Hi Sirach –
You’ve hit upon one of the most difficult aspects of our spiritual life … the purification of our memory. As I’m sure you know, I’ve always been fascinated by St. John of the Cross’ treatment of this in Book 3 of The Ascent. And each time I read these chapters I see something new … for I see so much of my own walk in the spiritual life is wrapped up in these matters.
Your post brought some thoughts to mind that might help some who are following along. First, our memories have two principal powers: the capacity to remember … and to forget. And what is stunning to me reading St. John is that our tranquility of soul is directly tied to our ability “to forget” and mentally walk away from situations that rob us of our recollection and peace … precisely the type of things you mention in your post. He uses very specific words to describe the state of rest we are to seek in the depth of our souls so that we can remain continually in His presence. Two in particular come to mind: oblivion and void. For the longest time I had an incomplete understanding of what those two words mean until I saw a literal translation from Spanish to English. No, it is not some sort of blanking of the mind as a superficial reading might lead one to believe. Rather, oblivion simply means “to forget” … and void means “to disengage” ourselves from that which preoccupies us. In my own simple way of thinking I’ve always called this “changing the channel of the movies that run in our minds.”
Second, I’m beginning to see in reading (and living) St. John of the Cross how emotionally laden our memories are. Like a movie sound track, our memories capture and store not only “what” happened in the past … but how we “felt” about it. So when our memory recalls an event to mind … it is our will that latches on to it and clings to it. And what the will is doing is savoring and rehashing “the feeling” of the past … the joy, sorrow, hurt feelings … whatever.
Compounding matters, our memory in this regard has a hair trigger … it doesn’t take much to set it off and breaking the pattern of mental preoccupation with matters that draw us away from God’s embrace is exceedingly difficult to do once we let it take root for even the shortest of time. The satisfaction of the emotion (be it good or bad) can be quite addicting. And it is all so self-serving. Ever notice how often we embellish in our mind or edit out uncomfortable facts in our interior monologue with ourselves based on whatever emotional need we have at the time of recalling?
This passage from The Ascent sums up what I’m trying to say:
[quote=Ascent 3.5.1-2]The soul is incapable of truly acquiring control of the passions and restriction of the inordinate appetites without forgetting and withdrawing from the sources of these emotions. Disturbances never arise in a soul unless through the apprehensions of the memory. When all things are forgotten, nothing disturbs the peace or stirs the appetites. As the saying goes: What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t want. We experience this all the time. We observe that as often as people begin to think about some matter, they are moved and aroused over it, little or much, according to the kind of apprehension. If the apprehension is bothersome and annoying, they feel sadness or hatred, and so on; if agreeable, they experience desire and joy, and so on.
Or to put it more simply in the words of Brother Lawrence: “Thoughts spoil everything; that’s how trouble starts!
Or to illustrate in the form of parable, I came upon this little story that hopefully captures the subtle danger we place ourselves in when we latch onto past experiences and cling to them … especially when the dominate emotion involved is brooding over past hurts, nursing wrongs or indulging anxieties.
[quote=Ascent Reflections, Fr. Foley]Once, two monks came to a river where a young woman, wary of crossing, was standing. The older monk offered his assistance and carried her across the river on his back. After he set her down on the other side, the two monks continued their journey in silence. The younger monk was very disturbed and preoccupied regarding what he had just witnessed. Many hours later he erupted with indignation: “How could you do such a thing! Our training tells us to avoid contact with women, but you picked her up and carried her.” The old monk replied, “Yes, but I set her down at the river bank. Why are you still carrying her?”
That story really hit home for me for the simple wisdom is so readily apparent!
Lastly, I’ve posted this link before but do so again since this thread speaks of matters so near and dear to my heart. The “Our Carmelite Promises” talks #7 and #8 are my own personal testimony on how the Holy Spirit has taught me to handle such matters:
I share these talks here Sirach since it was you who first encouraged me to put them down in writing in the first place.
I hope something here in this rambling post is of help to those reading along!