A Few Thoughts on Memory

I think that memory is not just a recalling of some past event. It is more fundamentally remembering who we are. In this sense, memory is a tuning in to who we are in our heart, our core. It is a coming home to our own sacred self. Ever moreso, it is a making presence of all those whom we have allowed to enter our heart or who have given us entry to their own heart.

As an example, when we hear a piece of music connected with a particular time, place or person, we not only think of that situation, but we go there. We feel again what we felt then. The earlier experience remains present within us, and the music can bring it back to the surface of our awareness and feeling.

Something similar happens when someone close to us dies or is separated from us. This is someone who has entered our heart, who has become part of who we are. At first, any memories of that person readily make us feel the pain of their loss. As we allow our grief to unfold within us, a subtle change takes place. Some of these memories may now bring joy and gratitude, as exquisite and even humourous experiences arise to the surface of our thought and feeling. The presence and love of that person remains in our heart, and gradually transcends our sorrow at their loss. Who we are, then, includes all those who have entered into our heart, our core, and who have shaped and remain a part of who we are.

I recall the devastating and aching sorrow that came with the death of my younger brother at the age of 26. Yet the unshakable bond that developed between us is one of the most grateful experiences of my life. Since that event of so many years ago, I came to realize that my social involvements have, in large part, been concerned with children. They seem to be an outreach to all the younger brothers of this world who are in some form of pain.

In a favourite essay, “The Logic of Elfland,” G.K. Chesterton tells us that one role of the arts is to remind us of who we are. He first speaks of folk tales as rooted in the experience of wonder, and writes;” These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water. … We have all read … the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man … cannot remember who he is. Well, everyone is that person in the story. …We have all forgotten what we really are. … All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awe-filled instant we remember that we forget. …”

In this light, the challenge appears to be to remember who we truly are beneath the accretions of life that have led to forgetfulness, to forgetting our truest and deepest self, and perhaps also those who have remained within our heart..

The story of the Prodigal Son adds another dimension. The younger son requests then and squanders his inherit. He ends up half starved among a group of pigs, an image of utter desolation. The path to his healing begins with memory, a realization that his earlier situation was better. But he does not remember far enough. It is only when the father treats him as a beloved son that he himself recognizes his own deepest reality as a beloved son. When he does so, he comes alive to who he truly is.

I think this story contains two basic insights. First, other individuals and our society may lead us to forget who we are, our true self. Yet another caring person can see and call us to remember our true self. Secondly, the basic truth of who we are is that we are a beloved son or daughter, that is, a being of intrinsic worth, In brief the story is saying that no matter how far we stray, no matter how lost we become, or no matter how dead we are inside, we remain that beloved person, a being of sacred worth.

A similar thought is echoed by Meister Eckhart, a thirteenth century mystic.“There is a place in the soul that neither time nor space nor any created thing can touch. … There is a place in the soul where you’ve never been wounded.” We may have wandered far from this place. Yet it which always remains and is accessible. Our challenge is to recover or uncover this place as our true home.

In sum, in this approach, memory concerns most fundamentally who we are, and who we are in relationship to others whose lives are most fully intertwined with our own. It may gradually extend to the wider communities and world. It concerns remembering our own and others worth, and gradually living a life based on that sacredness in self, in others, and eventually in all that is. It is, in effect, a life based on love received and given, and one that gradually radiates outwards, in wider and wider circles, to embrace all that is. Such a life is truly memorable and meaningful.

May you come more and more to be in touch with your own inmost core, to recognize its sacred worth and beauty, and to honour that sacredness in yourself and others. May you more and more live according to that worth, in yourself, in others who have entered your heart and remain there, and ever-widening circles to embrace every human being and all that is. And may you thereby fashion a memorable life whose presence radiates through the universe.