“The Redemption of Memory”
Evening of Recollection
Baltimore Area Order of Malta
November 28, 2022
At Mom’s Bedside
Under normal circumstances, Mom would be upset with me for talking about her. When I was installed as Bishop of Bridgeport, I told the story of how Mom & Dad met. Eleven years later, when I came to Baltimore, Mom said, “You’re not going to tell that story again, are you?” – I didn’t. So, I don’t normally tell stories about Mom, but these are not normal circumstances. Mom is nearing her 103rd birthday, and not surprisingly, she sleeps more than she used to. Sitting near her these past days, I noticed that Mom was talking in her sleep. I can’t really know what was going on in her mind, but she seemed to be re-living episodes from her past … some of them going back many years, to her childhood. It’s almost as if, in her sleep, Mom is doing an inventory of her memory, that vast interior storehouse where our experiences are collected, so that we can reflect on them and perhaps even make sense of them.
When Mom is awake, it is clear she is keeping track of the present. Just as she used to, Mom will ask me how things are going. Am I still in Baltimore? Why do I travel so much? How’s my dog, Bayley? But often, the conversation shifts to the past. Mom will talk about the pet pig she and her brother Frank had when they were kids. She talks about the day I told her I wanted to become a priest. She recalls how our family used to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. She speaks of her house, which she dearly misses, a home, which, for Mom, remains a storehouse of family memories.
Memory and Identity
We would expect someone as old as Mom to delve into her memory, but, in fact, memory is a critically important faculty for all of us – no matter how young or old we may happen to be. Yet, despite all that was taught me about memory in philosophy and theology, it took a lot of living for me to begin to grasp the true importance of memory. Of course, I always understood the importance of being able to remember things – names, faces, vocabulary, important ideas, the multiplication tables, and so forth. I knew that memory is where I stored up past experiences and that memory is where love lives on, as well as enmity – Even so, I didn’t quite grasp its true importance. All too often, I regarded memory like an attic through which I rummaged for solutions or simply for a way out when I faced a dilemma, or an intractable problem, or a crisis. Or to change metaphors, memory sometimes functioned like a hat out which I sometimes I sometimes pulled a rabbit, or out which I sometimes pulled a ferocious lion (like Mr. Know-It-All, aka Bullwinkle Moose).
My old boss, mentor, and friend, Cardinal James Hickey, always spent a part of Christmas day alone in his room, looking through a large box of family photos he kept in his closet. I never understood why. Combing through old photos of loved ones, most of whom were dead, seemed like a recipe for “a blue, blue Christmas”. In retrospect, I see that Cardinal Hickey profoundly understood the centrality of memory, not just as a way of making sense of the past, but also, as a way of understanding who he was at the present moment, and thus, who and what he should become in whatever time that was left to him. I can attest, the Cardinal made the best of the time God gave him.
In my latter years, I have come around to his way of thinking. Like most people my age, I realize that most of my life is in the past. So, naturally, memory of past experiences has a more prominent place in my thoughts, feelings, and affections. But more than that, as I remember what I have experienced over some seven decades, I can see, with God’s grace, the pattern of my life – both the good and the bad – characteristic ways of thinking, speaking, decision-making, and interacting with others. In other words, through my memory, my identity, my experience of self, continues, even at this late date, gradually to come into ever-sharper focus. In hindsight, I can make sense of things I couldn’t understand when I was younger, or see facets of past experiences that escaped me at the time … I can even say that I have begun to understand a bit more of what St. Augustine meant when he wrote about the faculty of memory in Book X of his Confessions. For Augustine, the memory was not merely a storehouse of images. Memory, for Augustine, is the locus of the self, the force that links the present with the past and gives identity. We cannot know ourselves or be ourselves without memory.
Of course, it is not that simple. My memory, and possibly yours, is not always crystal clear. I realize how easily I can distort the past by sanitizing my failings, by remembering selectively, by exaggerating either the good I have done or by minimizing what I failed to do … But most of all, I can distort the memory of my past by imagining myself to have been the central actor, the protagonist in many situations, sometimes even the hero … not unlike what Alice Roosevelt said her father, President Theodore Roosevelt: “He always wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding, and the baby at every christening.” The “ego” can loom large in our memory. Conversely, in the storehouse of memory are painful experiences, things I’d rather forget, things that are difficult to face.
