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The Power of Memory in the Spiritual Life


Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 10/23/15

The Devil would have us believe that the most important thing about us is our sin

Do you have a good memory? Do you have good memories? What’s the difference?

Do you have a bad memory? Do you have bad memories? What’s the difference?

Do you have a powerful memory? Do you have powerful memories? What’s the difference?

I ask these questions because of the influence of the memory and its memories upon our spiritual life—an influence that can variously or even simultaneously be focused or pervasive, overt or covert, thrilling or chilling. Through the power of memory, various memories can be welcome and cheery companions, or morose and relentless stalkers. Memories can be treasured possessions clutched tightly or always just out of reach. If we understand better the power of memory and memories in our spiritual life, we can find what we need for healing, hope, joy, courage and conversion.

Let me tell a story about the power of memory to show that memory, and the memories it produces, constitute more than a mere faculty for recall. My great-grandmother Catherine grew up outside of Knock, Ireland, and left there shortly before the Marian apparitions in 1879. Her memory exercised such power over her that her memories became the memories of her children and grandchildren (including my father). All the children she raised were taught to recite daily: “Number 10, Knock Street, the flat over the shop, Village of Ballyhaunis, County Mayo, God bless me—Ireland!”

My father taught that memory to me until it became my own. The power of memory of that little girl from Ireland reached across oceans and centuries, as it compelled me to visit Ballyhaunis about 125 years after she left there. (And I learned that “the flat over the shop” is now a flat over a pub.)

What can we learn from that story? A powerful memory can generate influential (that is, powerful) memories. A good memory is a faculty of accurate recall. (This is rarer than you might think. One wag said, “When you hear two eyewitness accounts of a car accident you start to worry about history.” Having worked in the auto insurance industry, I can attest to the truth of that statement.)

In the spiritual life a bad memory is likely unable to hold onto graces and mercies received. Bad memories can be powerful when they haunt us, shame us beyond reason and move us to despair of Divine Providence. I say this because of the years I have spent giving spiritual direction and hearing confessions.

We all sin. Some sin greatly. Most sin frequently. Any honest person will feel the sting of conscience, the correction of the Holy Spirit, sorrow for sin and a desire for conversion. The challenge for the repentant sinner is to learn how to live forgiven. That is, the repentant sinner must let the memories of grace and mercy exercise their good influence, after shame and guilt have fulfilled their medicinal purpose. That is precisely what the Devil does not want us to do.

Countless times I have told others (and I have told myself) that the Devil would have us believe that the most important thing about us is our sin; the Devil insists our sin defines us. But that is a lie! The most important thing about us is our baptism—God’s mark of adoption upon hHis children redeemed from slavery and spiritual orphanage. We must be indignant for the honor of our heavenly Father in rejecting the Devil’s manipulation of our memories of sin. Loyal sons and daughters will not accept lies about their father, or about the children whom he loves.

The best advice I was given for the healing of bad memories was from a retreat director: “Leave the dead weight of the past in the empty tomb of Christ where it belongs.” (I pray for that grace daily.) In other words the Crucified and Risen Christ is more powerful than any sin, more powerful than any memory of sin.

Pope Saint John XXIII offers us this wisdom: “Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do.”

Sometimes, the engine that drives us toward hope or despair is the power of memory and memories. Pray for the grace of a good memory and powerful good memories—recall moment by moment the healing power of God and the triumph of his Christ. And please say a prayer of thanksgiving for that little girl from Ireland, who from so long ago and far away taught me the power of memory.

When I write next, I will speak of the link between sickness, poverty and sin. Until then let’s keep each other in prayer.

Father Robert McTeigue, SJ,is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both rhetoric and in medical ethics.

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