The editorial of the month
Jubilee Year of Mercy: Mercy and Memories by Rev. Peter John Cameron, O.P
Let’s say that a person undergoes a radical conversion. He commits himself to daily prayer, goes to Mass and confession regularly. He reads the Bible and other spiritual works. He fasts, gives alms, does acts of social justice. Yet still there is something holding him back…holding him hostage: the memories of his past, sinful life.
Sometimes they pop up out of nowhere, vivid, shameful, and unsettling. He’s undone by how intrusive and domineering they can be. Especially when graphic images recur, he feels a fake about his faith. The memories are terrorists. They make his desire for sanctity seem a sham, his life a charade. Each replaying of those memories turns an occasion of quiet despair. They look as if to have the last word. The convert fears they will never fade or go away.
Purification of Memories
But they will. The mercy needed in order for our memories to heal flows from hope. The renowned theologian (and Servant of God) Dominican Father Hyacinth Woroniecki, wrote:
The amount of mercy obtained by us from God corresponds to the greatness of our hope in him. The more we trust in God, the more abundantly shall we draw from the treasures of his mercy. If we remind God of our hope, we can obtain from him ever more and more. Every act of hope is also homage to his mercy.
This confidence about the power of hope was enunciated by Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical on hope:
Only the great certitude of hope that my own life and history in general, despite all failures, are held firm by the indestructible power of Love, and that this gives them their meaning and importance, only this kind of hope can then give the courage to act and to persevere (35, emphasis added).
If the young Christian holds fast to the theological virtue of hope, then Doctor of the Church Saint John of the Cross promises that hope will act to beget “an emptiness of possessions in the memory” which converts the believer from a fixation on the past to true confidence in the present. It is a given “when union with God is in the process of being perfected” that “a person cannot but experience great forgetfulness of all things, since forms and knowledge are gradually being erased from the memory.”
A similar conviction was expressed in the 9th century by Saint Theodorus the Great Ascetic:
Memories of the impassioned actions we have performed exert an impassioned tyranny over the soul. But when impassioned thoughts have been completely erased from our heart, so that they no longer affect it even as provocations, this is a sign that our former sinful acts have been forgiven. The unseen passions of the soul are destroyed through humility, gentleness, and love.
Remembrance for remembrance
Memories that compel us to recall our false self must be replaced with an even more potent remembrance. Pope Francis explains what this is:
It will do us good to think back on our lives with the grace of remembrance. Remembrance of when we were first called, remembrance of the road travelled, remembrance of graces received…and, above all, remembrance of our encounter with Jesus Christ so often along the way. Remembrance of the amazement which our encounter with Jesus Christ awakens in our hearts.
We will triumph if we follow the counsel of the 19th century Russian spiritual master Theophan the Recluse:
When bad thoughts come you should avert your mind’s eye from them. Turn to the Lord and cast them out in his name. If a thought has already moved the heart and, little by little, induced you to take an evil pleasure in it, you should blame yourself, beg the Lord’s forgiveness, and chastise yourself until the opposite feeling is born in your heart. Prepare beforehand a calm place in your heart where you are at the feet of the Lord. As soon as trouble comes, hasten there and call ceaselessly upon him, as though exorcising some evil pest. And God will help—everything will quiet down.
As a poet, John of the Cross gives us the best assurance:
I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.