Back when I was in seminary, I was introduced to what was then called the ministry of inner healing or the healing of memories. Numerous books were written on the subject, notably by Agnes Sanford, Francis MacNutt, Michael Scanlon, Dennis and Matthew Linn. I read them all. I was desperate for relief from my chronic depression. During this time I met Leanne Payne. She lived in Wisconsin, only a short drive away from the seminary. I corresponded with her and visited her once or twice at her home. She was a delightful, Spirit-filled woman. Her faith was genuine, warm, encouraging. She shared with me several stories about her work with Agnes Sanford. Leanne prayed for me. The prayer counselling session was gentle and compassionate; but the depression did not lift. During the early years of my priesthood, I prayed for the inner healing of others, according to the method I had been taught. As far as I know, my prayers did not prove particularly effective for them. I concluded that the Lord had not given me the charism of healing and began referring depressed parishioners to competent therapists and psychologists. My struggle with my own depression continued.
Eventually I entered into therapy with a young psychologist straight out of grad school. His name was John Gartner. I think of myself as one of his ur-clients. John has since gone on to build himself quite the successful practice. I am not surprised. He is an astute, intelligent, insightful man. My therapy with him was fruitful, challenging, painful, rewarding. I consider myself fortunate to have found him; actually, he found me. He came knocking on my door. He was just starting his practice and wanted to introduce himself to the pastors in the area. I was impressed. I later contacted him and began to see him on a regular basis. My diagnosis is dysthymia. That’s code 300.4 in the DSM-5. Those who suffer from this condition live in a state of constant depression, with occasional plummets into double depression. During this time my mood level improved significantly, and I achieved a real measure of emotional stability. My ministry flourished. Maybe that’s too strong a word, but it really was a creative and productive time. The parish grew. My preaching improved. We developed a network of small groups, which became the backbone of parochial life. We had our normal share of conflicts and crises, but we were a healthy, spiritually alive congregation—at least that is how I remember those days.
I was annoyed with John for the first two years of therapy. He would not shake hands with me. He explained this was how he had been trained. It was a way of setting apart the client-psychologist relationship, a kind of fasting. The explanation didn’t help. I was still annoyed, but eventually I came to appreciate the wisdom of this discipline. I would enter the office, sit down, and begin talking. If you’ve ever seen What About Bob? you might recall Bob Wiley’s first session with psychiatrist Dr Leo Marvin. It was sort’ve like that, well, sort’ve.
After five years I knew it was time to discontinue therapy. I shook John’s hand when our final session concluded. I was confident and hopeful. I eventually accepted a call to a parish in Charleston, South Carolina, and within two years I had fallen again into deep depression. It has been an ongoing battle ever since. I have been helped by different psychologists, as well as by different antidepressants. I have been on Cymbalta for five years now. Thanks in large measure to a less stressful retired life and the ongoing support and love of my wife, I have achieved a genuine level of stability and happiness. But I am still vulnerable. The black dog is always ready to pounce.
I thought about all of this last week while reading Stephen R. L. Clark’s book Plotinus: Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice. One of its chapters is devoted to “Remembering and Forgetting.” Why do we remember and forget, and how are these dual acts related to the life of virtue and ascent to the Good? Clark draws on both ancient and modern authorities. He quotes a passage from a book by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius, Buddha’s Brain:
Much as your body is built from the foods you eat, your mind is built from the experiences you have. The flow of experience gradually sculpts your brain, thus shaping your mind. Some of the results can be explicitly recalled: This is what I did last summer; that is how I felt when I was in love. But most of the shaping of your mind remains forever unconscious. This is called implicit memory, and it includes your expectations, models of relationships, emotional tendencies, and general outlook. Implicit memory establishes the interior landscape of your mind—what it feels like to be you—based on the slowly accumulating residues of lived experience.
