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The one thing St. Leo the Great wants you to remember

SMILING

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Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 11/07/21

We forget the importance that the smallest, most offhand action truly contains.

When I get together with old college friends, we naturally begin to tell stories about our youth. We love to reminisce and laugh about how odd and naive we once were. The practical jokes, the opportunities we recklessly seized (often later to our chagrin), the ill-considered behaviors we would never, ever repeat today, the unexpected surprises, the joy of entering a brand-new world of adulthood like fawns on wobbly legs … There’s something about reliving youth that is refreshing for the middle-aged.

I love re-living those memories, but there’s one problem. Sometimes, when I hear a story about what I said and did when I was younger, I have no recollection of ever having said or done such a thing. It’s certainly a true phenomenon that memories take on a life of their own. They grow and develop with time as they’re shaped and re-shaped by the art of storytelling. After a while, though, the story becomes the true version and the real-life version fades into the mists of history. Because of this, memories are less reliable than we think.

Another explanation for this amnesia is that maybe I was too tired from having stayed up all night – once again — for my brain to form a long-term impression. But more likely, the memory didn’t seem important at the time, so I didn’t bother to mentally catalog it. Eventually it dropped from my consciousness, until 20 years later when a friend reminds me of it.

I suspect I’m still living large parts of each day saying and doing all sorts of things, for better or worse, completely ignorant of whether, 20 years later, someone will tell a story about it. I wonder what it is in my life that I’m going to forget all about. In other words, I have no clue how to weigh the lasting relevance of daily activities. Will I remember watching my children play soccer? Will I remember world events? Developments at work? What I ate for lunch?

It’s a regular occurrence that a parishioner will tell me how influential a homily I’ve preached has been, how it encouraged them tremendously in their faith. Years later, they can quote word-for-word a sentence I uttered from the pulpit. I have no memory of ever having said such a thing. I may even be quite impressed with myself because the words really do sound profound. I can’t imagine ever having said such wise words. But, of course, if those words really were so insightful – and clearly for some people, they were – why am I unable to remember ever having said them?

I’ve been on the alert about this problem for a while now, but still find myself itching to waste time looking at my phone in the morning and throw away my half hour of quiet before the children wake up. One time, I had an irresistible desire to scroll social media in the middle of a family hike on a gorgeous forest trail at a state park. Imagine that. I still daydream during Mass. Instead of having real conversation, I’ve gossiped away many an hour I’ve set aside to have coffee with a friend. It’s a constant battle.

The only conclusion I can come to is that I’m terrible at recognizing the importance of my own actions. I toss them off carelessly, waste precious time, and forget about them as soon as they’ve passed.

This week we celebrate the feast of Pope St. Leo the Great and I’m reminded of the famous homily he once preached at Mass on Christmas day: “Christian, remember your dignity,” he said, “And now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition.”

What he’s saying is that, if we truly believe that God himself took on human flesh and entered the world, then it is also true that our human activities have been made sacred. Every word, action, and thought is of the utmost importance. Our days are saturated with dignity.

The dignity of my life is what I so often gloss over. Not that I don’t intellectually believe it – the problem is that I don’t live it. I forget the importance that even the smallest, most offhand action truly contains. I neglect to consider that my soul, even as I live within the limitations of time, is eternal.

This is our dignity, to be created in the image of God. Whether we manage to remember everything from the past or not, we must remember our dignity. It’s all important. You matter. Your life matters. Live it with joy and expectation, even down to the smallest moment.

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