Nostalgia & recollection

For one reason or another — overexposure to the news, I suspect — I have been going back to high school. This, of course, in mind only, jogged by such little evidence as an old yearbook can supply, and some pictures and letters I’d not known I still owned. A priest made me aware of the dangers of nostalgia; of revisiting sins that have been absolved; of mistaking old, face-grabbing embarrassments for sin, when the overlap is often less than first appears. But memory, like the world in general, is complicated to a denizen of that world.

The Church herself upholds “recollection,” which may take different forms, each an active and attentive function rather than a passive and apathetic.

Among things I’ve noticed when revisiting the past, is its teaching function. Look back upon one’s childhood and youth, from enough distance in time, and one will see things that were only half understood, in a larger frame. In particular, one will see oneself and old neighbours more as features of a time and place; and this may lead beyond shallow mortification for defunct hair-styles and period costumage, to a better understanding of what gulls we were, and may still be.

We took evanescent things for the groundwork of reality. Our old opinions might be easy to reject, for now we “know better,” but as Lichtenberg said, what matters is not a man’s opinions but what his opinions have made of him.

It is easier at a distance, as from eagle flight, to see beneath a surface. The proclivity, for instance, to idleness — in the sense of sloth, bone laziness, and avoidance — may have deeper and more tangled roots. For this sloth is interwoven with a habit of disengagement that has helped one escape bad company and temptations. It has served, even while undermining, and could serve, were it taken into hand. We might learn, from the past, how to not do things in a courageous and not a cowardly way.

Recollection, in the Catholic understanding, is an action of the grace of God, manifest in mystery. Let God address, let us listen. But we are not without a part, in our silence and solitude, as we struggle to attend to the work of grace, in our lives within time. In precious glimpses we see ourselves not as others see us, but as God must judge, in mercy and in justice that will finally coalesce. Real progress, in life, is the progress of virtue; a progress towards and through earthly death — through the eye of that needle, through “Heaven’s Gate in Jerusalem Wall.” As opposed to, say, consumer acquisitions. In recollection, we may hope to escape the foolishness and dissipation that engaged our half-attention; that slid us off the road.

But we were just kids, then. We did not know how important we were. The memory of faces returns to me; several the faces of old friends now dead. Did they know how much God loved them? Did they even know how much God loved them, through me? Did they ever apprehend the joy in this, or was God to them only the puritan stick with which they were occasionally beaten?

It will be seen that recollection is almost the opposite of nostalgia, rather as lament is the opposite of regret. We lament only the good that we had in our arms.

A child dies, who meant everything to his mother. But in the bittersweet act of lamentation, she has recalled him to life. Everything that was beautiful in that child is resurrected in her human way. We begin to see that nothing is lost: for what never existed cannot be lost. What exists may be transformed, but God does not “forget things” — and the child was real. Lament is for the actual; for something that is real. It is not for something that never was, unless we make it so in our illusions.

We regret, when looking back, our mistakes, and the alternative universe of a missed opportunity. But all of this is nonsense. Let us recollect in joy.


See also: my Catholic Thing column, here.