Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Prayer and Memory: A Turtle in the Hole

A long time ago, when I walked across the street one lunch hour from my day job to Saint Peter's Church in lower Manhattan and sought absolution for my abortion (the anniversary of which was, incidentally, yesterday), the kindly priest in the confessional said to me, among other things, that you never have to say a formal prayer in your life.  This crossed my mind as I thought about how I would respond to Tertium Quid's meme, which is an invitation to discuss your three favorite prayers.  I am not an obvious person for this meme, since my prayers are generally overly-emotional and guided by the pathos and desperation which are so commonplace to me that they could very well be dodges (which thought makes me recall with some longing my Buddhist sister's cool injunction to me to "Tame your mind"; if only things could be that easy).

In fact, I keep a sort of random, rolling devotional practice going throughout the year.  I strike up novenas at odd times to whichever saint has caught my fancy at the moment, which may or may not be related to the proximity of that saint's feast day.  I'm currently saying the profoundly powerful novena to Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (St. Edith Stein) suggested here.

But there are three prayers I say every day, or almost every day.  They are the prayer of Saint Francis, the prayer of Saint Ignatius Loyola, and the Divine Mercy chaplet.  The first two I say in the morning and also at night, if I remember, and the chaplet I try to say at three o'clock each day, though occasionally I will skip a day if I have an appointment that requires me to be with people outside of my family.  The days I do say it, it's usually on the fly.  Today, for instance, I said it while walking two miles in ninety-degree heat while pushing the stroller.

1. Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
    where there is hatred, let me sow love;
    where there is injury, pardon:
    where there is doubt, faith ;
    where there is despair, hope
    where there is darkness, light
    where there is sadness, joy.

    O divine Master,
    grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
    to be understood, as to understand;
    to be loved, as to love;
    for it is in giving that we receive,
    it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
    and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

I'm sorry if I've just tune-virused that saccharine hymn "Make Me A Channel of Your Peace" into your ear for the rest of the day ("To be loved as to love with all my sou-ou-oul . . . "  Okay!  Sorry!).  It's not clear whether this prayer actually was written by Saint Francis, but it's long been attributed to him.  And the saccharine hymn, which I have sung as a cantor countless times -- in French as well as in English! --  has militated somewhat against a more contemplative delving into the words.  But I turned to the prayer in earnest after reading Mary Karr's conversion-and-recovery memoir Lit (which some of us are reading and discussing over here).  Karr describes memorizing the prayer while still essentially an atheist, after a year of white-knuckling her recovery from alcoholism, and repeating it with her young son at bedtime each night. 

Saint Francis is himself treated with a sort of saccharine pseudo-reverence in our age, and not only by Catholics, but it's meet to recall that he was a penitent, and the founder of an order of explicitly-named penitents.  What Mary Karr, in recovery from alcoholism, found salutary about his prayer is that it is about dying to self, which is perhaps the hardest thing for an alcoholic to do, as well as a crucial component in his recovery.  I say this prayer daily now because my inclination is to grab all of the good stuff for myself and run away, and, though I pray for the Holy Spirit to transform my selfishness, arrogance, and self-regard into humility and charity, I need a mnemonic to help me think and act differently in order to prepare myself for that hoped-for transformation.

But the prayer describes what, in my better moments, I really do want for my life:  to bring joy to those who are sad, light to those in darkness, through the tools I have at hand -- the disciplined practice of beauty.  The prayer of Saint Francis is even a kind of boddhisattva vow -- my sister would be proud -- asking that others are given peace, love, and happiness before the supplicant himself.

2.  Take, O Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and all my will.  All that I have and possess you have given to me; to you, Lord, I return it; all is yours, dispose of it entirely according to your will.  Give me your love and your grace, because these are enough for me.

This prayer is from Saint Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises.  The particular hook for me is that the supplicant surrenders his memory to God.  Baudelaire wrote, "J'ai plus de souvenirs que si j'avais mille ans" -- I have more memories than if I had lived for a thousand years -- and I often feel this way myself.  Sometimes it seems that nostalgia is my drug of choice, and that, like all addictions, it creates a soft, padded place around me that cushions me from the jagged edges, the boredom, the loneliness, and the frustrations of everyday life.  Memory compels me, entrains me, and sometimes torments me, and I frequently ask myself, and God, what to do about it.  If something good can come out of these memories, I have bargained with the Almighty, then let me keep them; and, if nothing good can come of them, if their retention only causes me, and others, pain -- which I fear is often the case -- then please take them from me.

Memory, nonetheless, is the driving force of this blog, and I hope and pray that soemthing good will come from the storehouse of my memory, through this medium, for someone else.  The notion of giving one's memory to God and allowing Him to inform it, to infuse it, to direct it, brings with it the promise of release from memory's chains on the one hand, and service to the healing potential of memory on the other.  So I say these words each morning and night, even when to say them is essentially a lie.  Like the recovering addict, I keep "acting as if," as I wait for the transformation that can come only from the Holy Spirit.

