Remembering and Forgetting
By Amanda Hudson
Some centuries ago, St. John of the Cross wrote about memory and how it can get in the way of being present to God. Carmelite Father Marc Foley in his books of reflections on John’s writings helps make the saint’s wisdom easier to understand.
It is a great victory for a soul to remember and forget according to the mind of God who, St. John says, will cause us to remember what is important and forget what isn’t. Although much of that is God’s work, we can begin making efforts to discipline our memories and make more room for God to come to us.
St. John acknowledges the importance of remembering and thinking about “what (we) must do and know,” Father Marc quotes, but, John adds, “They should not think or look on these things (of the memory) for longer than is sufficient for the understanding and fulfillment of their obligations.”
There is the potential for huge benefits if we decide to practice disciplining our memories. “John sets before us a basic truth,” Father Marc says. “One of the greatest sources of stress in life is our inability to shut down the memory ... So much of our trouble begins in the swirl of our thoughts.”
Allowing memory to have control over our thoughts can lead to other problems also.
Father Marc notes, “John puts before us a vicious cycle. When our minds ruminate over an event, the images and emotions that thinking generates are stored in the memory. Because these memories are emotionally charged, they are easily triggered to the conscious mind ... every time we recall a memory and rehash it in our minds, the emotion that clings to it increases.”
Even worse, Father Marc says, our memory “is self-serving. It edits the events of our past according to our needs ... what is recorded in the memory is not what happened but what we believe happened. Every time we recount the past, we revise it in some way.”
That process happens subtly, John warns. We have to pay careful attention and set emotion-filled thoughts aside to be able to pray at all.
Tranquility of soul is the chief benefit from “mortifying the memory and the imagination,” John says.
That may sound difficult, but we already are well versed in forgetting what is not important to us — the many sources of stimulation that flood over us each day. We have the ability to find the promised tranquility of soul and to be freer to focus on what is truly important, particularly our relationship to God.
With all the dilemmas around the world communicated over and over, it is good to learn to turn such tragedies over to God in prayer. For us to absorb it all without perspective can only harm us and add to the total amount of sadness in the world.
“Even though no other benefit would come through this oblivion and void of the memory than freedom from afflictions and disturbances, it would be an immense advantage and blessing for a person,” John says. He adds that “if the whole world were to crumble and come to an end and all things were to go wrong, it would be useless to get disturbed, for this would do more harm than good.”
Easier said than done, of course, but we can learn to notice when we start going down the path of memory-emotions or of useless worry. Then we can take action — perhaps distracting ourselves with an engaging task, or grabbing a book or diving into a movie — something that will help us set aside a memory or concern that only gives us stress. And prayer always is available to us. God wants to give us freedom from what disturbs our peace and our ability to rest in Him.
St. John, says Father Marc, “may have used the image of the world crumbling about him as a means of disengaging his memory from useless worry.
“This enabled him to dwell in the quiet spaciousness of holy solitude, where he could commune with God.”
Being present to God is the goal, and we can experience some great benefits along the way to that holy solitude.