Saturday, February 21, 2009


Memory is a tricky business. It is fully owned and operated by an independent editorial staff on duty 24/7. Or so it seems to an outsider looking into the workings of his or her own mind. The Acquisitions Editor begins the process. Picking through the experiences of the day—what we have seen, done, thought, read, said, heard—it sorts them into baskets labeled: RECALL, REPRESS, REWRITE. Contrary to our experience, there is no basket labeled: FORGET. (I suspect, however, that there is one labeled MISLAY IN THE BACK ROOM.) The REWRITE basket is full to overflowing with manuscripts in progress, the work of the Content Editor, who is also a skilled artist and writer, particularly of fiction. No need for a copy editor—memory doesn’t bother to check facts, references, spelling or punctuation. The supervising Editor-in-Chief takes the finished work of the Content Editor, arranges it for publication, and files it in the most useful spot on the vast shelves of our interior library. The CIRCULATION EDITOR takes it from there, selecting what we remember at any given moment. This busy editorial staff never sleeps, since a lot of their work is done in the night workshop of the unconscious. Dreams are often their rough drafts.

The business of memory would be of only passing interest if it did not shape so much of our waking lives. Various schools of spirituality stress the importance of living in the present moment. Certainly taking conscious responsibility for life at hand in the moment is important. However, living exclusively in the present seems a task outside the competence of the human mind. By the design of the God who put order into the primal chaos by creating lights in the firmament to govern the day and the night, the times and the seasons, that is, who created time as past, present and future, the human psyche lives in a multi-layered present where past and future are always in conversation with “right now.” When I am washing dishes, I may focus consciously and intentionally on the task at hand, but the order in which I wash and rinse, the attention I pay to food remnants stuck on a plate, or to ardor with which I do battle with the black stuff on the bottom of pots, depend a great deal both on the style of the parent who first taught me dishwashing and on what I plan to do with dish or pot later. My mother’s voice says in one ear, “Scrub all that black stuff off the bottom of that copper-bottomed pan so it will look nice hanging up there on the wall.” (My mother didn’t really say that.) My uncle’s voice says in another ear, “Don’t sweat the small stuff. A good dish-dryer should be able to take off whatever the dishwasher leaves.” (My uncle, the family dish dryer, did.) The past speaks through those family voices; the future speaks through the image of the copper-bottomed pan hanging on the wall or the faithful dish dryer wiping off the stubborn particles of broccoli. We live in a time-rich tapestry. The notion of liturgy as memorial in which past, present and future meet and interact NOW is simply an objective extension of our subjective experience of living in time.

That being the case, it matters a great deal what we remember and how and why because those departments of memory give our daily life its textures. If we remember this morning’s conversation with the accent on hurt taken, belittlement perceived, or disdain for the ignorance of the other speaker, and we keep rehearsing it with the intention of returning wound for wound, of defending ourselves against disparagement we fear might be justified, or of chalking up points by putting the other person down
[1], we will live the day under a dark cloud of hurt, anger, pride, and contempt. That’s rather an unpleasant prospect for most of us. If, on the other hand, we remember the conversation with the accent on gratitude for the other’s insight or honesty or creativity, we live in the sunlight.

I said in the beginning that memory is the work of independent editors, but, true as that seems, it is not in fact the only truth. We do have the capacity to choose our attitudes. In fact, Viktor E. Frankl, in his classic description of life in a World War II concentration camp, says that only freedom that cannot be taken from us is the precisely the freedom to choose our attitudes. It is a difficult freedom. It demands conscious work in examining and forming or reforming the decisions of our memory’s editorial staff. We may not be able to control what the Acquisitions Editor takes in, but we can attend to the way the Content Editor writes it, shapes it, and colors it insofar as it can be made accessible to our conscious mind and will, and we can exercise some authority over what the Circulation Editor presents to us for rumination. I can learn, with the grace of the God of truth, to look for the good in people, circumstances, and events. Both gratitude and humility will follow and perhaps become habits of mind. I can learn to choose which door to walk through when the mind presents me with one labeled “Resentments” and one labeled “Gifts.” The same events may lie behind both: behind “Resentments” they are colored dark, behind “Gifts” they are illuminated by the light of the Spirit (cf. Psalm 36).

The psalmist lament what happens to God’s people when the editor in charge of selection feeds them on memories of the good life in Egypt rather than the great deeds God has done for them. (See, for example, Psalms 78 and 106). The result is rebellious sulks rather than the grateful praise that makes obedience a joy and not a chore.

Our primary love and obedience to God are expressed through obedience to the two great commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37, 39; NRSV). “Heart, soul, and mind” take in the whole of our inner life, including memory. So remembering, too, must become an act of love. I don’t know about your editors, but mine still need a few lessons in that department. Lent is on the doorstep. Next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. It’s a good season to provide them with some continuing education.

©2009 Abbey of St. Walburga

[1] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, rev. ed., tr. Ilse Lasch (Boston: Beacon Press, 1962), xi.
[2] See “Tenting on a New Campground,” posting for 12/28/08. An expanded and revised version of that posting—with typos removed, I hope—appears in Pebbles on the Beach: Reflection for Lent and Easter by Genevieve Glen, OSB (Virginia Dale CO: St. Walburga Press, 2009). This newly-released book also includes revised versions of some other postings from this blog. It will be available today or tomorrow at Watch the sidebar for an announcement of our opening!

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