How Mercy Frees Us from Bad Memories

Dawn Eden illuminates a balm for healing.

Dawn Eden, an author, former rock journalist, and alumna of both the New York Post and the Daily News, has a new book, Remembering God’s Mercy: Redeem the Past and Free Yourself from Painful Memories. It’s a treasure for anyone looking for a book for Lent, especially during a year that has been designated by Pope Francis as one devoted to mercy. And it’s also helpful for understanding what exactly the pope is up to with all this mercy talk. — KJL

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why is it “remembering” God’s mercy? What if I’ve never known it?

Dawn Eden: My book’s title is adapted from Mary’s words of praise to God: “He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy” (Luke 1:54).

If you feel you’ve never known God’s mercy, the title becomes meaningful when you consider that there is a difference between ordinary remembering and religious remembering. Ordinary remembering is recalling things that are past. But when we remember in the religious sense, as we do at Mass when we call to mind how God has loved us, we are not merely remembering past events. We are also remembering a divine person who loves us in the present moment. He loves us now with the very same love that he had for us at every moment of our lives and even before we were born.

So, to remember God’s mercy, we don’t have to try to rack our memory for times when we felt blessed — though that is certainly a good thing to do if we can. All we have to do to remember God’s mercy is to think about our longing for him in the present moment. That very longing, that heartfelt desire to know the peace of God, is a gift of mercy. The people who do not know mercy are those who have no desire for God to fill the empty space within their heart.

Lopez: Why so much about mercy? How about justice and sin? Is this “mercy” business a softening?

Eden: Pitting mercy against justice is a false opposition. Justice and mercy are two dimensions of the same reality. Those who are unrepentant experience divine justice as punishment, whereas those who repent experience divine justice as mercy — even when it may involve suffering, as when I have to make reparation for a sin I committed. The very fact that Pope Francis is promoting divine mercy in this Year of Mercy shows that he believes there is a need for it — a need that would be impossible were there not the reality of sin.

Lopez: Why is it so important for a person to know that he is in God’s memory?

Those who are unrepentant experience divine justice as punishment, whereas those who repent experience divine justice as mercy.

Eden: It is important for me to know that I am in God’s memory because it shows me that my perspective on my past is incomplete. God sees the whole picture, because he is outside of time; all times are present to him. Whereas my thoughts might get mired in past pain, God sees my history only in light of the future that he has planned for me.

We can understand this if we pause to contemplate how the risen Christ recalls his own sufferings. In Luke 24, when Jesus encounters the disciples on the road to Emmaus and in the Upper Room, it is clear that his sufferings remain etched in his memory. Yet, as I write in Remembering God’s Mercy, his memories of them no longer bring him feelings of pain: “In his risen state, when Jesus remembers his passion, he remembers only his passion — the overpowering love he bore that led him to shed every last drop of his Precious Blood for our salvation.”

Likewise, if I know I am in God’s memory, then I know that my own past sufferings are not meaningless. As with the sufferings of Christ, who is the model for every sufferer, they are part of a larger story — a story that I know has a happy ending, because it ends with my present longing for the love of God. That longing itself, as I said earlier, is proof that God is moving my heart, whether or not I am capable of sensing his presence.

Lopez: Why is St. Ignatius Loyola so key to understanding Pope Francis?

Eden: Apart from the fact that Ignatius is the architect of the spirituality of the Society of Jesus, to which Francis belongs, we know that he is key to understanding Francis because Francis himself tells us so. For example, Francis granted his first interview as pope to the editor of a Jesuit magazine. In it, he speaks repeatedly of how his personal spirituality is Jesuit, and it’s clear that by “Jesuit” he means first and foremost “Ignatian.”

Lopez: What’s so special about Ignatian prayer? Could courses in it help heal our growing “trigger-warning” culture?

Eden: Ignatian prayer recognizes that each of us has mental capacities given us by God — our memory, intellect, and will — and that we can advance in the spiritual life by offering those capacities back to God. You don’t have to be a great mystic to benefit from Ignatius’s approach. You only have to be willing to let the Holy Spirit reshape your perspective on your experiences, thoughts, and desires. In Remembering God’s Mercy, I show how we can attain this divine guidance through entering into a deeper appreciation of God’s active presence as it exists in the sacraments, in sacred scripture, and in our own hearts through our baptism.

As one who lives with the effects of post-traumatic stress, I do believe that courses in Ignatian prayer could help heal our growing “trigger-warning” culture. It should go without saying that triggers are real. People who have been traumatized can undergo not only mental suffering but also physical discomfort when something happens to remind them of their past pain. For me, the genius of Ignatius’s approach is that, while he does not in any way push me to dig up or relive traumatic memories, he gives me the tools that equip me to courageously face triggers when they come up.

Lopez: You describe in the book a lifting of a veil in your own life that led to gratitude. Why is gratitude so important?

Eden: St. Therese of Lisieux describes prayer as “a surge of the heart.” The virtue that leads us to lift up our heart in this way is gratitude — gratitude both for the divine love we have received and for the divine love that we trust will flow down to us as we ask for new blessings. As Francis puts it, gratitude is “the response of love, made possible because in faith we are receptive to the experience of God’s transforming love for us.”

