The Grace of Memory
By Dawn Eden
I entered the Catholic Church at a time when I was just beginning to come to terms with the abuse I suffered during my childhood. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, I had encountered Jesus through faith, but my memory was streaked with shadows where the light of Christ had failed to penetrate.
As I began to live within the rhythms of the sacraments—attending Mass not just weekly but even daily and going to confession regularly—I started to sense a change in the way I perceived my personal history. It was unnerving at first—painful memories would insinuate themselves upon my consciousness when I least expected them, sometimes even at Mass. But over time, with the help of a good spiritual director, I learned that, when unwanted memories came up, I could offer them to Jesus in the Eucharist. Just as Jesus gave me himself through the sacrament, so too, when I received him, I gave him myself—including my memories. In this way too, I was like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, who entrusted Jesus with their stories of the painful events they had witnessed.
My self-offering of memory put me into a beautiful dialogue with the eucharistic Christ. As I gave Jesus my memories, I found that he was giving me his. He who, on the road to Emmaus, had restructured his disciples’ memories was restructuring mine. With the aid of grace, I came to understand my sufferings in light of the sufferings of “the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20, RSV).
Later on, I would find in Pope Francis’s encyclical Lumen fidei a description of what I experienced. Francis writes that “the sacraments communicate an incarnate memory, linked to the times and places of our lives, linked to all our senses.”
The new understanding I received of my sufferings did not in itself heal me of the invisible wounds left by my childhood trauma. I still endured effects of trauma, including occasional anxiety, sadness, and flashbacks, which were beyond my conscious control. Taken together, my constellation of symptoms added up to post-traumatic stress disorder. The pain of my past had long ago become embodied, and bodily symptoms cannot be simply wished away.
Yet, even as my symptoms lingered, over time I noticed there was a real difference in the manner in which I experienced the effects of past pain. When something happened that triggered unwanted memories, leading me to cry, my tears no longer had the last word. PTSD might still cause me discomfort, but it could no longer harm me. It could rankle me—because I was human, after all—but it couldn’t alter my identity as a beloved child of God in Christ.
The past was not my enemy any more. I could no longer be a prisoner of fear, anger, or shame.
What caused this change? It took place as I came to understand that the feelings of isolation that my painful memories evoked were just that—feelings. They were not the truth. The truth was that every time I felt the pain of any kind of wound, Jesus Christ was with me in a profound way. He was with me already, through the graces I had received in Baptism, but he was with me on an even deeper and more intimate level if I consciously asked him to be with me when I suffer.
This excerpt is adapted from Remembering God’s Mercy: Redeem the Past and Free Yourself from Painful Memories by Dawn Eden. Used with permission of Ave Maria Press. All rights reserved.
He lives with his lovely wife and eleven kids in northern Colorado.