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GROWING UP CATHOLIC | St. Augustine and the power of memory

My 4-year-old daughter has vivid memories of events that the rest of the family has forgotten — the time she saw a cat in a window, that her older sister once caught food on fire in the oven and every single time I’ve taken her for ice cream.

My memory isn’t so good. Like her, though, I retain a smattering of strong but disconnected memories from my youth.

The memory is a mystery. What it captures seems almost random. We are each shaped by events that, to an outsider, are insignificant. They’re vital, though. These memories we carry around are connected with our personal identity. They are the stuff of our lives, past actions and thoughts that make up who we are today.

Life is too valuable to slip past unexamined and unremarked. It’s a divine gift that the past remains available to us. In my mind, I smell the salty air from the years I lived on Cape Cod. I taste the French toast I nervously ate in the diner next to the hospital while we waited for my wife’s contractions to intensify enough to walk to the maternity ward. I can feel my deceased grandfather’s work-worn hand on my knee.

The memory isn’t only about the past. It connects to the present moment as well, as St. Augustine marvels, “The power of the memory is great, O Lord.”

Augustine teaches that memory is a vast interior space, revealing that people are much larger on the inside than we seem from the outside. We are physically carried along by the flow of time, inevitably being carried from youth to old age, but the memory is a sign that the soul transcends time. “Sky, land and sea are all available to me,” writes Augustine, and in the memory, “I meet myself and recall what I am.” We are complicated creatures moving through time and somehow carrying it with us as we go.

We aren’t tourists passing through life. We are participants. As we live, the wonder of existence is internalized. If the world is a miracle, how much more is the soul? Why does so much linger within us? Why do I wax nostalgic when I look at old family photos or recall old stories with friends? Why is there so much beauty in our daily lives that it almost hurts?

I want to remember it all — the good and the bad, my part in it, and how God is leading me. My memory will illuminate me whole or it won’t shine a light at all. The memories are still being created, but only if we pay attention. Otherwise, they slip past.

Slow down. Take it in. Value it. Remember faces. Spend time wisely. You will carry these memories with you into eternity.

One day, by the grace of God, time will carry each of us to the end of our journey here on earth and we will enter heavenly beatitude, a reality in which all of time is present and nothing is ever lost.

Father Michael Rennier is vice-rector of the Oratory of Sts. Gregory and Augustine. A former Anglican priest, he was ordained in 2016 under a pastoral provision. He and his wife, Amber, have six children.

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