“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” – Søren Kierkegaard.
A metaphysical principle observed by St. Thomas Aquinas says that “whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.” He is referring to how created beings acquire knowledge of reality. By created beings, he means that we are obviously not divine, and we are certainly not angels. God, who created all things, knows all things in the eternal now. Angels, as incorporeal beings with intellect and will, grasp the inner logic of things immediately and for all time by intuition. We mere humans are lower in the scheme of being. Our knowledge of things does not take shape instantaneously; it seeps in slowly like molasses. The truth dawns on us only gradually, and even then only with great effort and attention. It has to be this way because our intellects operate in concert with real physiology in time and space.
Knowledge in this imperfect state leaves a fallible trace that we call memory.
There are hardships that come with such fallible memory. We forget people’s names, passwords, and where we placed our keys. Tragically, some of us live our lives distracted by such pitifully small details that some even forget to drop their babies off at day care, leaving them inside their cars while they chat mindlessly at the water cooler.
We overestimate the greatness of our glory days because at times because we can’t bear the truth. Or we underestimate or forget the greatness of others because we ruminate and gossip about grudges against them.
Worst of all, despite our affliction, we still imagine ourselves as knowing more at any given time than we actually know. The Enlightenment left an awful scar on our collective self-image when it envisioned the miraculous human mind as a mere skull filled with marble-like “facts.” The guy with the most facts is the expert. Nothing could be further from the truth about our nature than this corrupt yet very alluring vision.
But for all this difficulty, our state is a blessing. We have the dignity of sorting through our experience and coming to certainty about life on our own terms. Our station in life is a state of not knowing everything all at once, but of discovering for ourselves what is for real in our own time.
Memory and Faith
In all of this we discover a great surprise: Because it unfolds over time, and because it is constantly enriched by new learning, memory has the power to increase in truth over time. Meaning can be deferred until later. What we thought we knew yesterday can reemerge today with greater clarity, showing us that we didn’t really know the full truth after all. This changes our lives in the authentic sense of the beautiful Greek word metanoia, used in the New Testament to denote “conversion of heart.” If we are patient, and willing to let things come slowly, we can find the peace we have been looking for. We can see ourselves from a wholly new point of view. Speaking personally and with candor, I would like you to know that this is one of the true consolations of growing old.
Through the light of faith, God can and does work in our memory to help us discover the truth about Him, and the truth about ourselves. This truth is always liberating; it always removes the burdens we carry. We can come to see our lives differently, and see a hand at work we didn’t know was there.
None of this is new. Look at how some of these themes were discussed by great Christians throughout history.
St. Augustine. St. Augustine dedicated several chapters late in his Confessions discussing the philosophy and mystery of memory. These are some of his most difficult pages, but also his most important.
He saw himself in writing the Confessions as a man coming to terms with the history of his life, and of seeing the truth in memory traces through the light of faith he gained as an adult. Whereas he had previously seen his life through the lens of self-deception and untruth, he now sees almost a completely different series of events. Whereas he prided himself as an academic superstar who earned his meteoric rise in Roman politics, you see him in the Confessions as correcting not only this faulty interpretation, but the very events themselves. Read his book with that in mind. He is re-authoring himself in spirit and in truth. What he recounts as the structure of his life possesses greater truth today than whatever he thought about it in the past.
The quotation that is too-frequently attributed to St. Augustine might take on new light in the present context. We are fond of recalling that St. Augustine said, “Lord, grant me chastity but not quite yet.” It’s a chuckle, but in the context of our topic it is most telling. His conversion did not occur all at once. St. Augustine had a profound personal awakening but it took upwards of a decade, maybe longer, for it to seep totally in to his life. So you see he was not winking at his lecherous desires, he was sincere. He knew his conversion was not complete.
Blessed John Henry Newman. Blessed Cardinal Newman believed there was spiritual significance in the gap of time that passes between experience and true understanding. A brilliant sermon of his entitled Christ Manifest in Remembrance takes us on a thoughtful tour of salvation history, and a stunning, recurring theme in Scripture in which we see that God reveals his truth to us not immediately but long after events happen; he reveals the truth in our memories.
Exodus 33:20-23 recounts: “Here, continued the LORD, is a place near me where you shall station yourself on the rock. When my glory passes I will set you in the cleft of the rock and will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand, so that you may see my back; but my face may not be seen.”
Newman saw this as an expression of a powerful spiritual law. Just when we think we have “seen,” our understanding leads us in its own time to grasp what actually happened.
In Luke 24:1-32 we hear about the appearance of Christ on the road to Emmaus. After Jesus had vanished from their sight, after the passage of time, only then did the disciples ask one another if something important had just happened! “Were not our hearts burning when he interpreted scripture to us?”
Knowing takes time, and we often don’t know exactly what happened in a situation until we turn backward and reflect on it. There is tremendous comfort in this.
St. Frances De Sales. The root of crippling anxiety, says St. Frances De Sales, is our disordered desire to know immediately how things will turn out, or when the distressing obstacle will be removed. Part of living the Christian life is not to wish these things away, but rather to adapt to this law of experience. We aren’t made to get it all at once. God wills that we trust Him.
Don’t worry about the “experts” who know it all and make you feel like a slowpoke. We all have to grow accustomed to accepting that large parts of our knowledge and our lives remain open because our story isn’t through yet. There is great dignity in this.