HEALING BAD MEMORIES

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                        “For we are saved by hope” (Romans 8:24)

Many people suffer ongoing emotional pain due to lingering bad memories that sometimes reach back even into childhood. We are looking here at the teaching of Saint John of the Cross regarding the purification of memory. Saint John of the Cross, a Doctor of the Church, is the Church’s greatest mystical theologian. Although he lived in the sixteenth century, this Saint is well known for his acute psychological insights into the human condition.

Saint John of the Cross tells us that harmful memories are gradually purified and healed by the theological virtue of hope (a virtue infused into our soul at baptism). It is to be kept in mind that the exercise of the God-directed theological virtues of faith, hope and love constitutes the highest expression of human mental activity because these three supernatural virtues focus our attention on the source of all goodness and healing: God. It is thus that the exercise of the theological virtue of hope will be of profound value in healing harmful memories that depreciate our lives, and can even cause severe emotional suffering.

Saint John of the Cross’ approach to the healing of memory involves the decision to let go of and forget the painful memory. Clearly by now you’ve replayed that harmful memory a thousand times in your head. Assuming the memory has not been repressed in a harmful manner, but rather that there has been time to bring the memory to the fore through productive therapy and dialogue, there comes a time then when we should allow the theological virtue of hope to gradually heal and replace (or greatly diminish) the memory. Consider a broken bone: there is a time for casting and physical therapy, but hopefully the bone will heal and the memory of the painful fracture will diminish. Saint John of the Cross suggests that the balm of grace-filled hope will accomplish this healing for your traumatic memory. As one Carmelite writer states: The psychotherapist, by relieving disturbing emotions attached to memories of earlier experiences, prepares the person indirectly to advance in prayer….” It is primarily through prayer that we exercise the virtue of hope in relation to the healing of memory.

This road to the “inner reformation” of memory begins with the stark realization that the constant re-living of painful memories is an obstacle to hope and happiness. Saint John of the Cross states that the application of the virtue of hope “liberates us from a lot of sorrow, affliction and sadness” which he calls an “exceptional blessing” (AMC, III, 4). It is useful to consider, in this regard, that in modern cognitive psychology, known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the identification and elimination of defective thinking patterns is considered essentially curative (see Muto, p.130).

A great scholar of Saint John of the Cross impresses upon us the following considerations regarding memory and hope:

“Proneness to forget God causes our memory to be as if immersed in time, whose relation to eternity, to the benefits and promises of God, it no longer sees. This defect inclines our memory to see all things horizontally on the line of time that flees, of which the present alone is real, between the past that is gone and the future that is not yet. Forgetfulness of God prevents us from seeing that the present moment is also on a vertical line which attaches it to the single instant of immobile eternity, and that there is a divine manner of living the present moment in order that by merit it may enter into eternity. Whereas forgetfulness of God leaves us in this banal and horizontal view of things on the line of time which passes, the contemplation of God is like a vertical view of things which pass and of their bond with God who does not pass. To be immersed in time, is to forget the value of time, that is to say, its relation to eternity. By what virtue must this great defect of forgetfulness of God be cured? St. John of the Cross (18) answers that the memory which forgets God must be healed by the hope of eternal beatitude….” (Father Garrigou-LaGrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life)

Our learning to hope in God is what purifies and heals bad memories. The more we are able to focus our prayerful attention on God in hope, the more we will gradually diminish the painful memories which try to tyrannize our minds. The more we fill the mind with God in a purer form of prayer – devoid of memories and images – the more we advance the purification of the memory. Saint John of the Cross gives us this advice:

“What we have to do, then, in order to live in the simple and perfect hope of God, whenever these forms, knowledge, and distinct images occur [including harmful memories], is not to fix our minds upon them but to turn immediately to God, emptying the memory of all such matters, in loving affection, without regarding or considering them more than suffices to enable us to understand and perform our obligations, if they have any reference thereto.”
(The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk. III, chap. 14)

Father Garrigou-LaGrange adds:

“Here we have truly the active purification of the memory which is too preoccupied with useless or dangerous memories. We should put this teaching into practice that our memory may no longer be, so to speak, immersed in ephemeral things, that it may no longer see them only on the horizontal line of fleeting time, but on the vertical line which attaches them to the single instant of immobile eternity.Thus, little by little the soul rises often to the thought of God.”

A PRACTICAL METHOD TO IMPLEMENT THIS ADVICE UTILIZING EUCHARISTIC ADORATION:

1. You see that you are being plagued by a bad memory which is causing you emotional turmoil and depreciative living.

2. You are going to let go of this memory, and its hold on you, by placing yourself directly in the infallible presence of Jesus Christ in Eucharistic Adoration for one hour (this adoration is an eminent use of the theological virtues of faith, hope and love).

Jesus im Brotsakrament, über Ihm, der Überlieferung nach, ein Stück seines Kreuzes im Reliquiar.

3. It may be beneficial at the beginning of adoration to let your emotions run free for a few minutes through conversation with Jesus.

4. For the remainder of adoration you are going to place yourself in the presence of Jesus and simply let Him heal you. Thus, you will intentionally vacate your mind of the harmful memory and simply look lovingly in complete hope at Jesus. You are simply going to fix your mind and attention on Jesus, letting Him be present to you, sort of as if you were on the beach, forgetting yourself and everything else in the brilliant rays of the sun. You are simply going to let the healing rays of Jesus’ love fall gently upon you. At the end of adoration it would be appropriate to make a prayer of thanksgiving to Jesus for the graces received. 

5. Gradually, over time, as Eucharistic adoration becomes part of your life, Jesus will heal the harmful memory.

“I abandoned and forgot myself/ Laying my face on my Beloved”    (Saint John of the Cross)

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Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.

P.S. Nothing in this theological note is meant to be a substitute for good and necessary medical and professional care.

References: I am relying especially on Chapter 7 of Dr. Susan Muto’s book, John of the Cross for Today: The Ascent (Ave Maria Press), which is recommended for further detail regarding this topic of the purification of memory. Saint John of the Cross discusses in detail purification of memory in Book Three, Chapters 1 to 15 of The Ascent of Mt. Carmel (AMC). Dr. Ralph Martin has a CD on  Purification of the Memory. Keep in mind that St. John of  the Cross is talking about a complete purification – a complete overhaul – of memory, whereas in this note I have just addressed the specific area of harmful memories resulting from traumatic experiences. On the theological virtue of hope, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1817 – 1821. The closer we get to God, the more we walk by faith, hope and love. “How good it is,” says Pope Francis in The Joy of the Gospel, “to stand before a crucifix, or on our knees before the Blessed Sacrament, and simply to be in his presence!”(#264).

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