God’s memory

God, on the other hand, is infinite. In some lost corner of his Memory I can be contemplated not only down to my last hair, but also every detail that ever has been, is and will be in my life. And this Memory will remain perfectly preserved and indelible for ever and ever.

Juan Arana·9 de septiembre de 2022·Tiempo de lectura: 7 minutos

Original Text of the article in Spanish here

Near Seville there is an old stately mansion, in whose garden is preserved an unusual cemetery for dogs.

I visited it a few days ago, and found that those responsible for those extravagant sepulchers did not make them out of pure neurosis.

They were undoubtedly rich and idle people, but also endowed with a certain sense of humor.

In the center of this doggy necropolis is a small monument whose inscription proclaims the following orotund yet humorous verses:

Happy are those of us who are here 
around this pedestal, who,
whether we live well or badly 
remain here when we die. 
But men, our masters, 
with the uncertain future 
of their second life, 
live awaiting death…
for they must ‘settle their accounts’
at the moment they of their death. 

Half jokingly, half seriously, the philosophy of this harangue is that there is more than one kind of immortality. Animals will have to settle for a second-class one: the memory they leave in their owners, enhanced at most by these tombs which are designed to rescue the tale of their lives, and even of their deaths, from fallible human memory.

And so there is a reminder in decorative tiles of a certain Nancy who ‘was killed by a Packard’. Human immortality is made of different stuff: it does not merely consist of being remembered, but allows you to be the one who remembers yourself, albeit after ‘settling your accounts’.

If you want something, it will cost you something. My friend Francisco Soler has just published a few months ago a book with an appropriate title: Al fin y al cabo (In the end), where he explains that the hope of that first-class immortality, far from being a kind of balm or consolation that pious souls seek in order to escape the horror of dying, is a Notice to mariners, because when we close our eyes for the last time, instead of thinking something like: ‘everything is finished, it’s all over’, we will have to keep in mind the balance of ‘debit’ and ‘credit’, to settle any debt that has been left pending.

The Argentine poet Borges, who as a young man flirted with the idea of throwing in the towel, put it out of his mind with this elementary consideration: ‘The door of suicide is open, but theologians say that in the shadow of the other realm I will be there, waiting for me.’

Now, there are hopes of many kinds. Some console themselves with very little: the prospect of being turned into unpunished nobodies is undoubtedly the most minimalist of all.

Next in the ranking is the expectation that those who survive us will only remember the good times we had with them, forgetting or forgiving the misdeeds or even the fact that we were, without palliatives, bad people. There are even those who are not satisfied with having swindled their fellow man and pretend to deceive posterity by burying under their own coffin any evidence of past iniquities, or by hiring a mercenary pen to draw up a false biography embellished with hagiographic touches.

Auguste Comte, in his Catechism of Positive Religion, tried to prevent posthumous frauds by establishing a tribunal formed by priests of the ‘Religion of Humanity’ who would decide, in the absence of judgements in the next world, what should be the final destiny of the deceased; their salvation or condemnation would be recorded in a carefully guarded book. But I think that not even in this way could the irremissible application of the sentences be completely assured, especially if an absent-minded comet should happen to stumble upon our planet.

For me, being a Christian, these ‘passive’ immortalities leave me unimpressed. I don’t really care if a chorus of praise can be heard or not at my funeral, let alone the fact that I not even even get one.

And if in a hundred or two hundred years there is still someone who has the idea of reading something of what I have written, what difference will that make? Compared to Jesus Christ’s promise to us that we will see Him, and the Father, and the Holy Spirit, ‘face to face’ the attractiveness of any other post-mortem reward pales into insignificance.

Nor am I one of those who like to speculate about what we will do or how we will feel when we are ‘in Heaven.’ Some of those who share my faith are more prone to this kind of speculation, and they can be uneasy at the thought of leaving behind loved ones or experiences they are very fond of.

Although I’m not a great novel reader, it seems to me that worrying about such extremes is futile. C. S. Lewis recounts in A Grief Observed the last moments he shared with his wife. As far as he himself is concerned they were of particular intensity, and he managed to have an extraordinary spiritual communion with her. But he adds, with divided feelings half way between desolation and consolation: ‘But she was already looking forward to eternity.’

It is not those who die who are left alone: it is us. The Christian can learn something from the blow that the Master gave to the Sadducees when they asked him whose spouse she would be in the hereafter, the one who in life was the widow of seven brothers.

Nevertheless, the feeling that many have—that we have—is very understandable, that there are things in our earthly existence that it would be a pity to leave completely behind when the trumpet sounds announcing the passage from this world to the next. Without prejudice to my lack of fondness for eschatological speculation and my firm will to abide by the teachings of the Church, I believe that something can be said to appease whatever is justified in such uneasiness.

I will introduce it by quoting again some verses of Borges, the great unbeliever (or maybe not so much of one?):

There is only one thing there is not.
It is oblivion. 
God, who saves the metal, saves the dross  
And figures in His prophetic memory  
the moons that will be  
and those that have been. 

