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The Transformative Power of Memory

February 25, AD2018 1 Comment

“When you and I met, the meeting was over very shortly, it was nothing. Now it is growing something as we remember it . . . What it will be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes in me all my days till then—that is the real meeting. The other is only the beginning of it.” — C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet

Those words present a thought we may seldom consider. Memories are not merely records or images of things gone, like photos on a wall. They develop inside us and become parts of us; they can change our lives in the present and the future.

Why should that be? Of course years gone by were important as they happened, but how can they continue to affect us, in a real, tangible way, after they have passed? Do they matter enough to warrant thought and discussion? After all, the past is gone; we must live in the present.

While that statement is certainly true, we sometimes also find that we need to develop our understanding of our past to better live a whole, healthy life in the present. Each life is a story, and how we understand the previous chapters does much to determine how we see ourselves and our world.

Memories can do this in two main ways. They can preserve wholesome and precious times, treasures to enrich us in the future. They can also become dangerous when they store our experiences of darkness and injuries, in which case they require healing.

Memory’s Power for Good

On the most basic level, our good memories are important because we should appreciate our blessings. Someone who has forgotten the beauty of his past is much poorer than he could be. If life is a story, such a person is taking from his book no impression of the best parts. Riches of goodness are poured out on each of us, and if we make a point of remembering them, they can continue to enrich us even after we are no longer presently enjoying them.

A case in point has been playing out lately in my own life. A close relative is moving this month, and my family and I have been helping her empty her house. From the age of six, I had spent many happy times there with family; but in recent years, amid the busyness of young adulthood, many of those memories had been pushed toward the back of my mind.

As my relative’s move began, however, I looked around the old place with new eyes, reflecting on all that had happened there over sixteen years. Countless images—birthday parties, Easter egg hunts, sledding in winter—sprang vividly before me. Suddenly the brightness and sweetness of my earlier life came back to me, bringing a deep gratitude that such treasures had been given me.

This gratitude culminates in thanksgiving and love toward God, “from Whom all blessings flow.” Since God has given us every good we enjoy, including those in our past, we do well to remember His past blessings, the better to perceive His love for us and praise Him. This theme is among the most prominent in Scriptural prayers. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits” (Psalm 103:2).

In addition to kindling gratitude, good memories strengthen us to embody that goodness and joy in our own lives. We need to preserve the graces we have received because what we carry in our minds and hearts shapes how we think, how we act, and who we become.

This is why we say that someone has “a strong foundation” when he has enjoyed a happy, wholesome upbringing and a sound education: he has an abundant experience of good that should help him to live well and happily.

Of course, such a person can still choose to go wrong, but his “foundation” will not be to blame. It may even still help him. In A Christmas Carol, the three Spirits begin their work on Scrooge by showing him his past: his childhood village, his little sister, the kindly employer of his youth, his fiancée. By themselves, these visions are not enough, but they begin his conversion: they remind him of the joy of love, of a better time in his life, and eventually prompt him to regret all he has been missing.

The fortifying power of good memories is especially necessary when the present is grim. When someone is surrounded by evil of any kind, memory of a better time may indeed save him, reminding him that life can be better and encouraging him to keep hoping for a better future.

Robert Royal’s Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century tells of a Sister Angela Autsch, in a Nazi prison camp, encouraging a fellow inmate with the words, “Don’t let yourself be overcome. Think about a brighter day and hold on to what is better.” In order not to be overwhelmed by evil, we must counter it with good. By nourishing our understanding and love of what is right and pure and beautiful, our good memories can empower us to endure and to fight.

I’ve often heard a saying, ascribed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “We become what we think about all day long.” Since our memories form so much of what we think about, is it any wonder that the better ones can do so much for us?

When Memory Requires Healing

But, of course, not every memory is good. If remembering the light and grace in our past has great beneficial power, our dark memories, of evil experienced and pain endured, can become dangerous. This danger can take more than one form—for instance, evil influences encountered in one’s early years can warp one’s mind and moral judgment—but here I’m especially thinking of traumatic memories, of emotional scars from losses or injuries.

Probably everyone has some wound of this sort. Some people have such great ones that their pain threatens to dominate their lives. You probably know some such person, whether their hurt comes from a loved one’s death, an unfaithful spouse or some other betrayal, abuse in their childhood, sexual assault . . . the list goes on and on. With my limited experience and word count, I can offer them little here besides sympathy and prayer.

