Clarence Clemons and the Power of Memory

The thing about studying theology, especially Catholic theology, is that you have to learn all of these new words… Greek words.   Have you ever heard the phrase, “It’s all Greek to me?”  Well, after three years of graduate study to become a priest, I am now convinced that that phrase originated with a theologian.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the Greek language in and of itself… it’s just that after a while, it’s hard not to wonder why one has to know so much of it in order to grow in one’s relationship with God.  I mean, when I first heard the word “exegesis,” I originally thought meant those times when Jesus left the building.  When my Scripture class threw the word “hermeneutic” at me, I was confused because I originally thought that the word meant the study of quiet, solitary people.

clarence-clemons-and-springsteen-are-born-to-run.800w_600hSo what does all of this have to do with Clarence Clemons?  Well, it’s because he helped me to understand one of the words added to my theological vocabulary this past year: anamnesis.

The word—which is a Greek derivative—means “to remember,” which might beg the question as to why those in theological circles don’t just use the phrase “to remember.”   Well it’s because, as I’ve learned over time, that the meanings of words between languages often do not have a six-one half-dozen-other relationship.  The word anamnesis does mean “to remember,” but not in the way someone might avoid forgetting to pick up the dry-cleaning.  It means to remember in such a way as to make the “rememberer” fully present to that which is being remembered.

The word “anamnesis” was used in my Eucharist course in order to describe what happens to all of the faithful gathered during the Mass.  In essence, during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, we remember the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in such a way that the saving event of his cross is made present to us… even if we weren’t physically in Jerusalem in the year 33…. so that we can participate in Jesus’ saving action for us.

Still, I can’t claim to have fully understood the concept of anamnesis when I first heard it.  I struggled with the “made present” part; the sometimes literal nature of my mind could not get images of a Star Trek transporter out of my head and that explanation of the sacred Mass sounded really weird.  It didn’t being to make sense to me until… the song Jungleland appeared on my iPod playlist one day.

For over twenty years, listening to Clarence Clemons belt out his longing, soulful tones on the last song of Springsteen’s Born to Run album has made present to me the world of 1975 Asbury Park… a world that because I was three years old at the time, I never directly experience for myself but has remained a large part of my psyche nonetheless.  I never did walk down a Jersey Shore boardwalk with my girlfriend after riding the Ferris wheel in high school—our family always vacationed in Cape Cod—but the closing sax of Jersey Girl routinely brings me back to the primary notion of romance in my brain.  And listening to Clarence Clemmons chuckle a “Ho! Ho! Ho!” on Bruce’s version of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town makes present to me every year Christmas on the beach… even though all of my December 25ths have been spent 50 miles inland in Morris County.

Now that the last time I saw Clarence Clemmons stand aside Bruce Springsteen on stage will actually be the last time I will ever see Clarence stand beside Bruce, I am comforted by this understanding of remembrance, the idea of memory making one present.  During Mass today, I said an extra prayer of gratitude for all of the thrilling moments he added to songs like Badlands.  I said an extra prayer of gratitude for all the times Clarence’s music made present to me a wonderful and dynamic world of hope and possibility… when the world I was immediately living in was not all that great.  And I said an extra prayer of gratitude that, simply by letting his light shine through a saxophone, Clarence helped me understand my Catholic faith and my relationship with God in a much more immediate way.

For that and for so much more Clarence, thanks for the memories.

Father Tom Gibbons was ordained a Paulist priest in 2012. Prior to becoming a priest, he spent time as a Jesuit Volunteer in Phoenix, AZ, working with immigrants in El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. He's also worked as a graphic designer and web developer, serving nonprofits like Success For All Foundation, Baltimore City Head Start, and Catholic Relief Services. He previously wrote a blog entitled “Kicking and Screaming” for Busted Halo. After serving as a deacon at Holy Trinity Parish in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., Father Tom was sent to St. Peter’s Church in Toronto, where he first served as Associate Pastor and then as the Parish Administrator. In 2016, he produced a documentary on the founder of the Paulist Fathers, entitled “Isaac Hecker and the Journey of Catholic America” – featuring celebrity voices of Martin Sheen, Matt McCoy, and Bob Gunton. Father Tom is currently at work on a new documentary investigating the complicated legacy of the Catholic Church in California with the film “Junipero Serra: Statue of Limitations,” scheduled for release in 2022. In addition to his work as Vice President of Paulist Productions, Father Tom also performs pastoral work at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church and Transfiguration Catholic Church in Los Angeles, CA.