Monday, August 25, 2008

The Faculties of Past, Present and Future

Suscipe, Domine, universam meam libertatem.
Accipe memoriam, intellectum, atque voluntatem omnem.
Quidquid habeo vel possideo mihi largitus es; id tibi totum restituo, ac tuae prorsus voluntati trado gubernandum.
Amorem tui solum cum gratia tua mihi dones, et dives sum satis, hec aliud quidquam ultra posco.
This is St Ignatius's "Suscipe" in Latin. Fr Hardon says that it is better read in Latin because of the nuances of some of the words, that can't quite be translated into English. I would not know.

In English, it goes like this:

Receive, O Lord, all my liberty.
Take my memory, my understanding, and my entire will.
Whatsoever I have or hold, You have given me;
I give it all back to You and surrender it wholly to be governed by your will.
Give me only your love and your grace, and I am rich enough and ask for nothing more.'

It is only found in the last week of the Spiritual Exercises, but I had come across it in a prayer booklet years back when we were with Aidan in San Francisco waiting for his transplant, and I memorized it during the long afternoons in the NICU, and have been saying it after communion ever since. So it was like an old friend when I met up with it.

Fr Hardon has an interesting reflection on the "memory, understanding and will" part of the prayer.

"Take" ...means surrendering everything over which we have voluntary control. These are mainly the three faculties of our soul: the memory, the understanding, and the will. ...if we are truly sincere in sacrificing our freedom to God, we are implicitly giving him dominion over the three highest possessions we have:

  • our memory of the past;
  • our understanding of the present;
  • our will with its desires and hopes and loves for the future.

Why did this strike me? I think it's because of the connection of the three main faculties of the mind with the processes of Time. I had never thought about it that way before, but memory, understanding and will are our specifically human ways of dealing with the sequential aspects of this great mystery. They are what make us able to transcend what we share in common with animals -- our instincts and conditioning -- and to some extent choose freely what we are to think of and do in light of these things. Augustine says, in Book XI of the Confessions:

Permit me, Lord, to seek further. O my hope, let not my purpose be confounded. For if times past and to come be, I would know where they be. Which yet if I cannot, yet I know, wherever they be, they are not there as future, or past, but present. For if there also they be future, they are not yet there; if there also they be past, they are no longer there. Wheresoever then is whatsoever is, it is only as present.

Although when past facts are related, there are drawn out of the memory, not the things themselves which are past, but words which, conceived by the images of the things, they, in passing, have through the senses left as traces in the mind. Thus my childhood, which now is not, is in time past, which now is not: but now when I recall its image, and tell of it, I behold it in the present, because it is still in my memory.

Whether there be a like cause of foretelling things to come also; that of things which as yet are not, the images may be perceived before, already existing, I confess, O my God, I know not. This indeed I know, that we generally think before on our future actions, and that that forethinking is present, but the action whereof we forethink is not yet, because it is to come. Which, when we have set upon, and have begun to do what we were forethinking, then shall that action be; because then it is no longer future, but present.
Daniel Siegel, in The Developing Mind, says much the same thing -- that our (explicit) memories aren't fixed, but are present representations of our past experience. Every time we recall something, we basically recast it in our present moment. The content of the memory may be something past, but the actual "recollection" is something occurring in our present. This is why, if I understand his complicated prose correctly, a coherent "narrative" of the past -- even a troubled past -- can help us restore our present and affect our futures.

A key sign of a troubled understanding of past problems (and a fairly accurate predictor of troubled relationships with one's children) is the coherence of a narrative about the past. (see Adult Attachment Interview). In other words, the main predictor of shaky attachment with one's children according to attachment theory is not so much a troubled background per se, but the way one has processed it and brought it into the present. "Earned security" is the term for the state of adults with troubled family history who have come to the point where they can remember and recount their past history with some kind of coherent perspective, without either dismissiveness ("everything was fine, but I don't really remember details") or intrusion of present into past ("she always favored my brother.... just last week she took HIS kids to Disneyland, she never does anything nice for ME and my kids..").

