Loss of Memory and the Persistence of Beauty - Cardinal Newman Society

Loss of Memory and the Persistence of Beauty

How to kéep—is there ány any, is there none such, nowhere known some,
bow or brooch or braid or brace, láce, latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, … from vanishing away?

—“The Leaden Echo,” Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

May, budding with dreams and hopes, also captures memories, as we recount the entwined joys and sorrows of the past academic year, with families and friends. How often we begin conversations with “Do you remember….,” and within moments a favorite storyteller is cajoled to regale the listeners, adding expressions, tones and gestures that heighten the amusement. Yet, even simultaneously with these retellings, we are confounded with lapses of memory, of forgetfulness, of events or words we wished we could erase.

Francis O’Gorman, the Saintsbury Professor of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, in his book Forgetfulness considers not only the reliability of our individual memories but also “collective memories,” the memories that are transmitted in families, schools, countries, specifically tackling, “how a human being in the liberal West relates to communal rather than private yesterdays. . .” (4). O’Gorman’s consideration spurs us to consider how Catholicism transmits collective memories, or more precisely, the fullness of memory, in her institutions.

O’Gorman makes two assumptions in his argument: first, that there is a relationship between human attributes or dispositions, such as “pleasure, wisdom, identity, and security,” and “the best and most interesting of the past”; second, that the contemporary West has “largely failed to remember this” (5). He questions a trend that is sadly familiar to educators and parents, one in which “the literature, music, and art of the past have become accessible to the young almost entirely as subjects for school or university tests and of little more advanced use, delight, profitable confusion, or sense beyond that” (6). This trend continues to exist cloaked under various guises, but recognizable in the attempt to segregate the humanities, “the best and most interesting of the past,” from our humanity. The segregation leads not to complete forgetfulness, since the arts are still performed in theatres and maintained in museums, but to a fossilization of the arts in which the communion with pleasure, wisdom, and delight regarding the “best and most interesting of the past” is broken or thwarted at best. Fossilized arts may become objects of curiosity that are detached from their purpose: consider the way in which many altarpieces are detached from the celebration of Mass and relegated to museum pieces or how medieval and Renaissance literature is read through lenses that filter out Christian faith. There is little movement in the contemporary and secular West that would indicate that this rift can be breached or that the fossilized arts can be revived. Hence, the anguished cry of the speaker in Hopkins’ poem who is confounded with remembering and with transmitting the memories: “How to keep back beauty… from vanishing away?”

The splendor of Catholicism’s liturgical and sacramental life surpasses mere collective memory because “the best and most interesting” art, literature, architecture and music of the past are wedded to worship which makes the past present in a way ever ancient and ever new. The liturgy not only recalls the Old Testament scriptures and traditions, but makes Christ present in the earthly liturgy as we are drawn into participation in the heavenly liturgy. In the liturgy, the fruitfulness and wonder keep memory alive.

In the “The Golden Echo,” Hopkins’ response to “The Leaden Echo,” beauty is neither to be hoarded nor allowed to fossilize, but with prodigal abandon the speaker acclaims, “Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.” This return to God, this breaking of the jar of costly ointment, this casting the net on the other side of the boat, does not make sense to the secular West which has “largely failed to remember.” As the agnostic poet Matthew Arnold aptly identified in “Dover Beach,” the Sea of Faith is no longer full and brimming for the secular West, which cannot assuage man’s desire for memories. When the sacramental and liturgical life is divorced from the humanities, the rift widens and “the best and most interesting of the past” dwindles and fades into forgetfulness. As Hopkins concludes “The Golden Echo,” he directs us how to keep the memory alive, with desire, with wonder, in looking ever forward, through our experience of the liturgy where our thirst is quenched and our hunger satiated by participation in the Sacred Banquet:  “Do but tell us where kept, where.—/Yonder.—What high as that! We follow, now we follow.—Yonder, yes yonder, yonder,/Yonder.”

Sister Thomas More Stepnowski is vice president of academics at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tenn. She has earned degrees from University of Dallas, Belmont University, Providence College, and Maryvale Institute.

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