Remembering That We Forget

A priest recently joked that he tells middle schoolers getting too big for their britches “you know, God didn’t have to create you.” The audience laughed, and the priest observed that while that might sound unkind on the surface, it signifies something quite the opposite.

In her Creed, the Church confesses “Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipoténtem”—I believe in one God, the Father almighty. God is one, perfect and omnipotent. He lacks nothing. What a profound mystery, then, that he chose to create us.

I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve heard this basic sentiment over the years. But when the priest pointed it out again during his talk, I felt like I heard it for the first time. For a fleeting moment, the familiarity I feel about this idea that God created us—that He knit us together in our mothers’ wombs—was pulled away, like a curtain from a window or a veil from a face. The view, for that split second, startled me to the bone.

It startled me because, day to day, a subtle sort of determinism often influences my thoughts. I wonder if this especially affects us in the modern scientific age where we are explicitly and implicitly taught to see ourselves as the product of inevitable evolutionary forces. But, more generally, it’s just difficult to retain the sense of awe and wonder at this world and the lives we find ourselves in. I am always forgetting and remembering and forgetting again how strange it is simply to be alive.

This mistaken, vague determinism can obscure our perception of God’s love for us. If you consider yourself just here more or less inevitably, you might have one view of things. But if you consider that God, Patrem omnipoténtem who lacks absolutely nothing, chose to create you, it tends to change your perspective. Why you? Why in this body? Why with these abilities and these limitations? Why in this time and place? I don’t know! But the maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible, does. And that is a startling thought.

It is also a thought that is strangely easy, at least for me, to forget. In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton says that “we have all forgotten what we really are” and that during certain dead periods of life, “we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.” The priest the other night helped me to remember, at least for an instant. There’s also a particular work of art that helps me remember and which I want to share here. It’s a childbirth scene from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s gripping novel Demons (sometimes translated The Possessed). When you read this, consider that these descriptions of a new, unique life entering the world could be applied to you. And to your family, your friends, and your enemies.

[Marie is having the baby, Arina takes on the roll of midwife, and Shatov takes on the role of husband, although he is not the father]

The night was passing.  Shatov was sent out, abused, called back.  Marie reached the last degree of fear for her life.  She shouted that she wanted to live, that “she must live, she must!” and was afraid to die . . . Had it not been for Arina Prokhorovna, things would have been very bad.  Gradually she gained complete control over the patient, who started obeying her every word, her every bark, like a child.  Arina Prokhorovna used severity, not kindness, but her work was masterful.  Dawn broke . . . Finally, they chased Shatov out altogether.  A damp, cold morning came.  He leaned his face to the wall in the corner . . . He was trembling like a leaf, afraid to think, yet his thought clung to everything that presented itself to his mind, as happens in dreams . . . Finally, it was no longer groans that came from the room, but terrible, purely animal sounds, intolerable, impossible.  He wanted to stop his ears, but could not, and fell to his knees, unconsciously repeating “Marie, Marie!” And then, finally, there came a cry, a new cry, at which Shatov gave a start and jumped up from his knees, the cry of an infant, weak, cracked.  He crossed himself and rushed into the room.  In Arina Prokhorovna’s hands a small, red, wrinkled being was crying, and waving its tiny arms and legs, a terrible helpless being, like a speck of dust at the mercy of the first puff of wind, yet crying and proclaiming itself, as if it, too, somehow had the fullest right to life . . . Marie was lying as if unconscious, but after a minute she opened her eyes and gave Shatov a strange, strange look: it was somehow quite a new look, precisely how he was as yet unable to understand, but he did not know or remember her ever having such a look before.

 “A boy? A boy?” she asked Arina Prokhorovna in a pained voice.

 “A little boy!” she shouted in reply, swaddling the baby . . .

 “How . . . pretty . . .” she whispered weakly, with a smile.

 “Pah, what a look!” the triumphant Arina Prokhorovna laughed merrily, peeking into Shatov’s face . . .

 “Be glad, Arina Prokhorovna . . . This is a great joy . . . ” Shatov babbled with an idiotically blissful look, radiant after Marie’s two words about the baby.

 “What’s this great joy of yours?” Arina Prokhorovna was amusing herself, while bustling about, tidying up, and working like a galley slave.

 “The mystery of the appearance of a new being, a great mystery and an inexplicable one, Arina Prokhorovna, and what a pity you don’t understand it!” Shatov was muttering incoherently, dazedly, and rapturously.  It was as if something were swaying in his head, and of itself, without his will, pouring from his soul. “There were two, and suddenly there’s a third human being, a new spirit, whole, finished, such as doesn’t come from human hands; a new thought and a new love, it’s even frightening . . . And there’s nothing higher in the world!”


3 thoughts on “Remembering That We Forget”

  1. “We have all forgotten what we really are… we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.”

    And many things that we call temptations, which can be so addicting, are us trying to forget again once we remember the awful truth. This is one of Chesterton’s most hauntingly insightful quotes. Thanks a lot for sharing it!

    ~ Elizabeth Ayers

  2. I love that point about addictions. Have you ever read C.S. Lewis’s “Pilgrim’s Regress?” That’s one of my favorite depictions of that truth. The main character, John, has a brief sort of revelation experience that awakes in him a longing for something, or someone, beyond. But he’s fallen, so he confuses the “sweet desire” with his own not-so-pure impulses. These don’t satisfy, and it just gets worse as he keeps trying to re-create the experience of that first longing and keeps settling poorer and poorer substitutes. This causes him to feel more and more intensely that the substitutes aren’t what he really wants at the same time that he finds himself more and more addicted to them and less and less able to stop choosing them — very tragic! [Though the story doesn’t end there.]

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