Living By Memory

This morning I’m listening to Chopin while I work. His “Waltz No. 7 in C Sharp Minor” came on, and I was instantly transported back to the living room of my 8th grade piano teacher. I fell in love with this piece by watching her fingers float across the keys, needing no sheet music or prodding; she knew the piece by memory because she had played it frequently and recently. I knew this was the piece I wanted to play for my next competition, and so I started the work of committing it to memory myself.

Today, years since I have play the waltz, it still ignites a deep emotional and cognitive connection for me. I can “feel” every note as if it were my fingers touching the keys. However, if I sat down at the piano I would not remember how to play one note. I remember playing this piece; I do not remember how to play it. Why? Because I haven’t played it in years, and no amount of listening to it makes up for that lapse in practice.

This seems a poignant analogy for spiritual disciplines and faith practice. There are plenty of cognitive memories of significant moments in our faith. But stored memory of the mind is not the same as “active memory,” a concept similar to the principle of “muscle memory” in physical activity. Stored cognitive memory is what allowed me to recognize that waltz as soon as it began to play, and it is also cognitive memory that ignited associated emotions about playing the piece. But cognitive memory stops short of allowing me to actually play that piece again. I can remember everything about playing it; but I cannot play it. I would have to re-learn how to play the piece from memory, and that requires behavior associated with discipline and ritual — re-establishing active memory.

In our spiritual lives, and consequently our rhetoric about the spiritual, I think we confuse these two kinds of memory. Both have their place, and both are needed. But it would be unwise to hold our cognitive and intellectual memory responsible for delivering the how, the action. It would be analogous to me sitting down at the piano after all these years and saying to myself, “Play it! You remember the melody; you remember the emotions ignited from the melody — play it!” I can tell myself to “play it” all day long, but I don’t remember how to play it. Through practicing (with various instructional guides) I could once again be able to play it by memory.

I want to live by memory too, but I often find myself relying on cognitive and intellectual “memories” of my faith — thinking that those are enough to give me the how, to produce the action. It’s as if I’m taking those cognitive memories and saying to myself, “Live it! You know what scripture says; you remember the emotions you felt when you lived it before — live it!” I don’t remember how to live it; I’m out of practice.

Jamie Smith gets at this phenomenon in his book Desiring the Kingdom (2009). He talks about the fact that we are desiring beings — we are created primarily to be beings that love, by the design of the creator. Therefore we are what we love, and what we love is what we ritualistically practice loving on a daily basis. When we are practicing the ritual of our faith, the ritual of spiritual disciplines we are creating active memories. When faced with a situation of prescriptive Christian living or ethical/moral dilemma, the muscle memory takes over. We have done this before (frequently and recently); so we know how to do it again. We are living by memory.

3 thoughts on “Living By Memory

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