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Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

The challenge of personal memories

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 07, 2021

I’m on a quasi-vacation at the moment. I’ve definitely “vacated”, as my wife and I have left our house in Virginia to be used by one of my daughters and her family. The nine of them need a place to stay while awaiting the occupancy date for their new home, having moved from California so that their older children can attend Seton School in Manassas. This gave Mom and Dad a chance to spend some time at her family’s little “camp” on Lake Champlain. It’s a beautiful spot, and full of memories.

Following the death of my wife’s parents, the camp was purchased from the estate by her older brother, who had done a great deal of work on the creaky old place over the years. I think all his siblings share my belief that he should have inherited the place outright, instead of being given the first right of refusal to buy. But he is gradually whipping it into shape as a rental property, with a discount for family. So, quite happily, here we are again. I have just finished fixing one of the lights in the bedroom. Before that we had a leaky hot water pipe under the kitchen sink. Last year, there were bigger problems—an over-the-winter mouse infestation, and a failed septic tank pump. But we just help deal with the problems that crop up when we’re here; it is the older brother who bears the brunt—and God bless him for it.

The memories are mostly good, but not all. As usual, the “not all” are those in which I now see myself as at fault or otherwise immature. At age 73, I have come to know that I’ve spent pretty much my whole life in a kind of relative immaturity—always realizing later that whatever stage of perfection I thought I had reached was really just another stage of imperfection. But although I find sadness here, I do not find discouragement. Each recognition is a step forward. The awareness triggered by this beautiful place is no exception.

It is a rare set of families and in-laws, I think, that lacks occasional tensions. As a general feature of my reflections here, I recall that there was a nearly universal personality conflict between myself and my father-in-law. I learned, thankfully while he was still alive, that part of the problem was not that we were so different but that we were so much alike: Egotistical, but with different causes. As a general description, he was a materialist who did not suffer fools gladly, while I tended to be a deliberate sign of contradiction. I did not know at first, you see, that all of us are in some way fools.

In any case, my response to the relationship was frequently an inadequate response for a Christian. Even worse in some ways, it was a wholly inadequate natural response to the man who gave me the greatest gift I ever hope to receive in this world—the gift of his first daughter.

Memory, a kind of interior vision before God

I have a tendency to recall most easily and frequently the times when I’ve fallen short. Coupled with faith and trust in God, these memories often become blessings in what St. Teresa of Calcutta might have called “distressing disguise”. Recognizing the truths they impart can be an occasion of grace and a spur to growth. Of course, every person’s relationship with God is unique. A flash of the glory to come spurs one soul forward, while the proverbial kick in the pants spurs another. The trick is to be spurred—and not to stop moving forward because we think we have already reached the summit, or can never reach it at all.

There are souls—or so I’ve been reliably told—who dwell on their shortcomings to the point of paralysis. But this does not seem to be the characteristic temptation of the modern period. Easier for us to be distracted by the constant stream of business interspersed with entertainment (or entertainment interspersed with business) in a life that never stands still, if only because it runs on a treadmill. In an era in which a thousand things are possible at every moment, we habitually fail to create time for silence, for reflection, and, inescapably then, for memory. Unlike Mary, we seldom “ponder all these things” in our hearts (Lk 19:2).

In this we often miss great opportunities for spiritual growth, which is all but impossible without what we call “recollection”, an interesting word when it comes to the spiritual life. Naturally speaking, with its root in the verb “to collect”, recollection is an interior process of collecting again that which is past, of recalling to mind significant moments of change or growth, or perhaps of distress or surprise, which hold within them the potential for a genuinely personal development. In the spiritual life, this is more specifically the process of calling to mind one’s life in specific relationship to God, of placing ourselves deliberately in God’s presence, to see a little more of what He sees in us, and how He is working and wishes to work to draw us more closely to Himself.

This is impossible without the faculty of memory. It is precisely what we have experienced in the past, and what we have thought and said and done in response to these experiences, which we can bring now into the presence of God to discern better how He has led us, what He wishes to communicate to us, and what path He has set before us to fulfill our particular responsibilities as His sons and daughters, while drawing ever closer to Him.

Memory and the Whole of Life

Without the human faculty of memory, we would experience life as a disconnected series of moments, not an intelligible whole. Without deliberately bringing our lives before God as partially embodied in our memory, we could not bring our lives before God at all, nor seek His counsel, nor grow in understanding and virtue through His help. We perceive our lives as a whole, as persisting through time, as purposeful unities only by virtue of our memories and the way they connect us, in each present moment, to all of our moments, so that our whole being can be renewed through grace, as evidenced by a life’s progress of which we are happily (and sometimes unhappily) aware.

There are more basic human reasons for taking “time off” and “time away” and even “time out” than this—for example, the need for natural rest and rejuvenation. But there is also this overarching spiritual purpose, this question of the trajectory of our lives, the trajectory which gives them meaning beyond each temporal moment. A well-lived life is inescapably a life that has been frequently reflected upon, a life in which we experience not only pleasure and pain and even joy and sorrow but their formative effects, so that each of our lives is somehow changed in its totality.

For us this remains a mystery, but it is meant to be a mystery whose meaning is revealed in the process of remembering and reflecting—and of bringing these memories and reflections to God, in prayer.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: cvm46470 - Jul. 08, 2021 9:15 PM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus, enjoy your time on Lake Champlain! And thanks for giving me something to "ponder" as I head this weekend to my own "days of retreat" away from home after bringing my child to camp in the mountains. A timely reminder to me to reflect on all memories (not just the ones I tend to dwell on) under God's gaze.