There is much more to it than this, obviously. But the part I wanted to bring out is that by understanding (by means of processing and narrating) our past better we can better understand our present and future. It is interesting, and reminds me a bit of Oscar Wilde's insight, though he is talking about personal sin and not past "issues" inflicted on oneself by other people:

Of course the sinner must repent. But why? Simply because otherwise he would be unable to realise what he had done. The moment of repentance is the moment of initiation. More than that: it is the means by which one alters one's past. The Greeks thought that impossible. They often say in their Gnomic aphorisms, 'Even the Gods cannot alter the past.' Christ showed that the commonest sinner could do it, that it was the one thing he could do.

Perhaps to connect Wilde's idea better with Siegel's attachment theories the word "metanoia" comes in handy. Metanoia literally means "change of mind" -- it can imply repentance per se but also a sort of more general restoration/change of attitude about things that are dragging one down or locking one in and are perhaps a cause for one's present failings and misdeeds, or at least a contributing factor.

Metanoia in the context of theological discussion, where it is used often, is usually interpreted to mean repentance. However, some people argue that the word should be interpreted more literally to denote changing one's mind, in the sense of embracing thoughts beyond its present limitations or thought patterns (an interpretation which is compatible with the denotative meaning of repentance but replaces its negative connotation with a positive one, focusing on the superior state being approached rather than the inferior prior state being departed from.)

In the context of rhetoric, metanoia is a rhetorical device used to retract a statement just made, and then state it in a better way.
I don't think the theological notion of "repentance" is quite as negative as the Wikipedia entry makes it sound for the purposes of contrast. Etymologically speaking, "repentance" means "re- thinking"; most of the saints encouraged one to employ sorrow and regret for the past as a stepping stone of humility and receptiveness to grace, in order to recast the present and future. Getting bogged down in remorse is contrary to the restoration and renewal aspects of "metanoia". In fact, in some ways this bogging-down in past shame, anger and fear is exactly what keeps us from getting somewhere better. King David said:

"Create in me a clean heart, O Lord, and renew a right spirit within me!"

Daniel Siegel says that "shame" is often a problem with people who are bogged down by their pasts. He defines "shame" as something that has been laid down below the foundations of the rational mind, that often doesn't have a just reason. For example, a child may have been brought up to feel "shame" for needing affection or comfort. Siegel has another word for the just sense of guilt and regret we ought to have when we've done something to harm someone or ourselves, but nevertheless he proposes acknowledging the failing and bringing it to the surface of one's mind in order to deal with it and move on. In fact, probably one of the most difficult aspects of a troubled childhood is that it is difficult to perceive what is real guilt and what is "shame" imposed in early childhood, where one's memories are buried under the conscious surface of one's mind.

Siegel is talking from a scientific, secular-psychological perspective, but the parallels are interesting to me. If something is true, it is going to be true across the board.

A bigger subject than I meant to take on at first! I am no theologian, nor a psychoanalyst (obviously!) so these are just things I'm processing in my mind right now.


Stephanie said...

Willa, if I tell you that you and I are somehow standing in the same place again, will you believe me? It's true. This prayer of St. Ignatius is the one constant prayer for me for the past twelve years or so. I say it immediately upon returning to my pew after communion. "My memory, my understanding, and my will." All of it. It is a prayer God answers.

And shame? Shame is an interesting phenomenon. I heard a reading from the Church Fathers (and cannot find its source! grrr!), in which shame was explained as pride's reaction to our flaws. We feel shame only when we still believe we're somehow "better" than that. But full repentance brings only relief.

The example the Saint used was that of a mother helping her child learn to walk. Is she surprised, or does she berate or scorn or give up in disgust when the child falls? No. Neither does our loving God get impatient with us. He only asks that we get up and continue walking toward him.

We need the humility of a child who finds himself suddenly sitting when he had intended to walk. There is no need to assume we are better than that. We just need to get up and keep moving toward our Father.

I thought that was a beautiful way to think of it. Yes, I repent in dust and ashes. Yes, that sin is mine. I am truly that weak and sinful and truly that much in need of Parenting. No need to make myself feel better by showing how enormously full of my own shame I am. Much better to admit I have fallen, and get up and come to the Father.

Marie said...

Willa, this post is SO timely in my thoughts right now. I started my Catholic life in a Jesuit parish, and regardless of what people say about St. Louis Jesuits music, I absolutely adore their song "Take Lord, Receive." There is something about that prayer that has always been magnetic for me. You have given me much fuel, here!

Amy said...

