St. John’s Episcopal Church
207 Albany Avenue, Kingston, NY 12401


  • Where you will find me… and where you won’t – The Rev. Michelle Meech

    November 13, 2022

    The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

    The image on today’s bulletin is probably seen on the walls of undergraduate dorm rooms all over the country. It’s a painting by Salvador Dali called the Persistence of Memory. Dali was a surrealist, as you may know, which means his imagery was dreamlike with strange juxtapositions, where things appear in unexpected ways. The surrealist movement began in Europe in the aftermath of World War I, the war that, at the time, was said to be the war to end all wars because of its devastation and death rate. Of course, we know this to not be true. And I think that the surrealist response to this kind of death and trauma, to bring everything to the surface and allow it to be acknowledged in some way… I think this was healthy.

    In Dali’s painting, we see a rather bleak landscape, with a still body of water in the background that surrounds a high cliff-like island. The colors are flat blues and browns… much as they would be in a dream because, in a dream, you don’t really see the details of the background. You only see the object of the dream.

    In this case, the objects 3 pocket-watch faces, limp instead of stiff, and draped over various items – a dead tree branch, a hard edge, and a bit of the artist’s own face – unattached to the rest of it – lying on the ground. There’s another watch that is overturned and has ants crawling all over it. The forms may be soft and organic, but they are grotesque in their presentation.

    The message of the artist is that time loses all meaning in memory because memory is, in fact, persistent. It can keep us locked in repeated patterns of behavior, keep us believing in false understandings of ourselves and of other people. Our memories, in fact, create our identity in many ways. We know who we are based on who we have been in relationship to the outer world. So, if memory can be this persistent, time really does have no impact or meaning.

    And yet, the artist puts ants in this painting, which, for him, represent decay. So, even though memory persists, and time has no meaning, decay is happening. Things are changing. Even if we aren’t changing with them.

    There’s a sense of hopelessness to this image, I think. An articulation of homeostasis, depicting a life that is barely breathing. A life that has chosen to hold onto things that no longer serve it rather than to risk change. A life that has stopped, not ceased, just stopped living.

    “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;” we hear God speaking through the prophet Isaiah. “the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.”

    God promises renewal to Jerusalem, the center of life in Israel. God promises new life in these final chapters of Isaiah’s prophecy. A life in which no more weeping shall be heard because life shall be everlasting. All will manifest God’s love as the wolf and the lamb and the lion and the ox all eat straw together. No pain. No destruction. No death.

    And yet, what we know about doing new things is that it is sometimes painful, or at least uncomfortable. Today’s Gospel reading admits to the pain of what is to come: Wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famine, plague. How is this hope? How could this be hope? What happened to the animals all eating together? What happened to “no more shall the sound of weeping be heard…” in Jerusalem?

    The Gospel scene takes place in the Temple. Jesus had been teaching, offering parables and being challenged by the scribes and priests and the Sadducees (who were the wealthy people and used their own affiliation with the Temple to wield power). And then… in the midst of all the rich people walking up to put their large gifts into the treasury… Jesus sees a poor, marginalized woman put in two small copper coins. And he says, “This woman has put in more than all of the rest. These others have offered what will not inconvenience them, but this woman’s offering will make her life less comfortable.”

    That’s when people around him began speaking about how well adorned the temple was. Beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God. Kind of like they were saying… “it’s this place just amazing?”

    And Jesus’ response was: “This will all be thrown down.”

    In other words, you’re looking for life in the wrong way. You’re trying to find salvation in the trappings of comfort, the things you think will keep you safe. None of this matters. It will all be thrown down. It will all be nothing in the end.

    And then Jesus says: “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name…”
    Do not be led astray, for many will come in my name.

    I was listening to a presentation this past week by a psychologist who talked about emotional intelligence. And she talked about developing new habits. You know, instead of getting trapped in the typical response we offer to a situation, instead of experiencing the same emotion, we can actually form new neural pathways in our brains. We can re-wire our brain.

    She gave a simple example of driving in her car. She said that she is someone who can easily get irritated by other drivers. Always looking for the ways in which people drive recklessly or inconsiderately. This, of course, kept her pretty anxious and angry when she was driving. So, she decided to start looking for other kinds of drivers. Drivers who would follow the rules of the road and be considerate of others.

    At first, she said, it was hard to shift gears, like working a new muscle. It was uncomfortable and new. And she had to admit that it was kind of fun to judge other drivers. There was some satisfaction she got out of it, even though it made her anxious and angry. But she kept trying, kept working the new muscle. And after about a month, her experience of driving had shifted completely.

    And so did her life. She was more relaxed when she got to work and when she got home from work. She didn’t feel the need to tell stories about the bad drivers she had encountered. She had formed new neural pathways in her brain.

    You see, I think what our artist, Salvador Dali is telling us in this painting is that our memories can be a trap. They can create roadblocks to our flourishing if we choose to remain tied to them, bound to them, allowing them to define us. And now, science tells us that this is so. That our memories can keep us locked in patterns of behavior that are unhelpful.

    But the hope lies in the willingness to rewire our brain and become, literally and physically, a new creation. Our hope lies in our willingness to see beyond the pain of letting go of this past self, letting go of the things we think keep us safe, letting go of the privilege and the comfort and the trappings of life. Because God is about to create new heavens and a new earth where the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.

    Jesus says, “By your endurance, you will gain your souls.” It may, in fact, feel like an earthquake or a famine of some kind. It may seem as if the very stones are being thrown down. And I’m not saying that God causes bad things to happen to us. What I am saying is that God works through them to bring us to new life, to re-create us into a new creation.

    We all have pain in our past just as we all have things for which we are thankful, blessed memories that we treasure. And Jesus is saying, this – these memories whether they are painful or pleasant – this is not where you’ll find me because this is not where life is. Memories, past ways of being, will lead you astray. This is not where you’ll find me.

    You will find me in the hopeful acts of being in the world. You will find me in your curiosity about others and about yourself. You will find me in the ways you answer God’s call. You will find me in the things that make your life less comfortable, not more. You will find me in the ways you reach out beyond yourself to love other people.

    May you find this hope. May you become a new creation in Christ.