Thank you for asking me to preach as part of your year long exploration of memory and identity during this dementia awareness week. The connection between memory and identity is something that is very dear to my heart. I’ve been thinking and writing about this topic for a long time. I first became interested in it in the early 1990s when working on the intensive rehabilitation of people – both young and old who had very severe amnesia as the result of injuries or health conditions that affect the brain.
This evening I want to reflect with you for a few minutes on the place of memory in the honouring and dishonouring of older people. The first thing to say is that the tragedy of forgetting in later life is not so much that an individual forgets as that she is forgotten. Indeed whole generations are effectively forgotten when they are deemed past their sell-by date, and it is a cause for great sadness that the churches often follow the world in this with their relentless focus on young adults. (So it’s good to see that it’s different here in Salisbury J).
Yet the memories of older people are the treasures of a society. Older people can be seen as the carriers of wisdom, whose role in a healthy society like that described in the vision of Zechariah is to be at the centre of things and to tell their stories to the next generation. Indeed this seems to be the task of very old age – to go back and rework the past, to make sense of what has happened, to identify the significant moments, to weave a narrative, and so to make meaning.
This capacity to make story and to tell history is something that is genuinely prized in our culture. Very old people can be revered for their unique ability to witness to events that are beyond the memory of the majority of us, extending the reach of our collective identity and enriching our collective wisdom. There’s a 90 year old lady in my parish who heard Marlene Dietrich sing Lilly Marlene in Berlin shortly after the end of World War II – I got chills when she told me about it the other day. Of course I could listen to a recording of Dietrich but this lady was there. I’ve called this the ‘Harry Patch’ effect in which an older person may be the last witness to skills that have all but died out, or to events that we must never forget. They are a living connection with the past, an organic link that remains compelling even when we have access to vivid archive film of the events they recall.
It’s therefore both ironic and tragic when an older person forgets his or her past, and can no longer look back or tell a meaningful or coherent story. We might wonder if such people really have passed their sell-by dates because they can no longer be of use to the rest of us in the way I’ve just been describing.
The New Testament writers knew nothing of sell-by dates – they had their own unpleasant phrase ‘As good as dead.’
But then they do something remarkable with it. The biblical scholars Richard and Judith Hays say this ‘The scriptures are filled with stories of God’s breaking into the …lives of older persons to confer a particular gift or vocation’ and that ‘older people can be unanticipatedly fruitful’. The biblical stories in which old couples who are past their sell by date conceive children can be read as symbols of this ‘unanticipated fruition’. Fruitfulnes in very old age is on the face of it an absurd notion, and it’s interesting to observe that the longest piece in the Bible devoted to laughter is the story of the conception of Isaac (a name which its means ‘laughter’) by the elderly Abraham and Sarah.
In the second of this evening’s readings from the Letter to the Hebrews the writer speaks of Abraham as an inspirational figure of faith, yet uses that pejorative phrase ‘as good as dead’ to describe him. This is of course a rhetorical device. The writer is essentially saying, ‘Look at this old man – he seemed utterly clapped out but he got caught up in God’s vision. He didn’t look back with nostalgia or regret; he didn’t cling to what he had; he strained forward towards the heavenly places: and he bore unimaginable fruit!’
The fact that Abraham was at his most generative in very old age is perhaps not so absurd after all. It tells us something of the special spiritual gifts of this time of life. A stripping away of the things we conventionally think of as essential to ourselves, including aspects of our memories, can if we let it make us more attentive to the things of God. Being dependent on others, being only able to watch and wait, can if we let it open up an alertness to signs of the Kingdom.
Very old people are standing on an edge, poised at a threshold. They are living in the last days of their own lifespans (as are younger people who are terminally ill) – the time when another Old Testament the prophet – Joel - says that old men will dream dreams. They are inhabiting a ‘thin place’. Old age can, as I’ve said, be a very rich time for looking back and drawing the threads of life together to make a good ending. But it’s also a time for, drawing breath and simply being in the moment. Above all it’s a time for preparing to cross the threshold.
Put another way, it’s as if some old people, including those who can no longer tell the story of their past, have reached a mountain-top and can see new vistas, as yet hidden over the horizon from the rest of us. This gives a whole new meaning to another phrase ‘over the hill’, and it’s another reason for honouring older people. If we take the time and trouble to attend to them perhaps some of these mountain-top visionaries will tell us something of what they see, and in so doing will remind us that identity is not just about where you have come from but where you are going.