Moses was an expert in religious psychology. He keenly grasped people’s propensity to get distracted, to forget God, and to neglect their duties to God. This is why he exhorted the chosen people not to forget the marvelous works that God performed to liberate them from slavery in Egypt. “Take heed, lest you forget …” is a refrain in Deuteronomy (vv. 4:9, 23; 6:12). To obey the Law of the Lord, Israel must maintain a lively memory of the great works of liberation. “Take heed lest you forget the LORD your God, by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes.” (Deut. 8:11) Failure to keep God’s commandments is the certain sign that the people have forgotten God.
For Israel, the crisis of faith is precisely this disjuncture between a God-centered yesterday and a God-absent today. Faith in God’s marvelous works is supposed to shape His people’s future, to give direction to their freedom, the very freedom that is God’s gift. But they forget it is a gift. They take hold of their freedom as if it were not fragile and easily lost, as if God had nothing to do with it. They are like the prodigal son, who took hold of his inheritance and used it without any concern for, or reference to, his father. He cut himself off from his father, his father’s faith, and the entire tradition of faith that the father wanted to pass along to him. Leaving them behind in forgetfulness, he lives as if he could create his life ex nihilo, with no thought to his past. The intensity of his focus on the pleasures of the present cut him off from any memory of his father and his past. Until, that is, he began to suffer. He found out that freedom without memory self-destructs. Reduced to a terrible loss of freedom, he suddenly remembers his father’s house. Suffering is the catalyst for the kind of remembering that leads to conversion.
This connection between suffering and a salutary re-activation of memory is the key to understanding the mission of the Old Testament prophets. They always repeat the warning of Moses. When the people forget God—and the certain indication of this is that they do not care for the poor and they worship other gods—the prophets function as the conscience of the people. The goal of their preaching is to rekindle the people’s memory. And if the exhortation to remember is not heeded, they predict a purifying calamity that will elicit a salvific remembering and a return to God, like that of the prodigal son. For the prophets, the first step in conversion is an act of faith that remembers.
Pope St. John Paul II, for whom conversion was a central theme of his pontificate, was attentive to this great biblical theme.
In order to make concrete the gravity of the accusation and thus elicit a conversion that flows from the sincerity of the heart, Moses appeals to the memory: “Think back on the days of old, reflect on the years of age upon age.” (Deut. 32:7) In fact, biblical faith is a “memorial,” namely, a rediscovering of God’s eternal action spread over time; it is to make present and effective that salvation that the Lord has given and continues to offer man. Hence, the great sin of infidelity coincides with “forgetfulness,” which cancels the memory of the divine presence in us and in history. (General Audience, June 19, 2002)
The crisis in faith today is staggering: millions of baptized Catholics going weeks, months, even years without attending Mass, the unparalleled act of commemoration of the marvelous works of love that God has done for them. He created them and became a man to reveal what authentic human fulfillment is, namely, to be loved by God and to love Him and love others as Christ has loved us. He died on the Cross in order to prove His love and to make this fullness of life possible. He established His Church on the foundation of the Apostles so that the truth of His revelation and the power of His Resurrection should become His gift to them in Baptism.
For these millions, there is no room for God in their consciousness because it is filled to overflowing with preoccupations with things of a “world that is passing away.” (I Cor. 7:31) God has been crowded out by an obsession with things that cannot satisfy their deepest aspirations. The words of Jeremiah apply: “They have forsaken Me, the source of living waters; they have dug themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that hold no water.” (Jer. 2:13) They do not turn to the source of the water that gives life, namely, the pierced side of Jesus. (cf. Jn. 7:39; 19:34) They live as if God did not even exist, as if He had never done anything important enough to call to mind. They give their minds over to degrading trivializations, and then perhaps they remember Him when they need someone to blame for such a pitifully shallow existence—as if the prodigal son’s father were responsible for the plight of his son who had misused his freedom!
Today we speak of the influence of culture. Cultures carry values and quite effectively transmit them. To live in a culture is to breathe the air of its moral values. It is an ironic sign of the times that in our culture so much attention is given to concern over the quality of the air we breathe while the toxicity of the moral air—a culture of exhilaration (think of the rush of extreme sports, drugs, and gambling), hedonism, consumerism, relativism, a culture of death—is not only accepted but defended as congruent with human dignity and rights.
Just as the prodigal son could remain forgetful of his father so long as his money lasted, a God-less secular culture can only captivate and seduce people so long as the economy makes possible the prospect of unlimited pleasures. When that hope betrays them, the memory of God suddenly appears to fill the void of this betrayed hope. We witnessed this when there was a significant uptick in churchgoing after 9/11.
Does this mean that we can only wait until there is a calamity that will force people to remember God? It may come to that, and for this reason it is vital that mature disciples of Christ make Him present wherever there is severe suffering: hospitals, war zones, famine areas, etc. But this is by no means inevitable. The strategy of the popes of the New Evangelization—Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis—is much more than an updated version of the strategy of Moses and the prophets. The goal is always the same, namely, to prompt an act of memory of faith. But the New Evangelization focuses on what Moses and the prophets could only point to as a future promise, namely, Jesus Christ.
Jesus is the “perfect man” Who reveals to us the fullness of life to which we are called. In Christ, we are all called to bear witness to this fullness of life. This is why Pope John Paul kept repeating that we are all called to holiness. Holy men and women who are fully alive in Christ are living evidence of the power of God’s love. Their witness to a fully human life is the most powerful inducement for otherwise sleeping memories of God to wake up. This is why Pope Benedict XVI, in particular, and after him Pope Francis with his apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, have challenged those with living faith, that is, those who remember God daily, to live in the joy of the gift of Holy Spirit so that people who do not know this joy may encounter it and compare their pitiful pleasures to the deep and abiding joy of living in the certainty of being loved. The witness of Christian holiness, love, and virtue is the catalyst by which dormant memories come out of hibernation to remember God and His promises, to pass judgment on their foolishness, to hope anew in His promises, and to return to their Father’s house.
Douglas G. Bushman, S.T.L., is Professor of Theology at the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colorado, where he holds the Pope St. John Paul II the Great Chair of Theology for the New Evangelization.