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Augustine: Memory as Sacrament

For Christians, rituals of sacrament are visible and affective signs of the presence of God.   Augustine defines a sacrament as an outward sign of an inward grace. Sacraments are understood as a form of mediation, a way by which the divine is made present in and for individuals. For most Christian sects, Communion or the Rite of the Last Supper are considered sacramental. In the sacrament of Communion individuals, like the Disciples at Christ’s last supper, partake of bread and wine, now understood as either representing or containing the real Presence of God. Augustine and the other church fathers looked to the Bible as the source of their understanding surrounding Communion.  For example, in the Gospel of St Luke (22.19) Jesus says, “having taken a loaf, having given thanks, he broke and gave it to them, saying This is my body which is given for you: this do in the remembrance of me.” Further, in I Corinthians (11.25, 26) he says:

“Jesus, in the night in which he was betrayed, took bread, and having given thanks he broke [it], and said, ‘Take, eat, this is my body which is being broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.’ In like manner also the cup, after having supped, saying, this cup is the new covenant in my blood: this do, as oft as ye drink [it], in remembrance of me. For as often as ye may eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew (announce) the Lord’s death till he come.”

Those familiar with the theological debates concerning Communion understand that the church community is divided on whether and in what way the sacrament of Communion takes up the Real Presence of the divine.

Contemporary arguments that defend the real Presence of God within Communion say that in the ritual of blessing the bread and the wine that an ontological change occurs within these elements allowing for the infinite to become present in what is finite. Lost in the current debate is Augustine’s argument concerning memory as vital to the act of Communion and its relationship to the Real Presence.   In each of the Biblical passages quoted previously anamnesis or memory is the word used by the Jesus when he says, “in remembrance of me.”  Although Augustine’s account of memory in relationship to God’s Real Presence was obscured in the medieval church in favour innovative nation of transubstantiation, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Anglican theologians recollected and reconfirmed Augustine’s argument. The concept of anamnesis is embodied in the Anglican Prayer Book Order for Holy Communion in its several forms in the 16th and 17th centuries and is fundamental to the description of the Eucharist as the sacramentum memoriae – sacrament of memory.  As Dr Robert Crouse succinctly put it: “the Biblical and Augustinian concept of sacramentum memoriae, [is] a concept at the heart of the sacramental theology of the English Reformation, as expressed particularly in the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer.”

One might argue that memory is a weak substitute for the idea of an ontological transformation understood as taking place in transubstantiation. After all, remembering something that once happened might be efficacious in some way, but certainly remembering a past event does not make what is remembered a present reality.  Surely if ‘memory’ is the 16th and 17th century Anglican basis for a notion of Real Presence, then receptionism is the necessary consequence, and the notion of ‘real Presence’ is a chimera, weak metaphor or word play.

Nonetheless, I will suggest that in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer there is a philosophical notion of “recollection” that is adequate to the notion of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  More, this notion of Real Presence based on Memory is a far more radical and challenging notion of Real Presence than many understandings of transubstantiation.  For Thomas Cranmer and the Anglican Divines of the 16th and 17th centuries, their scholarly study of the Patristic authors disclosed an understanding of Real Presence based on Memory, that had become obscured in the late Medieval church such that it was replaced by an innovative notion of transubstantiation.  This specific notion of Memory or recollection, called anamnesis, is what the Anglican Reformers discovered in the Scriptures and the primitive Church to be the assurance of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