Hanson draws on modern neuroscience and Buddhist theory to suggest how this interior landscape can be reshaped once we recognize that memories are not fixed objects but part of an ongoing story or a house that can be rebuilt—though some of our mental structures have been fashioned long before our births and may be difficult to reform. Similarly, Plotinus’s goal is not Remembrance but Forgetfulness, not because he was “ashamed to be in a body,” as Porphyry supposed, but because there were things better worth “remembering” than childhood fears or fancies, even than grown-up fears and fancies. It may sometimes be necessary to bring those unconscious memories to light, but only to deconstruct them. By concentrating on what he wished to remember, on the very poetic genius that creates those images, “the master of the house,” he could hope to cleanse the past—but also the future. Everyday life is conditioned by our hopes and memories: we must remember our mistakes in the hope of avoiding like mistakes, but the very memories remind us of the likeliest future, that we will mistake again. If we are ever to change, we must change the way we see things. We must repopulate our inner landscape. And the first step in that process is forgetting. (pp. 131-132)
Remembering and forgetting—even after all these years of prayer and counseling, I find that specific memories and mental patterns still control much of my life. They seem to be prayer- and therapy-resistant. I would change the way I see things, yet I do not. The disappointments, losses, and humiliations, failures and sins, wounds received and wounds inflicted, cry out for my constant attention. The old memories come alive in the middle of the night or when I am trying to relax or when I am meditating with the Jesus Prayer. I try to shift my attention—breathe in and breathe out, return to the words of the prayer. The memories may quiet for a spell. They bide their time, like a wolf patiently waiting for its prey to let down its guard. “It is rather difficult to forget unwanted memories at will,” comments Plotinus. The painful memories are charged with power and suffering. Yet they are not the only memories. I also have memories of great loves, wondrous beauties, transfiguring joys, memories of peace and wholeness. Some of them are only a day-old. They are my true life. Yet it is the former to which I too often attend.
Plotinus suggests that we need to be awakened to our true selves, i.e., the soul before its fall into embodiment. He thus distinguishes between two organs of imagination: that by which we remember our historical being and that by which we remember our eternal being. We have forgotten the latter. Our return to our deeper selves, as Clark explains, “means that we must shed the merely personal, accidental memories of our lives here” (p. 121). To be awakened, says Plotinus, is a way of forgetfulness but only if we remain awake:
It is as if people who slept through their life thought the things in their dreams were reliable and obvious, but, if someone woke them up, disbelieved in what they saw with their eyes open and went to sleep again.
It’s hard to see how Christians can adapt Plotinus’s view, dependent as it is on belief in reincarnation and return to the soul’s original disembodied state. But perhaps we might ask ourselves, Who is this self that dwells in the pain of the past? Is it me? Did everything happen as I remember? Do my memories really reflect who I was, who I am, who I will be? There is something quite mysterious, and disturbing, about memory. With each act of recollection, memory is changed, edited, altered, distorted; with each recollection, I change myself, for good or for ill. Memory is dynamic. It is not just a matter of calling up a video from the data bank. “Memory is never a precise duplicate of the original,” remarks Rosalind Carter; “instead, it is a continuing act of creation.” While reviewing an old scrapbook, Sally Mann discovered that her most vivid childhood reminiscence, a visit to a zoo in Bulgaria, was in fact based on a memory of seeing a photograph of the visit. This brought her a whole new perspective:
Whatever of my memories hadn’t crumbled into dust must surely by now have been altered by the passage of time. I tend to agree with the theory that if you want to keep a memory pristine, you must not call upon it too often, for each time it is revisited, you alter it irrevocably, remembering not the original impression left by experience but the last time you recalled it. With tiny differences creeping in at each cycle, the exercise of our memory does not bring us closer to the past but draws us farther away.
I had learned over time to meekly accept whatever betrayals memory pulled over on me, allowing my mind to polish its own beautiful lie. In distorting the information it’s supposed to be keeping safe, the brain, to its credit, will often bow to some instinctive aesthetic wisdom, imparting to our life’s events a coherence, logic, and symbolic elegance that’s not present or not so obvious in the improbable, disheveled sloppiness of what we’ve actually been through.
Over time the mind effects its own sort of memory-healing. Recollections of a parent who has injured us may soften. The pain of betrayal by one’s lover may become muted over the years. “Time heals all wounds,” as the saying goes. Yet the reverse may also be true. Torment, anger, guilt, and grief may in fact intensify with each remembrance of a person or event. The search for healing then becomes critical, lest we be overcome by our passions and brokenness.
Remembering and forgetting—both are essential to our daily living, both essential to our spiritual lives. We are persons with unique histories. We are constituted as selves by these histories as accessed by memory. Anyone who has watched an elderly parent disappear before their eyes through the destructive power of Ahlzheimer’s understands the tragedy of total amnesia. Without a remembered past, the person lacks coherent selfhood. There is only confusion. Yet perhaps our histories are open to a remembering that is also a redemptive forgetfulness and a forgetfulness that is also a redemptive remembering. I recall the words of the Apostle Paul: “For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col 3:3-4).