Still, the question wants consideration: how should we respond to our troublesome memories? As best I can tell, the answer is something like this.

As with so many things, there are two wrong ways and one right one. The first way is denial. One represses the memories, never admits what happened—even to oneself—and does one’s best to pretend that nothing is wrong. This may work in the short run, affording some distraction and encouraging one to function normally for short stretches of time. It is not, however, an effective solution. The problems are still there, burning the heart. Sooner or later the pent-up pain will erupt again, perhaps even worse for having been repressed. This approach is like wrapping up an infected wound and then trying to ignore it. Under the bandage, the wound is still festering.

The second way might be considered the opposite of the first, but is perhaps even worse. This is obsession: one mulls over the memories, clinging to bad thoughts and feelings, immersing one’s mind and heart in old pains and grievances. Admittedly these thoughts can “haunt” us, or persist against our wills, and we are not to blame for that; but we can choose whether we will try to resolve them or embrace and relish them.

To return to the image of the infected wound, this way is like scratching the wound with something dirty. It may give a kind of satisfaction, but only by encouraging impulses toward self-pity and resentment. By contemplating the wrong done, this brooding nurtures festering bitterness, tends to make one remember bad things as even worse, and may taint or erase good recollections.

The third way is the most challenging, but also the only one that offers a solution. This is the cleansing or healing of memory. It means integrating all of our past, including the darkest parts. We need to accept these parts, but not let them dominate or define us. Rather, we take them up into our story and let them take a new meaning there.

I don’t know of any patron saint of wounded memories, but if there were one, it could be St. Josephine Bakhita. If anyone had reason to struggle with the past as a burden, she did. That she knew better times later would not necessarily have healed those wounds. Those who knew her, however, concurred in their description: serene, sweet, cheerful, and always full of gratitude to God. She told her story countless times—notably in Ida Zanolini’s biography, Tale of Wonder, based on the author’s interviews with Bakhita—and in these tellings, consistently focused on God’s care and kindness to her.

A Father Amedeo Cencini, commenting on Bakhita’s story, spoke thus on her memory’s healing:

“Our memory is purified when we are actively able to give a new meaning even to what is negative, to evil inflicted and received—to sin—transfiguring it so that it may be accepted and lived in a positive way . . . Bakhita could have emerged with a disintegrated personality, with a heart full of resentment and despair, with the temptation to repress or ignore wounds that were still raw, still open. . . . Bakhita does much, much more with the help of grace: she succeeds in fully integrating the evil that was done to her. She gives it a new meaning, transforms and transfigures it, and goes so far as to live it as a blessing” (from Bakhita: From Slave to Saint, by Roberto Zanini).

While no one arrives quickly at that level, all who struggle with painful memories can and should seek ways of giving their wounds a new, positive meaning. This is a gradual process, requiring patience with oneself as well as help from others—friends, perhaps a spiritual advisor and/or counselor—but it can be done. God wills to help us do it. In a recent interview with Catholic Digest, Fr. Thomas Berg advised hurting souls, “Try to discover within where, guided by the Holy Spirit, there might be a calling, an invitation, an opportunity, a new possibility arising from that crisis.” When this happens, we find revival and renewal for ourselves and those around us. In a way, life springs forth from death.

A Healthy Memory

Everything that’s been said thus far could be summed up in one sentence: we need a healthy memory. What does this mean? It means understanding all of our past as it is and being at peace with it.

“A healthy memory does not mean that one forgets the difficult things of the past and remembers only happy events,” Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen explains in his book, Into Your Hands, Father. “No, a memory becomes healthy to the extent that it increasingly coincides with God’s memory. We begin to see with his eyes and remember his work.”

This is not to imply that God, Who is outside of time, “remembers” as we do. “God’s memory” is an expression for “how God sees our past,” which is, of course, simply the truth. He sees the good that He has given us; He also sees the evil that He has permitted, but that He can and will use to bring us good.

Throughout each life, He sees the story of His love for that person, more intricate and astonishing than any novel. Though we, within the story, cannot wholly grasp what each chapter means, we can strive to understand better those we have already “read.” Trying may require time and effort, but if we do try, we can discover wondrous depths of beauty running through the whole.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Sarah Greydanus graduated in May 2016 from the amazing Christendom College, receiving a B.A. in literature. Now living with her family in New Jersey, Sarah seeks to produce and share well-crafted Catholic writing for God's glory and readers' benefit. Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction pieces may be viewed on her site, gildedweavings.com. May the grace and peace of Christ be with you!

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