The Role of Memory in Prayer


By Professor Brandon Spun

Memories are not just about the past. They are images, narratives, promises, and ideas which we carry with us in the present moment.

How I understand who I am and what I am doing right now is dependent upon memory.

Memory is complex because we are not indifferent to that which we “treasure up” in our hearts (Luke 2:19); we are selective. We are editing and framing our experiences, not just passively receiving them.

Without an inner-editor, the data would overwhelm us. The problem is that we also tend to edit our stories in order to suit ourselves. We selectively forget that time we cut someone off in traffic; the food item we ‘forgot’ to pay for; the time we snapped at the kids. Sometimes we tuck something away in a corner, hoping to ignore it, or simply because we don’t have the time or energy for it.

There are other times that memory betrays us (in both senses), returning again and again to a moment of guilt, shame, anger, or pain. Memory can be one of our most merciless critics and companions.

This helps direct our attention to the role which memory can play in our prayers. In the context of prayer, memory is not just a record of events which can be revisited, but a witness to ourselves, to our values, to our living-beliefs, and to realities which have yet to be penetrated by truth and love.

At the End of the Day

After a busy day, our brains are disorganized and reverberating with new experiences. Part of the business of sleep is to organize and quiet the confusion. This is why sleep plays such a fundamental role in learning. There is a natural cycle in which new information is integrating into the organization and orderliness of our minds. Without sleep we experience forgetfulness and confusion, and we quickly become overwhelmed.

Sleep doesn’t just refresh the body, it aids the interpretive power and processes of the mind. In a similar way, prayer re-collects the soul, giving it rest and clarity in truth.

Taking Captives

Liturgy and prayer reorganize the data of our lives. The soul encounters within itself a certain level of discord and disorder each day. Without prayer, we awake and start spinning plates which all seem equally essential to our existence. Christian or not, we can experience the world through a lens of fear and desire which is highly disordered.

None of us live our lives in the perfect light of God. And so each day we experience a mix of that which is true and pure and good, and that which is not. Prayer and liturgy bring all of this (the good, the bad, and the ugly) into the light of truth.

What we have been treating as essential or high priority might get re-labeled as “another day’s trouble.” What we have considered shameful or embarrassing can be reorganized as forgiven and forgotten. Something which received a hair’s-breadth of attention can be brought to serious account.

Through liturgy and prayer, we remember who we are and who God is, and as we enter into these truths, into the rest of God, the flotsam and jetsam of memory is brought under the interpretive government of God’s Word.

Memory and the Heart

This is where prayer can play such a powerful role, not only in correcting, but also in directing.

Despite our own efforts, we remember things which sit uncomfortably in us. We have a great time out with friends, but something doesn’t seem right. In prayer, we revisit the evening and remember someone who clearly felt left out. Perhaps we can give them some love and attention. Next time, we may slow down and respond to such a need.

We may remember a comment that someone made, a boundary we crossed, or a kind word we failed to say. This prayerful review of the day directs us to repentance and to the fruits of repentance.

In prayer God looks with and remembers with us. His Spirit guides us to places of confession, service, gratitude, and truth. In this sense, memory is not just a quirk of the human mind, but a witness (of actions, values, and habits) open to God’s power.

When we bring our memories into prayer, we re-member our experiences with God and thus are enabled to begin seeing ourselves and others afresh. This function of memory allows us to embody the reality that we are members of Christ, under his headship. We invite God to actively interpret our lives in his Word and bring to light that which is in darkness.

Memory Unites

Not surprising, what turns up in such prayer is often ways that I have been ‘disembodied’–in which I have not had His mind in me. But this kind of prayer also institutes gratitude, the remembering of kindnesses and connections.

This submission of our minds to God is part of bringing all things captive unto Him. As we do so, we experience a wholeness in Him. He gathers the captives and those from far off and collects them into his body. He brings us into a rich and peaceful land. We become more intimately integrated in ourselves, in God, and into the lives of those around us.

Thus the power of memory in prayer is in drawing all incongruity under the mercy and truth of God.  It awakens the mind to the daily patterns of spiritual slumber and permits us to engage life wherever we experience incoherence. Prayer becomes not cliché or repetition, but engagement with the redemptive power of God.

In One Body

The height of the enactment of memory, of being made whole in God, is our communion with the crucified Christ which is also our communion with one another. Communion is the central ‘memory’ of the church in which we are ourselves re-membered or re-collected (1st Cor. 11:24-25). The preeminent act of memory for the Christian is the experience and reality of being one in the body of Christ.

(This article was originally posted here, where you can find more of Mr. Spun’s brilliant musings, and yes, even some of his Terrible, Awful Jokes.)


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