In Marilynne Robinson's beautifully written novel Gilead, John Ames, a third-generation Congregational minister, has decided to write a long memory-filled letter to his seven-year-old son. At age 76, this reflective man has been diagnosed with angina pectoris and doesn't have very long to live. He wants to pass on the Christian faith that has given his life so much meaning, the love that has sprung from his second marriage to a serious woman much younger than him, and the forgiveness that has been a challenge to several generations of his family.
One of his most vivid memories is a month-long journey he took with his father to find his grandfather's grave in Kansas. Harvesting this incident for his son's edification is a spiritual project for Ames. In doing so, he is heeding the advice given in Deuteronomy 4:9: "But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of our your life; make them known to your children and your children's children."
God has given us days filled with meaning and overflowing with significance, but forgetfulness comes easy to most of us. The Navajos have a chant that goes "Remember what you have seen, because everything forgotten returns to the circling winds." Yet most of us are so busy and so consumed with future plans and worries that we forget to savor the blessings and the lessons of our past. This is a loss not only for our own spiritual journeys but also for those we love.
It is a wonderful gift to be able to feast upon our memories. Like the knight in Ingmar Bergman's film The Seventh Seal, it may be little things that come to mind: "I shall remember this hour of peace -- the strawberries, the bowl of milk, your faces at dusk. I shall remember our words and bear this memory between my hands as carefully as a fresh bowl of milk. And this will be a sign of great contentment." Spiritual writer and retreat leader Macrina Wiederkehr writes, "The soul thrives on remembering. Feed it memories and it comes alive."
As John Ames in Gilead discovers, old age is a perfect time in life to slow the flow of experiences and to actively spend some quality time with the standout moments of your life. But remembering can be done at any age, and the sooner you get started the better. Here are some suggestions for ways to harvest your memories and thereby give glory to God.
- The next time something unusual happens to you, note where you are and what you are feeling. Also take your spiritual pulse and try to determine what Spirit is telling you. Just an extra dose of attention will turn this moment into a memory.
- Let places hold memories for you. Many streets in New York City have that function for us. Walking on Third Avenue we recall an evening with a dear friend when she jumped into an empty cart and we wheeled her down the street howling with laughter. It was a moment of giddy freedom for all of us and now reminds us that life is to be enjoyed and celebrated.
- Let things evoke memories. When you are cleaning out a closet and come across an old piece of clothing, remember where you last wore it. What were you doing? Who was with you? How was God present in that moment? We sometimes ask ourselves these questions when we are using an old family recipe.
- Not all the memories that come to you will be happy ones. You may be brought back in touch with a deep loss or a painful encounter. Rather than struggling to forget these memories, be kind to yourself and others by making them a catalyst for the spiritual practice of forgiveness. Ask God for the strength to face difficult memories.
- Finally, use special days for memory fests. On our wedding anniversary, we like to make lists of magic moments in our life together. Sipping on these events is better than imbibing champagne! On their birthdays and death days, we light candles in memory of loved ones and also share stories that keep them alive in our hearts.