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We’re Meant to Remember

The Shattering of Loneliness: On Christian Remembrance

By Erik Varden

Publisher: Bloomsbury Continuum

Pages: 173

Price: $16

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the 17th century.

At age 10, Erik Varden heard from his father, a country veterinarian in Norway, about a farmer who was working shirtless on a hot day and whose back was deeply scarred from the torture he had endured in World War II. Greatly moved by what his father had seen, the boy started reading about the war and soon realized that “to live, one must learn to look death in the eye.” Although he had been baptized, Varden was an agnostic until age 15, when he listened to Mahler’s Resurrection and heard “voices singing of a hope that must, in secret, have gestated in my depths, for I recognized it as mine.” After becoming a fellow at St. John’s College in Cambridge, England, he converted to Catholicism, entered the Cistercian order, became abbot of Mount St. Bernard’s Abbey in Leicestershire, and, in November 2019, was named bishop-prelate of Trondheim, Norway. Varden calls the Church an inspirer of remembrance reaching back to time’s beginning and “forward into eternity.”

The six chapters of this book are beautiful meditations on six biblical commands to remember. Paradoxically, every one of these commands is a call to move forward: “To remember, really remember, is to slip our moorings and set sail on the open sea,” Bishop Varden writes. He begins with God’s command to Adam after the Fall, “Remember that you are dust.” This means that “I walk this earth as yearning incarnate,” that I am “defined by a sense of incompletion so vast that it cannot be repaired within the order of creation.” Varden links the extermination camp of Treblinka, where “industrial murder” took place and men were “reduced to dust by other men’s design,” to the nihilism of poet and novelist Stig Dagerman, who committed suicide in 1954. He laments that in our society, which is “orphaned of transcendence,” mankind is seen as nothing but “a complex of dust.” And yet, he says, “I am dust with a nostalgia for glory.”

In the second chapter, Bishop Varden ponders the command, “Remember you were a slave in Egypt.” This means that we must remember in “that place of light” that we were “brought in out of darkness.” Here we meet Zossima, who had been a monk from childhood and imagined he had reached the heights of sanctity until he encountered one much greater than himself: Mary of Egypt, a woman who had lived in debauchery for 17 years before her conversion in Jerusalem. Zossima meets her after she has spent 47 years in the desert, the first 17 fighting her “irrational desires like wild beasts.” After this meeting, he abandons his self-complacency and sets out for “an unchartered wilderness.”

Then we have the third command, “Remember Lot’s wife” (Lk. 17:32). In this meditation, Varden reminds us of St. Bernard’s teaching that “not to move forward on the path of life is to slide back.” And yet, even when we have stalled and our feet are getting rooted, we can still “resist salification.” Varden ponders Leo Tolstoy’s “Father Sergius,” a story that reveals the Russian author’s desire to “join the pilgrim throng of the poor, to lose himself in it.” Sergius starts life as a prince, but he becomes disillusioned on discovering that the woman he planned to marry had been the Tsar’s mistress. He becomes a monk, but after seven years sees his insufficiency and takes up the life of a hermit. He fights an interior battle against doubt and lust for eight years, when, to his surprise, he discovers he is able to heal others. Flocks of pilgrims start coming to him, he becomes vain again, and in old age falls into a sordid sin “with frightening ease.” Bishop Varden reminds us that, contrary to Calvinism’s once-saved-always-saved maxim, “forward progress is never assured…. It is never too late to turn into a pillar of salt.” Sergius considers suicide, but an angel sends him to visit his poor cousin Pashenka to discover what he needs to learn. It turns out to be selflessness, which he attains at last while working as a servant in Siberia.

The fourth command is: “Do this in memory of Me.” Bishop Varden reflects that our remembering in the Mass is “repeatable, yet always unique.” It is always new because of our certainty that Christ “makes all things new.” Hence, far from being a “repeat performance,” the Mass is a “re-presentation of the premiere”; it “instantiates” our share in the Covenant “new and eternal.” Here Varden remembers Maïti Girtanner, who died in 2014 at age 92. She had been in the French resistance for three years when she was captured in 1943 and tortured by a doctor named Leo. Maïti would have been a concert pianist had the harm done to her spine not made this calling impossible to pursue. She said she learned “to love what I was and to seek what I ought to be.” Above all, she wanted to forgive. Forty years passed, and in 1984, Leo, the doctor who had ruined her life, learned that he had only six months to live. He asked to visit her, and she consented. He came and begged her pardon: “When he bowed down to her (in great pain that day, she was reclining on the couch), she took his head between her hands and kissed him on the forehead.” Maïti published her deeply moving story in a book titled Meme les bourreaux ont une ame (Even Executioners Have a Soul).

The fifth command is: “The Counselor will call everything to mind” (Jn. 14:26). In this chapter, Bishop Varden recalls how the early Church engaged in a “prodigious exercise of remembrance.” The Hebrew Bible had to be read anew, “illumined by the light shining into and out of the empty tomb.” However, as each Christian is limited in remembrance, the Holy Spirit performed this work “ecclesially”: “All things had to be recalled, reconsidered, reinterpreted.”

Varden explains how, step by step, the Holy Spirit “accustoms us to glory.” The haloes around the heads of saints show that each one has become “a tabernacle of glory.” An example is St. Seraphim of Sarov, who died in 1831 and was seen by Nikolay Motovilov as “transfigured in light” and “turned into a burning bush.” St. Seraphim’s teaching was that “the heart of the Christian calling” is not merely to act morally but to be “recreated by the Holy Spirit.” It is not a matter of behavior but a transmutation of being. A capacity to receive the Holy Spirit means living a “divinized life,” for the Spirit “makes what is perishable eternal…. He renders dust resplendent with a sheen of eternity.”

The sixth biblical command Varden invites us to ponder is: “Beware lest you forget the Lord” (Deut. 6:12). At the Fall, man turned his gaze from God, in whose image he had been made, to pursue his own inclinations and so embrace death. But then came the Incarnation: “When God became man, the image in which we were first made…stood before us in flesh and blood.” St. Athanasius put it well: “He became human that we might become divine.” So now, to be human is to have a profound longing to go beyond the limits of human nature so as to have “a share in divine life.” In this final chapter, Bishop Varden speaks of Andreï Makine, who traveled from Siberia to Paris in 1987. He started poor and homeless but is now published in 40 languages. In his Brief Loves that Live Forever (2011), Makine writes of eight ecstatic experiences, or “moments that dissolve the heart’s solitude” and seem “eternal.” He tells us that when we are once able to perceive the radiance of beauty where it is not expected, in what appears “humble, grey, very poor,” we are changed. And then, “to share it with another, to reach it together is to love; to love in this way is ‘no longer to belong to this world.’”

In this remarkable book, Bishop Varden presents the truths of Christianity in a surprisingly fresh and soul-stirring way. As he himself puts it: When the things of God are in play, “the past is discovered to be bewilderingly present.”

 

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