God in fragments: how worship can unlock memory

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Memories infused with gratitude are the wonderful consolation of old age. As we grow older we find the prayer of reminiscence becoming increasingly important. We savour events that have shaped us for good and mourn the opportunities we missed. In our memories we meet ourselves: who we were and who we have become. But what happens when our memory has holes in it?
Memory is the matrix of our identity; so when our memory disintegrates the self is lost and sometimes so is our sense of God. We no longer know who others are, who we are or who God is. As the wife of a former colleague said of her demented husband, ‘The lights are on, but there’s no one at home.’ Coping with friends and relatives who are living with dementia can be exhausting and distressing. People we have known for years suddenly no longer know who they are or who we are.
Helping those living with dementia to pray with their memories and their fragmented sense of God is not easy. How do we pray with those whose minds are jumbled and whose memories play tricks on them? In the words of Psalm 88, how do we accompany them when they are lost in ‘the dark land of forgetfulness’?

“using traditional prayers and older versions of the Bible is vital because it affirms their identity”

Crafting accessible worship for such people is an art-form. We talk about ‘coming to our senses’ but seldom think how this translates in the realm of worship. For those in the early stages of dementia where a person is midway between remembering and forgetting, but where language still has currency, using traditional prayers and older versions of the Bible is vital because it affirms their identity.
As language fades, using all the senses in worship generates a richer experience and strengthens a person’s faith. Music often has a key part to play in unlocking the gates of memory. Even when ordinary conversation is minimal, traditional hymns and songs that were sung in childhood, perhaps during school assemblies, can trigger memories and the words come flooding back releasing waves of reassurance. Music creates connections.

“The texture and shape of the cross communicates where words alone fail.”

Visual images can be equally important: photographs of friends and family, icons, pictures of Jesus or the saints, flowers, candles, can all help. But so can praying with a simple holding cross in the palm of the hand. The texture and shape of the cross communicates where words alone fail.
Being alongside people with dementia has taught me how precious God’s gift of life is and the vital importance of attending to our inner self lest our hearts go rusty. If we are to live well here and now then we need to keep our inner life true lest we die from the outside in.
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