The finite memory

For an elderly person, for whom forgetfulness has ceased to be an anecdote and has become a habit, nothing could be more hopeful than the existence of a Memory capable of housing in its immense vaults nothing less than the infallible deposit of all lost memories.

This is particularly well understood by those of us who have writing as a profession and often suffer the paranoia of losing our texts. I am reminded now of my teacher Leonardo Polo’s visits to Seville. When he got off the train I would offer to carry his case, and he would take advantage of the occasion to observe ceremoniously: ‘Be careful, because I am carrying unpublished works…’ Polo’s unpublished works!

He, at least, had a court of disciples willing to preserve them. But what about my unpublished works and those of Paco, Pedro, Carmen, etc., etc.? There was a time when from time to time we would record our complete works on CDs, so that those intimate treasures would not be lost forever. What a disappointment we were when we learned that the preservation of such repositories is only assured for a few years! Even paper turns out to be more durable.

Now we put our trust in something more spiritual, as we store the sum of our witticisms in ‘the Cloud’. Do we really believe that the aforementioned cloud will not dissipate into thin air like an evanescent mist?

The physicist Frank Tipler wrote a fanciful book entitled The Physics of Immortality. The eternal life offered therein is given not by God, but by science. It is still a long way off: the day after tomorrow at the earliest, which means that we will not see it during our lifetime, but not to worry: since he is promising, he also promises retroactive effects for it.

In other words: we will have a technological resurrection and so we will all enter together hand-in-hand into a new life within this very cosmos. It will be a return to a virtual life, because there would be nowhere to put so many bodies, especially if they insist on traveling to the beach on weekends. Apart from this and other renunciations, in order for things to last indefinitely, we will have to overcome—also with the help of the knowledge of the future—all the cracks that make this mischievous world perishable. Little by little the thing gets bigger and bigger, until in the end we will have to swallow millstones the size of the galaxy. I prefer to stick to the faith that my parents passed on to me.

But, since we are talking of saving, there is also something recoverable in Tipler’s wild speculation. It always struck me that even the most delicate expressions of an artist, the most sophisticated harmonies of a concert, the most brilliant inflections of a speaker, can be encoded, stored and reproduced in the ups and downs of a plexiglas disk or in strings of zeros and ones recorded on a flash drive. The spirit surpasses the material, but its corporeal imprint is something very tangible. Over-egging the pudding a bit, Tipler concludes that all the avatars of a human life, however long and rich it may be, could be encoded in 1045 bits of information. Every last sigh, feeling, desire and reasoning, second by second, and even the film of the manufacture, evolution and destruction of each and every one of the molecules in our body would be recorded there.

In short: everything, absolutely everything, the material and the spiritual, to the extent that the latter is translated into words, gestures and describable experiences.

As I am not a materialist, I must add that in this accumulation of information my conscience, my self, my soul, etc., would not be included. But it would include the history of the totality of the actions and passions of my spirit, down to the last comma and diacritic. This is, of course, a fantastically large magnitude, a 10 followed by 45 zeros. To get an idea of how big it is, let me just say that it would be enough to add 35 more zeros to sum up every last atom in the universe.

So what? It is still a finite number that admits to be fully designated with a comically succinct expression.

God, on the other hand, is infinite. In some lost corner of his Memory (if you will excuse the inappropriateness of the expression) I can be contemplated not only down to my last hair (which, as I am quite bald, is not saying much), but also every detail, conversation, gesture, sneeze, hiccup, fit of rage, undefined feeling of discomfort or wellbeing, moment of glory and exaltation, or of loving tenderness, etc., etc., etc., that has been, is and will be in my life, my wife’s life, my daughter’s life, and the life of the last Martian inhabiting the last exoplanet. And that Memory will remain perfectly preserved and indelible for ever and ever.

Which, put like that, is in principle and a priori rather more disturbing than anything else. Because, since taking pictures with a cell phone is free, one of the greatest pleasures we have is to delete 90% of the ones we take. I, at least, am not so attached to my existence that I would want to keep an untouched record of everything that is in it. It is like laughing at the dossiers that detective agencies prepare to ruin the careers of politicians.

However, here comes the best part: I have been a father and I have mastered the technique of ‘turning a blind eye’; I can forget some unglamorous episodes of my offspring without really forgetting them. So it is easy for me to apply the corresponding rule of three: the best thing is not that it is infinite and absolutely faithful, but above all that God’s Memory is loving.

When we return to Him, we will be able to dive into it happily, without having to be ashamed of ourselves. We can go for a walk with the compilations, the diaries, the exhaustive curricula! We can make fun of our memory failures, even of the threat of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s!

Wherever we go, we will find again (bathed in a radiance golden enough to satisfy even the most romantic of nostalgics) everything that deserves to be remembered in our laughable lives… and much more: No eye has seen, nor ear heard…

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