For Augustine, sacramentum is the sacrifice of the “flesh and blood” of Christ.  In his treatise against Faustus the Manichean (c. 400), Augustine points out that the sacrifices of the old law shared a certain “likeness” with this sacrifice through the “flesh and blood” of its “victims,” i.e. of the animal sacrifices.[1]  In the Passion of Christ itself these types are fulfilled.  After the ascension of Christ, this very sacrifice of Christ’s passion is celebrated per sacramentum memoriae – in the “sacrament of its memory”[2]  In earlier texts Augustine had referred to the eucharistic celebration as the “memorial of the passion” (memoriam passionis) of Christ, in the “likeness of his sacrifice”[3] (eius sacrificii similitudinem).  In Contra Faustum, however, he no longer speaks of the Eucharistic “memorial” (memoria) as the “likeness of his sacrifice,” but rather claims that the Eucharist is the sacrifice that Christians celebrate by a “holy oblation” and “by participation in the body and blood of Christ” (participatio corporis et sanguinis Christi).[4] as a sacrifice.  But, interestingly, this increasingly bold language of the Eucharist as the sacrifice of Christ and the communicant’s true participation in the “body and blood of Christ” is accompanied by his notion that this sacrifice of the altar is celebrated per sacramentum memoriae.  The passion of Christ prefigured by the sacramenta of the Old Testament is now, after the Ascension, celebrated by Christians” through the sacrament of memory.”[5]

Anamnesis is not a simple remembering of a particular event, but rather reflects the notion of memory that we find in the tenth book of Augustine’s Confessions. Memory is concerned not only with the past but with the present.  Indeed memory is life itself: nothing more or less than our personal identity; the continuity of personality.  Memoria is not a particular “part’”of the mind, or faculty of the soul, but rather the whole soul, as self-consciousness.  Memory is the mind itself.  In the words of Augustine, “But the mind and the memory are one and the same.  We even call the memory the mind, for when we tell another person to remember something, we say “See that you keep this in mind,” and when we forget anything, we say “It was not in my mind” or “it slipped my mind” (Conf X.14). Memory is that which allows the mind to know that it knows, to understand that it understands, to see that it sees, to remember that it remembers.  “All these self-conscious activities are ways by which the memory through reflection brings into the present the activities of the mind.”  Says Augustine, “In the vast court of my memory are the sky, the earth, and the sea, [and in my memory] I can even encounter myself and remember myself and all the things that I have done.” Memory is of the past, primarily of the present, and it is that which make our expectation of the future possible: the future which is to be made present and then past.  T.S. Eliot expresses Augustine’s thought in “Burnt Norton,” saying, “Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future,/ And time future contained in time past/ And all is always one. ”[6]

In the same way that memory contains past, present and future, so the notion of anamnesis holds together the past, present and future dimensions of the Eucharist: the Church is connected to a particular past salvific sacrifice of the Son of God; that sacrifice is made real in the Church’s present embrace of that past event, informing and giving meaning to a Christian’s present experience; and that same sacrifice orientates the Church towards a future hope.  Anamnesis is a Christian’s recollection of that redemptive Love as it unfolds itself in time and history: the basis of renewal in the present and hope and expectation for the future.  But the anamnesis of Christ is also the recollection of our entire past, present and future as fully embraced by God’s eternal presence. The sacramentum memoriae is more than the character of every moment which in some way is the eternal moment, because it is the commemoration of the sacrifice in time of the eternal divine sacrifice. In the Christian account, that sacrifice was offered once for all by the Christ who is both fully God and fully man, yet the remembrance (anamnesis) of that passion is the true Eternal Moment – from the divine perspective – in which all moments are contemporary.  In memory, one is made a contemporary of God’s eternity.  By this argument, Christians live in the perpetual memory (the perpetual consciousness & self-consciousness) of Christ’s death.  Christians live in that memory – not in the sense of looking back, but in the sense of that memory giving them their very identity so that they might discover who they are and move forward into the future, expressed religiously, “until His coming again.”

According to Augustine, Christians memory of who they are, including their past failings and humiliations, is transformed and reconstituted by thier participation in the Eucharist.  Their specific recalling of past sins is not obliterated, but taken up and healed – everything about them is redeemed.  Understood in this way, Communion is is the bath to freedom not from this world but with and through it.

