Friday, April 10, 2009
The Uses of Memory
Take, O Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and all my will, all I have and possess; you have given it me; to you, Lord, I return it; all is yours, dispose of it entirely according to your will. Give me your love and grace, because that is enough for me.
-- Saint Ignatius of Loyola
If you have been reading this blog for a while, you will probably know certain things about me, its anonymous author: for instance, that I had a dramatic conversion several years ago, which led to gradual changes in my life and reasoning process from one way to its near-complete opposite; and that I consider myself a penitent. Having gone from espousing and living a self-absorbed, promiscuous, bohemian ethos that caused a great deal of harm to myself and others, to striving to espouse and live a Christian life, has been no easy transition. I struggle daily with the discipline and humility needed to shoulder the cross of my mundane responsibilities, and the past is always beckoning to me over that shoulder -- not so much the events of the past, which mostly ended in heartbreak and failure, but the sensations that accompanied and illustrated them.
I recall the way the light rallied bravely on a post-industrial street in early March in my old city; the taste of the coffee at a Puerto Rican lunch counter by the subway; the green glass bottles arranged on the window sill in a friend's apartment. The lime-green haze of the new leaves, like a diaphanous scarf caught in the black branches of the trees on Riverside Drive. The impossibly warm, nostalgic sound of my voice teacher's Bechstein. The buzzing haze of the city in summer, and the marvelously strange way that a hush would descend at certain moments over even the busiest street. The weeds that heliotroped and bloomed through chicken-wire fencing on a strip of auto-body repair shops in the Bronx. The playing cards I would often find on the street (I found a tarot card, "The Lovers," once). And the many, many goodbyes. While Rome is a city that is layered over with the history of Western civilization, New York is a city that is layered over and over again with the personal histories of its denizens. Certain corners are redolent, even overripe, with memory; certain neighborhoods become forbidden zones because of the heartbreaks to which they played host. And when one has tried to change one's life in a place that was the site of so much crash-and-burn, one occasionally feels as if it might be easier to do it elsewhere, and is tempted to take flight from the snares of memory.
Now I am elsewhere, with none of the sensations of my beloved city around me. And sometimes I mourn for the sights, sounds, and smells of the past, the beautiful fragments of a mostly unlovely life that shimmer even more in the refracted light of memory. And I wonder what God wants me to do with my memory. Must I ask Him to sever it from me? I suppose I would be happier and better-adjusted if I could forget the past. And these sense memories inevitably incur regret, because they suggest the past, which, since I cannot change it, leads to grief, and even depression. If God has forgotten my sins, must I remember them?
The quandary of conversion is that it must always be rooted in penitence. Can one be penitent and not mourn constantly? Saint Peter, according to legend, had furrows in his cheeks, gouged there by his incessant weeping for having denied Christ. And, according to Raïssa Maritain, the eyes of Blessed Ève Lavallière, a French actress and convert, were, after her conversion, always wet with tears of contrition for her past sins. Saint Ephrem the Syrian is said to have written:
The soul is dead through sin. It requires sadness, weeping, tears, mourning and bitter moaning over the iniquity which has cast it down . . . Howl, weep and moan, and bring it back to God. . . . Your soul is dead through vice; shed tears and raise it up again!
And yet, as Brother Roger of Taizé has noted:
It may be impossible to repent without feeling some regret. But the difference between the two is enormous. Repentance is a gift from God, a hidden activity of the Holy Spirit that draws a person to God. I do not need God to regret my mistakes; I can do that by myself. Regret keeps us focused on ourselves. When I repent, however, I turn towards God, forgetting myself and surrendering myself to him. Regret makes no amends for the wrong done, but God, when I come to him in repentance, "dispels my sins like the morning mist" (Isaiah 44:22).
What, then, is the place of memory in the penitential consciousness? Is it possible to mine the memory for beauty, and to use the beauty as a palliative for others? Is it the responsibility of those who are conscious of beauty to nurture it, wherever it is found, even in ugliness? Or must that beauty be left behind, even buried?
I recently had the opportunity to go back to New York to see the Bonnard exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum (the image above, "Work Table," is the poster for the show). Retrospectives of Bonnard's work are rare -- the last one in New York was in 1998 -- and I enthusiastically recommend this show, which closes on April 19, to anyone who can go. It is wonderful. Bonnard is an artist who has always been important to me personally, and in fact, in his late paintings, there is an apparent attempt to come to terms with painful memory. He paints mundane domestic objects with luminous, even joyful, intensity, and yet the shadowy human figures who cling to the edges of his canvases hint at a tragic personal situation that caused great damage in his life and the lives of those around him in the mid-1920s, several years before he began producing this prodigious later corpus.
Were the dreadful events in Bonnard's life, then, somehow salutary for the rest of us? The beauty of his late paintings give the viewer great joy.
My fondest hope is that, out of the dreadful turmoil of my own past, some small healing for others might also be brought forth.
Happy Easter (and Passover) and many blessings to all my readers.