Memory is a poor substitute for feeling, and language is a poor substitute for memory; yet it is through those dual prisms that we translate the ephemeral raw material of emotion into something more permanent. And it is only that language of memory of feeling — awful, inadequate substitute that it is — that can be preserved and recounted and ultimately woven into narratives about life.
We start with feelings. Peace, overwhelming, a soothing river. Awe, reverent silence as we contemplate the divine. Love, a bond that aches sometimes. Fear, or loss, or sadness. Emotions are the raw material that we eventually turn into decisions. Simply put: We follow actions that make us feel better.
The gospel reinforces this idea. We are told that certain emotions, certain feelings come from God. Our emotions are our connection to the Divine.
But intense feelings are relatively few and far between. We may feel overwhelming testimony one day, overwhelming peace, love, connection to God — but then no similar feelings for months after, or years.
And thus, many of our actions in the church and with respect to God, like our actions in so many other parts of our lives, are governed by memory of feelings. I may not feel the intense connection today. But I can remember that at one time I felt such a connection.
Thus, life becomes guided by a series of mental notes (not unlike P.G.’s field notes) about emotion. Remember, that today I felt good. I loved life. I loved my job, my family, my music. At crucial junctures in Memento, we see Guy Pearce struggling to make notes that will last, desperately telling himself, “I need to remember this.” We do the same. This one is important; I should remember it.
But even memory runs into gaps. Memory of feeling can be fleeting, and hard to define. How exactly did I feel on that day? And even if we can remember it well, memory of feeling is difficult to convey to others. Memory of feeling is intensely personal — it does not translate into shared experience or understanding.
And so, in a further step, we find language of memory of feeling. Language, unlike pure memory, can be written on a page. We can talk with others about it, reinforce it, try to make sense of it. But what language can really capture the feelings of connection to God?
Our attempts tend toward the weird and exotic. We talk about things like “burning in the bosom.” Does this really, accurately describe what happens when we feel the Spirit, when we feel peace? No. Not at all. It’s not a burning in the bosom; it’s the presence of the Divine.
Our use of specialized terms is not unlike the exotic language used to describe wine. For a long time (like many church members, I suspect), I mocked the language of wine. Wine descriptions seemed weird and overwrought, with critics finding notes of gooseberry and gunsmoke and asphalt and autumn leaves and pickled pig’s feet. How silly.
And then, I read a critic discuss that language in Slate. And he wrote, “we use this language because it’s the best we’ve got.” Wine doesn’t really taste like asphalt or autumn leaves. But language is an imperfect medium for expressing taste, which is ultimately a feeling. And critics can only use the tools they have. “It is impossible,” notes the critic, “to describe a wine without simplifying and distorting its image.” And so, unable to convey taste directly, critics fall back on descriptions that seem strange to the uninitiated.
Our language of memory of feeling is the same. It is a hollow shell of the real thing, a pressed flower in a journal. And it’s the best we’ve got. Our terms — burning in the bosom, still small voice — allow us to place some of our memories of feeling into a narrative about God and about our connection to the Divine. We reinforce that idea when we talk to others about our feelings; and these language placeholders become a way to translate — imperfectly — our different memories of feeling.
The description simplifies and distorts. No linguistic depiction really captures the emotional state of connection to God. Our description will never really be enough, for the uninitiated. And for the initiated, it will be enough. They too will understand the difficulty of really capturing such feelings in our imperfect language. It will recall their own inexpressible moments of connection. And thus, because of its inability to really describe, such language gives us the best description possible.
Perhaps one day, we will leave behind these chains, and learn to connect with each other in a way that allows us to express feelings and connections more deeply. Until then, our imperfect language of memory of feeling will have to suffice.