Lopez: You point out early on that you are not proposing that people don’t get professional/medical help when dealing with trauma, but you do insist that they need spiritual work done too — that medicine alone won’t cut it. Why are you so certain of this?

Eden: I am certain of it because trauma is an experience of evil, and any experience of evil that we suffer will have an impact upon how we understand God and our relationship to him. Even if we are spiritually mature and understand that God never positively wills evil — he only permits it because he can bring good from it — it’s important that we take advantage of whatever can help us process what we have suffered. For me, those helps include the Bible, the sacraments, the works of good spiritual writers, and, importantly, an experienced spiritual director to help me deepen my relationship with God.

Lopez: How do you make your memory an offering? Why would you want to? Why would God want you to?

Eden: When you love someone, you want to give of yourself to make that person happy and draw yourself closer to him or her. It’s the same with God, but God is capable of far more intimacy with us than a human person is. Through our baptism, God actually lives in us, and we in him. So, I don’t just want to offer God my time, my effort, or my companionship, though those are all very good and important things to give him. I want to offer him the most hidden parts of myself, so that he can enter into them and transform them, making me more like the image of himself that he created me to be.

With my memory, when I offer it to God, I am really asking him to transform my understanding of my past and put it in line with how he sees my past. Since all his memories of me are of his love for me, if I offer him my memory, then I can begin to see how his love was always present for me even during the darkest times of my life.

Lopez: How did God restructure Mary’s memory? Is that the heart of your book?

Eden: Yes, I would say that what God did for Mary is at the heart of my book, because it shows what he wishes to do for each of us.

God was able to restructure Mary’s memory because Mary offered her entire being to God, including her memories. We are told this many times in Luke’s gospel, especially in chapters 1 and 2. There we read of how Mary gave her “yes” at the Annunciation, how she shared her memories of God’s blessings with her cousin Elizabeth, and how she chose to remember and ponder the things that were told her about her Son. What we see as Mary’s life progresses — when she stands at the foot of the Cross and when she prays with the disciples at Pentecost — is how, through her self-offering, God gave her the grace to understand her painful experiences in light of his plan for salvation.

Lopez: “The first thing Jesus does when he rises from the dead is that he restores our memory”? Did we really read that in the Bible?

Eden: Yes, we do! It’s in Luke 24, many times over, in the words of the angel to the women at the tomb and in the words of Jesus to the disciples on the road to Emmaus and in the upper room. All those people are told to remember what Jesus said –“that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners and be crucified, and rise on the third day” (Luke 24:7). They had blocked out their memories of Jesus’s predictions of his Passion, and so they had failed to remember that he had also predicted he would rise. Only when Jesus restores their memory of those painful predictions are they able to appreciate the meaning of the Resurrection: It is the fulfillment of the redemption Jesus won on the Cross.

Lopez: Why is it crucial to understand feelings as just feelings and not the truth? Is this always so?

We need to learn to recognize how our perceptions of the past affect our perceptions of the present.

Eden: It is crucial to understand feelings as not necessarily being the truth, because our feelings are based only on what we perceive, and we do not perceive the whole of reality at every moment. We are not God; we don’t know what lies deep within other people’s hearts. And our feelings can change according to what we learn about a person. For example, I think we’ve all had the experience of coming to like someone whom we initially disliked, or coming to dislike someone we initially liked, based on receiving new information about that person. Certainly that happens during the presidential campaign season!

What’s more, our feelings are not simple responses to our present reality. They include our reactions to how our present reality reminds us of past experiences. If we are to find healing, we need to learn to recognize how our perceptions of the past affect our perceptions of the present.

We are healthiest when our feelings correspond to the truth. But, since our feelings are only partly under our conscious control, we need the help of grace. Grace helps us both to conform our minds to the truth so that our feelings will follow, and to help us discern when it is right to act on our feelings.

Lopez: How do the Beatitudes “bring us to contemplate the face of Jesus”?

Eden: When Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” “blessed are they who mourn,” “blessed are the meek,” and so on, he is drawing a picture for us of his own personality. What we are called to do is to conform our own personality to his. In this way, the Beatitudes become, as Pope Francis puts it, “the Christian’s identity card.” It is through living them that we discover our own identity in Christ.

Lopez: What is it about Augustine and Pope Francis that turns “our human concept of unfulfilled desire” “on its head,” as you put it?

Eden: The human temptation is to seek the fulfillment of our desires now: “I want what I want when I want it.” What Augustine, and Pope Francis after him, tell us is that our unfulfilled desires have a higher purpose. That sense of emptiness that I feel at a sad moment when I long to hear a kind word, that desire I have to see once again my loved ones who have died, that hunger I feel when it is a fast day — all these things can serve to remind me that this world is not my true home. I am made for heaven. As I write in Remembering God’s Mercy, borrowing some words from a prayer, our unfulfilled desires “help us loosen our heart’s grip upon the good things that pass away, so that we might be able to open our heart to the good things that will endure forever.”

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