For most people, this holiday time is filled with joyful anticipation, delightful reminiscences, and hopeful expectations. For some, however, its a time of unpleasant memories and nagging anxiety.
Not all of us have grown up in a storybook family, with a storybook home, and storybook Christmas. For some, the past reads more like a horror novel, the scenes of which taunt us and throw a shadow over our joy. While many are exuberant during the holidays, many are sullen, with inescapable memories that bring only sadness. The toughest part is that we may not fully understand what’s bringing us down nor do we know what to do about it.
I’ve experienced times like these and have found great consolation in the wisdom of St. John of the Cross. That’s why I prominently mentioned him in my book, Forgiving Mother. Having been raised by a very troubled mom left me with plenty of unpleasant memories, and St. John’s writings on memory helped me to deal with them. I’ve learned – often the hard way – that unpleasant memories cannot be ignored, stuffed down, or denied. They are real, and they must be contended with in a real way.
In his book, Ascent of Mount Carmel, he wrote about the purification of the memory. This incredible work explains spiritual asceticism and reaching level of spiritual perfection at which one becomes completely united with God. One way to do that is by purifying our memories. Basically, this means that we purge our memories of all worldly things, worries, temptations, needs, people, tasks, distractions, fears, desires, ambitions, and so on. All that is left – everything that is left – is God.
This is our task now with the memory. We must draw it away from its natural props and capacities and raise it above itself (above all distinct knowledge and apprehensible possession) to supreme hope in the incomprehensible God.
I write about this is much more detail in Forgiving Mother, but the gist is this: We can stop the unpleasant memories in their tracks by immediately turning to God, pulling ourselves into the present (and out of the past), and focusing on God’s grace and merciful love. It’s especially helpful at that moment to draw our attention to something in our surroundings that reminds us of God’s love – beauty of nature, a religious picture, or even a sacramental (another reason to carry your rosary with you wherever you go). Be present with God is the present moment and let the past be past. You are in the here and now and have access to God’s grace.
Remember that the evil one can use memories to gain influence over our souls. We cannot let them (or him) grip our minds and hearts and take us to an ugly place! So, too, we can tamper with our own memories, making them seem worse than they are by obsessing over them. Purification of the memory guards against this. St. John advises to invoke the Holy Spirit to help us:
For Gods Spirit makes them know what must be known and ignore what must be ignored, remember what ought to be remembered – with or without form – forget what ought to be forgotten, makes them love what they ought to love, and keeps them from loving what is not in God. (Ascent of Mount Carmel)
Through the working of the Holy Spirit, we’re lifted out of the dark abyss and into the present moment, filled with God’s love and grace. We need not suffer from unpleasant memories during this joyous time of year. Rather, we have the option to follow the wisdom of St. john of the Cross by purifying our memories and drawing closer to the God who saves us.