Deep thoughts here - both from you and Stephanie! I hope I have some time to give this *real* thought later. I need to somehow integrate what you (Willa) are saying about having a good and proper retelling of the past, with Stephanie's mention of shame/pride, with my own perfectionism, and the little (ha) matter of getting my mothers shaming voice out of my head, LOL.

lissla lissar said...

I love all of you. :)

Simone Weil thought it was possible to intercede for and about things that had already happened. I think it makes sense- God being outside time, our prayers reaching God and the communion of saints, and since Christ by His sacrifice redeemed both past and future in that one action.

Anyway, I've been doing it.

Stephanie, that's exactly right. Repentance should only lead to passing grief, or it becomes pride- inability to live with the thought of being imperfect, sometimes pride in one's disgrace, "No one's a worse sinner than me!"

Laura A said...

I like these thoughts about the true nature of repentance, and I agree. Too often I have only heard the negative aspects emphasized, but what's the point if you can't get beyond them to a relationship with God? That relationship--and having it reflect the reality of a God who is other and yet loving, IS the point!

Along these lines of past, present and future, I think you'll like Grudin, though you won't always agree with him. I don't think he understands what Christianity is.

I took the attachment survey you linked to, but I was very puzzled. I think the quality of one's attachments depends a great deal on the other people involved! I am very lucky to be happily married, but if I'd substituted some other relationships for a "romantic" one, the answers might have been totally different. And if we realize that some of the people in our lives aren't trustworthy, it would be rather foolish to feel securely attached to them. It takes a purposeful sacrifice to love such a person. Hosea didn't go around saying he felt securely attached to Gomer, though he did love her.

Lots to think about here, and I will continue to do so.

Willa said...

I think the real Adult Attachment Interview is a 90 minute personal interview asking you questions about what you remember from your childhood, etc. They rate it on coherence, concision, and other rather unusual factors. ... unusual to me, at least.

That quiz is a bit strange -- I just looked at it (didn't see it before when I grabbed the link). For one thing, it concentrates on present romantic relationships, whereas the Adult Attachment Interview apparently asks you to recall your family of origin -- your childhood memories.

I did wonder when reading Becoming Attached about how attachment is measured. ... how much of a part the baby's temperament played. My children are strong introverts -- if they were in a classroom situation in their primary years they might not look securely attached, from a teacher's perspective. They didn't engage quickly in a new activity, or mix right into a new group, etc. Of course, it might always be true that they weren't altogether securely attached -- I'm not a wonder parent or anything. Yet there is also the possibility that their temperament influences their response to life outside the home circle. So I wonder if the childhood attachment studies measure something slightly different than actual secure attachment.

Willa said...

I loved your beautiful comment, Stephanie, almost like a post of its own. It gave me a lot to think about.

I was thinking about how God can sometimes, in our heads, have a similar "voice" as that of our parents or someone else who shamed us (or even someone who praised us conditionally). For this reason it can be hard to realize genuinely His love. As we grow in the faith we probably get little glimpses of something More.

I appreciate your analogy of spiritual childhood, because it points out in another way how we can in a sense redeem our past -- how we are to "become like little children" and in some way, erase our past tapes and start over again. With God's grace, of course. Erasing isn't quite the right word but I can't seem to think of a better one at this hour of the morning.

Stephanie said...

Instead of "erase" how about "redeem?"

I've been thinking about this lately. It got spurred by some converts I know (and really care about), and their regrets (closely related to shame). It sort of dawned on me. When God redeems, He almost never gives back all the losses. Instead of bringing back all the things that used to be, he sanctifies what IS.

We get our losses restored to us a thousand fold someday, I know. But what about now? How do we deal with our foibles and outright rebellions -- or the past, when we weren't to blame and the shame makes us squirm in the wee hours of the morning? What about the stuff we lost through our own sin or the sin of someone else? Does God make our lives as if it never happened?

No. He is so powerful that he offers us the healing and holiness of what IS. Not what was, but what IS. God doesn't scrap it. He uses it - whatever "it" is - for good.

(Half-formed thoughts, but does that make sense at all?)

Willa said...

(Half-formed thoughts, but does that make sense at all?)

I think we have been thinking over some of the same things. King David often seemed to be meditating along the same lines:

"If You should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?" (from the De Profundis).

Lissla, it is interesting that Simone Weil said you could intercede for the past since I do that too.