In the anamnesis of the Eucharist the past is remembered to transform the present and future. One who participates in it does not remember a distant meal, or a distant death, but is made present to herself.  After the acsension, says Saint Augustine, the sacrifice of Christ is made real in the sacramentum memoriae (the sacrament of memory).  Betrayal made into grace and healing. The memory of failure is the indispensable basis of a calling forward in hope.  One’s failures in this regard are not the ultimate fact.  “To know the full scope and full cost of our untruthfulness, and not to be crippled, paralysed, by it is what is given.”[7]

Biblically this argument is made in stories about Peter. In the resurrection appearance of Christ to Peter in John 21, Peter is over the moon to see Jesus again, he jumps from the boat to come to Jesus on the beach: he is ecstatic: Scripture tells us that there was a charcoal fire on which there was a fish being cooked.  The same word for charcoal fire here is that mentioned in John 18 where Peter was warming himself when he denied Christ.  For Peter, Jesus’s resurrection coincides with a meal, one that would remind him of the last meal they shared. At the same time, the smell of the charcoal fire triggers the memory of his betrayal.  He is both present to himself in his memory and is present to Christ in God’s Memory.  And in that dynamic his memory is taken up in God’s Memory, such that his betrayal and failure become the precise occasion of grace and healing.  As one commentator notes, “Peter, in being present to Jesus, becomes – painfully and nakedly – present to himself. . . . The presence of Jesus, still faithful, still calling, inviting his disciples to love him, opens out the past in grace.”[8]Peter learns that wherever he may find himself, however he may fail, his life is constantly capable of being opened to God’s creative grace: God’s presence in Jesus will not fail him.

In the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, Cranmer makes the same point by beginning his Holy Communion with the Collect for Purity which says, “Almighty God unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.”  In this Crammer suggests that one brings not only her memories to be taken up into God’s Memory, but her Memory itself to be taken up into God’s Memory. That is, not just what she can recall or remember.  In the Anglican tradition, when someone confesses her sins in corporate worship, or privately to a priest, in the Absolution the Priest gives the assurance of the forgiveness of all her sins.  The sins that are forgiven are not just the ones she is able to recall at any given moment.

If not, the Christian message could not be described as “good news” at all, but a form of hell or endlessly recurring loop, as individuals would be constantly revisiting past events and obsessively re-considering their true and underlying motives for countless situations.  Rather, in approaching the Eucharist Christians bring their whole memories to be healed.  Augustine’s notion of Memory includes what Freud and others in the early 20th century were to discover as the unconscious – that ‘Memory’ of which we are unaware at any given moment, yet which determines who we are and what we do.

The 16th and 17th century English Reformers’ had an uncompromising commitment to “Real Presence” in the Eucharist.  They did not find in the Patristic authors a preoccupation on the manner of the presence of Christ in the bread and wine, but rather as in the case of Augustine, the interest is on the grace signified and effected in the sacrament. As Augustine argues, this grace is made effectual through a divinely appointed sacramental recollection.  The sacrament of Memory, as Augustine argues, allows us to know the Real Presence of the divine. In thinking of the past, present and future, one participates in something akin to an eternal present. At the same time, the memories of Christians who participate in this sacrament of Communion, are taken up in the divine memory, such that they are freed from the guilt of our past deeds, crimes the punishment of which have been taken by Christ in his passion, and are able to move forward in hope.



[1] C. Faust. 22.21; Teste, Answer to Faustus (WSA 1/20), 310

[2] C. Faust. 20.21; Teste,Answer to Faustus (WSA 1/20), 280; CSEL 25.564

[3] Div.qu. 61.2; CCSL 44A.122.

[4] C. Faust. 20.18

[5] C. Faust. 20.21. I rely upon the argument of James Lee in his Augustine and the Mystery of the Church.

[6] T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, revised edition, London, 1979, p. 13.

[7] .Williams, Resurrection, p. 42.

[8] Williams, Resurrection, p. 36


Also see Barry Craig’s “Freedom in the Novels of David Adams Richards,” Paulette Kidder’s review of “Fate and Freedom in the Novels of David Adams Richards,” Sara MacDonald’s review of “Mary Cyr,” Andrew Moore’s “Doctor Faustus: On Power and Human Freedom,” Catherine Craig’s “Of Infinite Variety: The Promise of Comedy in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra,” and Mary Craig’s “On the Diamond and in the Pews: The Push to Legalize Sunday Baseball.”

Gary Throne

Rev. Gary Throne is Chaplain at Huron University College in Canada and has a doctorate in Theology from Durham University.

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