Memory is the seat of our identity, but it turns out that we are complicated creatures, so complicated, in fact, that it scarcely seems possible to follow the advice of the Delphic oracle, “Know thyself” … Perhaps that’s because we’re getting our advice from the wrong temple. Instead of the wisdom found in the pagan temple of Apollo, we should turn to One who is all wise and all loving, the One who cleanses and redeems our memory, the One who alone redeems the gift of time: Jesus Christ.
If the flame of faith is alive in our hearts, we will see, as did St. Augustine, that God is the protagonist, the central actor of our lives. Augustine maintains that since God is the author of our humanity and since it is God who loved us first, there is buried in our memory an intuition of his presence, an intuition which we experience as a longing for something more, as a longing for a love that nothing and no one in this world can fully satisfy. Deep down in us is a memory that God made us, and that God loves us. The longing we experience is a desire for God. While original sin and its effects as well as our personal sins, obscure that desire, and prompt us to look for love in all the wrong places, the desire for God is so deep seated that it is never entirely canceled out. That’s nice to know, isn’t it, living as we do in a “cancel culture”.
When, in the grace of the Holy Spirit, we open our hearts to Christ, or better, when we surrender to the grace of the Holy Spirit, we can and we will experience the redemption of our memories. After all, by assuming our humanity, Christ the Son of God, in some way united himself to every person without exception. Yet, how intimately he unites himself to those who are baptized and confirmed, to those who repent of their sins and confess them, to those who receive his most holy Body and Blood in Holy Communion, to those who read his Word and fall on their knees in adoration. Jesus said, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” He is knocking at the door of our memory, our inmost self, asking to be admitted. If we allow him to enter, he will “reveal us to ourselves”. That is, if we allow him to roam freely in our mind, our heart, and our memory. In his tender love and mercy, in his desire to save us, he will shed the healing rays of his glory onto the darkened corners of our soul, he will call forth from our memory what needs to be healed, and he will show us who we truly are, not necessarily in the eyes of the world, but in the eyes of our Heavenly Father, the Father of mercies. In his eyes, we are beloved. Only with the indwelling of the Holy Trinity in our hearts do we, in any measure, truly come to know ourselves, to understand and properly evaluate what our memory has retained, and to grasp what that means for how we use our time and our freedom, now and in the future.
Mary’s Memory and the Church’s Memory
During the Advent and Christmas seasons, we will read in the Gospels of Mary’s amazement over events in the life of her Infant Son, the Lord Jesus. The Gospels tell us that Mary “stored these things in her heart” – that is to say, she stored them in her memory, a memory undimmed by sin. On the night of Jesus’ birth, when the angels lit up the sky with God’s glory, and the shepherds came bearing the message of the angels, St. Luke tells us that Mary “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” She treasured in her memory, all the events of the life her Son, those events which revealed God’s glory and brought about our salvation.
Like Mary, the Church also has a memory – a living memory – a memory which is not a mere repository of the past but rather a memory through which Christ and the great events of salvation emerge into the present as a living reality, so that you and I can share in them, whenever the Word of God is proclaimed and the divine mysteries are celebrated. When we participate wholeheartedly in the Church’s liturgy, it is as if we link our memory to the Church’s memory, just as the Church’s memory is linked to Mary’s. Thus, do we encounter the Lord through Word and Sacrament, and thus, does he enter into the recesses of our memory with redeeming love, not to paper over our past but to redeem it, not to shame us but to give us peace, not to cause us to forget but rather to rejoice in mercy. The Incarnate Lord Jesus enters into our memories not only to enable us to make sense of our past experiences but indeed, to make of our whole life an acceptable sacrifice, an everlasting gift, pleasing in the eyes of our Heavenly Father. Nothing can bring us more joy! Come, Lord Jesus!