Research & Creative Activity

Indiana University

Office of Research and the University Graduate School
Volume XVII, Number 1, April 1994

Faith in Memory

Memory is not innocent. Nor is it a detached, fixed object, like a silver coin found and saved by a child, who years later takes out the same silver coin.

So says Robert Orsi, professor of religious studies at Indiana University Bloomington, who has examined the role of memory in several research projects. Whether studying southern Italian immigrants to New York City or the devotions of Roman Catholic women today, Orsi found one aspect of memory that remained constant: its fluidity. "Memory is a creation that people reshape and reformulate throughout life. To understand memory, it must be placed in the context of relationships and places."

Within these contexts, Orsi has pointed to the specific, sometimes even insidious function of memory. In a study of southern Italian immigrants to Harlem between 1920 and 1945, he found that parents conjured images of their homeland as a tool for social discipline. "Southern Italy," a mythical place with almighty parents, obedient children, and passive women, was cast in direct opposition to "America," where everything, except financial opportunity, had gone awry. Haunted by the fear that their entire social order would collapse in the new world, these parents used memory as a form of what Orsi terms "coercive cooperation." It aimed to maintain conformity and submission, and to quell individualism.

Orsi also asks us to reconsider memory's stepchild, tradition. "Like memory, tradition is constructed," he says. "It does not discover, but creates the past in response to the needs and dilemmas of the present." Questioning traditional definitions, Orsi says that instead of trying to "hand down" traditions, the older generation may shape and "deploy" them to discipline or exclude its juniors.

He goes on to counter Hollywood and academic portrayals of the Italian American family as a tradition-based bastion of group support and cooperation. Popular and scholarly emphasis on the hardiness of the Southern Italian immigrant family, and its values and authority "masks its dark side," says Orsi, who holds that such simplification hinders understanding. "We must start to think about Italian American history as endurance through conflict, stability through instability. Pain, alienation, and conflict within the family are as much a part of its history as is support." Fluid memories are, of course, not limited to Italian Americans. All people have a double consciousness; everyone remembers past suffering. In relation to the younger generation, however, even the most wretched homelands become lost paradises.

According to Orsi, African Americans who had migrated to northern cities from the rural south during the mid-twentieth century subsequently described the south to their children in glowing terms. With their peers, these adults vividly remembered the lynchings, Jim Crow laws, and desperate poverty. In relation to their children, however, their memories were carefully constructed tributes to a lost way of life.

Likewise, Jewish immigrants sometimes painted a nostalgic picture of Eastern Europe for their children. Life in the poor and persecuted shtetl must have borne little resemblance to these idealized depictions, these Fiddler on the Roof-style reminiscences. Orsi finds it no coincidence that that show's hit song, "Sunrise, Sunset," which focuses on memories, "is all about the relations between generations and generational loss."

Always flexible, memory is stretched furthest and is most powerful, says Orsi, in religious contexts, where past, present, and future converge and blur. During the Roman Catholic Feast of All Souls, for example, believers feel the presence of dead friends and relatives so intensely that they speak with the departed. Faith obscures time's boundaries by evoking memories of childhood, says Orsi, adding that in all religions, we are children in the presence of God. St. Jude, the subject of Orsi's current research, reawakens the childhood worlds of his faithful devotees. The patron saint of lost causes, Jude is said by his believers to provide unconditional love and comfort. "These terms are also used to describe early nurturant experiences between babies and their caretakers," says Orsi.

What attracted Orsi, who has written one book and six articles on St. Jude, to the study of this saint? "Pain," he responds without hesitation. "Most theorists agree that in times of distress, religious idioms and practices can be seen most clearly. Suffering creates a window to religion at its most creative and powerful moment."

In his research, Orsi has explored what it means to call on, or enter into a relationship with, a saint. Women, more likely than men to pray to a saint, comprise the majority of St. Jude's followers. They are, therefore, Orsi's main source of religious memory and experience. In contrast to men, whose devotion is usually public, formal, and service-oriented, women's religious experience is intimate. "Jude knows how I feel. I don't have to explain a thing," and "We understand each other just by looking into each others' eyes" are frequent claims of Jude's followers.

An Italian American Catholic himself, Orsi comes from the same milieu as his subjects. His familiarity with them has proven a mixed blessing. "I grew up with the saints and people who prayed to them all around me," says Orsi, whose intimate knowledge of gestures, speech habits, and references grants him instant access to the world he studies. Too much closeness, however, can blur details. In his role as researcher Orsi must be both an insider and outsider at the same time even when subjects expect him to regard their beloved saints with pure devotion, not academic distance. "Having chosen to study real people, not just texts, I must learn to deal with that ambivalence. It is essential for me to be sympathetic, but not to misrepresent myself in any way," he says.

By stressing the study of religious practice over word, Orsi is an academic pioneer. "For a long time, from the 1950s to the 1970s, Catholics frequently denied their rituals, which gave them a sense of shame." Even Catholic universities despised and refused to study rituals, an attitude that prevailed as late as 1986.

When he initially applied to one Catholic university for a grant to cover a project on St. Jude, Orsi was refused. Fellowship panel members were divided between those who found the subject trivial and those who felt it mistreated Catholics. One member declared, "he wants to study us the way people study tribes in Africa."

Orsi partly attributes this attitude to anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States, and a tradition of American liberal religion in which morality is paramount, and ritual deemphasized. While he acknowledges that liberal Protestantism helped shape American culture, Orsi also holds that it omitted a great deal: "The view of religion as a rational choice connected to morality and understanding leaves out the 'stuff' of religion: ritual, and beings like Jude. It ignores the wilder, messier side of religion, the terror-inspiring side."

While mainstream American religion has denied faith's material side, Protestantism is not devoid of ritual. "Protestants, depending on their social class and region, have objects they kiss and touch, and images, icons, and shrines." Even secular America has temples, adds Orsi: "Have you ever been to Graceland?"

The late 1970s saw a renewed interest in popular religion and the saints, so scholars began exploring this aspect of faith. Convinced that the study of the practice of religion, rather than theology, is especially relevant to today's United States, Orsi can readily link his research to ongoing and important changes in American culture. "Since 1965, ten million immigrants from east and south Asia have entered the U.S. It is fascinating to see the ways people from other countries participate in religious creativity and improvisation."

Creativity is also a trademark of Orsi's classroom, where teaching and research share a symbiotic relationship. Orsi's popular course, "Religion, Medicine, and Suffering in the West" grew out of his work on St. Jude. Acknowledging that religion's major role is to alleviate suffering, Orsi explores in this course how religion helps people in intense physical pain rebuild their worlds. "Religious practices offset the tremendous isolation, the sense of being trapped in the body that great pain causes," he says.

While other new courses, such as "Saints and Shrines," sprang from Orsi's research, his students also kindle his ideas for future areas of exploration. "Many of my students grew up in religious environments and are quite reflective and insightful about religion. Their comments, particularly about how religion has helped them cope with pain, both move me and get me thinking in new directions. I am constantly learning from my students."

--Roberta Neiger