The Rev. Gordon Stewart is pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska and a source in the Public Insight Network for MPR News.
At the end of a year and the beginning a new one, I visit a memory care center.
I walk into Red's room — the room where he has been now for more than a year. His short-term memory is gone. He doesn't know his wife or his children. He doesn't know me. He doesn't recognize anyone.
This afternoon he is lying on his left side in a fetal position, facing the wall, the sun streaming through the window on his body. I enter the room quietly and walk around the foot of the bed, assuming he's asleep. He's not. "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep... ." He's praying out of some deeper place within him, the longer memory of a comforting prayer he had learned as a child at bedtime.
I stand there quietly, amazed by what I hear. When his voice falls silent again, I softly speak his name so as not to startle him, touch his shoulder, and tell him my name. He opens his eyes, but he is gone. He's not there anymore. "From Knox Church," I say. His eyes open wide. He smiles at the mention of the church in which he was raised, and then, just as quickly, he retreats inside to wherever it is that Alzheimer's patients go.
Memory is our best friend. When it goes, we lose the ability to put things together. We lose our ability to create meaning.
On New Year's Eve, some ancient cultures celebrated what historian of religion Mircea Eliade calls "the myth of the eternal return." It was an annual ritual by which the aboriginal tribe remembered its primal origins, surrendering the old world's return to chaos. As the old world died, the tribe celebrated the annual ritual of the eternal return of order out of chaos.
For them, like Red in his moment of deeper memory, I hope for a return to the deeper memory within me — for a new order out of chaos. I reach down for the child in me, as D.H. Lawrence wrote in "PAX":
All that matters is to be at one with You, the living God
to be a creature in Your house, oh God of Life!
"Like a cat asleep on a chair
at peace, in peace
and at one with the master of the house, with the mistress,
at home, at home in the house of the living,
sleeping on the hearth, and yawning before the fire.
"Sleeping on the hearth of the living world
yawning at home before the fire of life
feeling the presence of the living God
like a great reassurance
a deep calm in the heart
as of the master sitting at the board
in his own and greater being,
In the house of life.