3.  The Chaplet of Divine Mercy
On one of the coldest mornings I've ever lived through, in January of 2004, I took four subways to the ass-end of the Bronx to attend a "Day of Prayer and Healing"given by the Sisters of Life at the Convent of Our Lady of New York.  In the chapel, where we convened, was a huge image of the Divine Mercy, which I had never seen before, and I was wondering what the rays were doing emerging from that saccharine old image of Jesus from my grandmother's picture of the Sacred Heart.

I learned the Divine Mercy chaplet that day, and I made my confession to a wonderful CFR (Friars of the Franciscan Renewal) priest, Father Joseph Mary, who had been a restaurant chef and a major sinner before his own reversion to the Catholic faith.  He gave a talk in which he described how he had used to love rambling through the woods looking for snakes and turtles.  One day before his conversion, he told us penitent women, when he was pretty well in the grip of serious sin, he had the opportunity to go to a rural area for a holiday, and he went hiking through the fields.  He saw a hole in the ground of the kind that's used to drive a fence-post, and the goofy thought crossed his mind, "I wonder if there's a turtle in that hole?"  He looked down, and there was a turtle in that hole.  He scooped it out, and as he did so, an inner voice said to him, you are that turtle, and I AM lifting you out of your own hole.

I had a great time at confession, if that can seriously be said, because I so respected and felt such a fellow-feeling for Fr. Joseph Mary's sensibility.  For my penance, he gave me the Divine Mercy chaplet.  I had never said it before, and I said it at home that night. I thought it would take a long time, like the rosary, and was surprised when it was over so soon.

Am I supposed to say here that the prayer and my daily practice of it have changed my life?  They have, though not in ways that I can quantify.  But reminding yourself of the truth on a daily basis, even at times when lies surround you (and even at times when lies seem more comforting and appealing) has got to change you down to your very molecules.  The truth is that His mercy is God's greatest attribute, and, if my memory truly serves, may it serve to reveal to others, including to you, my readers, this truth.

I am tagging Melanie at The Wine-Dark Sea, Sally at Castle in the Sea, and Maclin at Light on Dark Water to continue this meme, should they wish to (hmmm, I see the recurrent water metaphor here -- must have to do with the ocean of mercy).


Anonymous said...

Dear Pentimento,

I chose you because I knew that you would give a humble and thoughtful answer full of joy and pathos. You did providentially better; you discussed the prayer of St. Ignatius that I am currently learning myself and teaching my daughter!

My oldest love is history, and I have what can only be described as a remarkable memory for details from ancient and modern times. But one day, my memory shall pass, and St. Ignatius prepares me for the day when I won't remember and retell. I just read tonight something Alex Haley said: "When an old person dies, it is like a library burning." For me to give up my memory- how unfathomable.

I was once told that Christianity "is learning to see yourself through the eyes of one who loves you." Prayer is how we try to get out of our caves and into the sun, though part of us longs for the cave, just as the turtle went straight for the hole.

Thank you very much for sharing. I feel blessed. Ora et labora, TQ

Mac said...

What a great story about the turtle. I appreciate your thinking of me. I don't think I'm going to be able to say anything as memorable as you have.

I have, as you know, "a past," as they used to say. But I don't have anywhere near the nostalgia you do--the good things are so mixed with pain that I tend to shy away from dwelling there very much.

Pentimento said...

Some of the worst memories for me are of events that I never mention here, Mac, because I have not been able to think of a way that my writing about them could possibly offer anyone else a hint of consolation. So I know what you mean. And I'm also coming to the point where, when those memories surface, I simply say, "That's done." After all, it is.

So, memory is not going to be part of everyone's three favorite devotions. But, if you want to write about yours, I'd love to read about them. TQ wrote beautifully about his.

Janet said...

Where are you reading and discussing Lit?


Enbrethiliel said...


For a minute, I thought this was the Five Favourite Devotions meme, which I have been tagged for. (I was going to tag you for that one, too, but since you've already done something similar, I can look for another victim--er, I mean, friend.)

I like reading everyone's thoughts about prayers we all know. Your thoughts on the Prayer of St. Ignatius are particularly lovely, Pentimento, in the light of all the writing you do on your memories. It's a very familiar prayer to me (because of the Offertory hymn by--I think--one of the St. Louis Jesuits) and yet I don't dwell on the "memory" aspect of it so much.

Pentimento said...

Please join the discussion, Janet, we'd love to have you.

Pentimento said...

Lucky for me, Enbrethiliel, this was the Cliff Notes version of the meme.

Anonymous said...

Great post here. Thought you'd like it:

Pentimento said...

Thanks, TQ. I really needed to read that today.