Thursday, March 31, 2011



Memory is one of the most beautiful realities of the soul. Since the body itself is so linked into the visual senses, it often does not recognize memory as the place where the past is gathered. The most powerful image of memory is the tree. I remember once, at the Natural History Museum in London, seeing a sliver of the diameter of a giant redwood from California. This tree's memory reached back to about the fifth century. The memory rings within the diameter of the tree had little flags at different points documenting the age of the particular memory ring.

The first one was St. Colmcille going to Iona in the sixth century, then up along the Renaissance, the seventeenth, eighteenth century up the twentieth century. This giant redwood had lived through twelve or thirteen centuries of time. Its great memory had unfolded all that time within the texture of its timber.

In the classical tradition the most beautiful evocation of the power, presence and riches of memory is in Book Ten of St Augustine's Confessions. The following passage is splendid in its portrayal of the inner world.

'Great is the power of memory, exceedingly great, O my God, a spreading limitless room within me. Who can reach its uttermost depth? Yet it is a faculty of soul and belongs to my nature. In fact I cannot totally grasp all that I am. Thus the mind is not large enough to contain itself: but where can the part of it be which it does not contain? Is it outside itself and not within? As this question struck I was overcome with wonder and almost stupor. Here are men going afar to marvel at the heights of the mountains, the mighty waves of the sea, the long courses of great rivers, the vastness of the ocean, the movements of the stars, yet leaving themselves, unnoticed and not seeing it as marvellous that when I spoke of all these things, I did not see them with my eyes, yet I could not have spoken of them unless these mountains and waves and rivers and stars which I have seen, and the ocean of which I have heard, had been inwardly present to my sight: in my memory, yet with the same vast spaces between them as if I saw them outside me.'

One of the great poverties of our modern culture of rapidity, stress and externality is that there is so little attention to memory. The computer industry has hijacked the notion of memory. To say that computers have memory is false. A computer has storage and recall. Human memory is, however, more refined, sacred and personal. Memory has its own inner selectivity and depth. Human memory is an inner temple of feeling and sensibility. Within that temple different experiences are grouped according to their particular feeling and shape. Our time suffers from a great amnesia. The American philosopher Santayana said: 'Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'

The beauty and invitation of old age offers a time of silence and solitude for a visit to the house of your inner memory. You can revisit all of your past. Your soul is the place where your memory lives. Since linear time vanishes, everything depends on memory. In other words, our time comes in yesterdays, todays and tomorrows. Yet there is another place within us which lives in eternal time. That place is called the soul. The soul, therefore, lives mainly in the mode of eternity. This means that as things happen in your yesterdays, todays and tomorrows, and fall away with transience, they fall and are caught and held by the net of the eternal in your soul. There they are gathered, preserved and minded for you. Levinas says, 'Memory as an inversion of historical time is the essence of interiority.' Consequently, as your body ages and gets weaker, your soul is in fact getting richer, deeper and stronger. With time your soul grows more sure of itself: the natural light within it increases and brightens. There is a beautiful poem by the wonderful Czeslaw Milosz on old age called 'A New Province'; this is the last verse:

I would prefer to be able to say: 'I am satiated,

What is given to taste in this life, I have tasted.'

But I am like someone in a window who draws aside a curtain

To look at a feast he does not comprehend.

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