I recently had the opportunity to return to one of my favorite places on earth. I was invited to lead a retreat at the seminary in Maryland where I had been formed as a priest. It is a place of memories for me — of walks in the beautiful mountains, of driving through Civil War battlefields, of prayer and laughter and conversations with God. It is difficult for me to express in words how very much I love the place. And so I joyfully returned, after many years away, to preach a series of homilies to young future priests. Happiness.
When I arrived on campus, there were tears in my eyes. I immediately went to the chapel to pray in thanksgiving and it was there that it began to happen. After I had knelt down, I happened to notice that the chapel was a bit simpler than I had remembered. After praying for a while, I walked down the hall towards the great classrooms where I had been taught theology and philosophy. But the classrooms looked a bit more disorganized than I had remembered. And when I walked up to the third floor and peered into my old dorm room, I was surprised that it was smaller than I had remembered.
“How odd,” I thought. “They must have shrunk the place.” But this strange phenomenon continued — while walking on campus the grass was not as green as I had remembered, the ringing church bell was not as beautiful and the food was not as tasty. And even more troubling, the seminarians were so hopelessly young. How was it possible for these kids to be allowed in here? When I was here, everybody was so … mature. What was going on here? Why were these things not exactly as I had remembered them to be? Things were all a bit … smaller.
One of the most powerful gifts in life is our memory. We remember things that happened to us — both good and bad. And these memories, for better or worse, shape our futures. We pray that our memories are happy. We sometimes work all our lives to forget the pain. I have observed over the years that our memories have a way of growing bigger over time. The fish once caught grows bigger in our minds. The first car runs better and better every year. And our grandmother’s cooking becomes even more delicious.
This, of course, is usually not the truth — but it often brightens our lives. People usually remember the happy things, and they forget the uncomfortable parts. Those things we loved often become embellished over time and grow ever larger in our mind’s eye. And those we loathe usually decrease over time. This is not always the case, of course, and sometimes our suffering from past harm remains for a very long time. But the happy memories do tend to grow up along with us.
I think that God is very close to us in this phenomenon. Could it be that the ever-rosy past in our memory more accurately depicts the actual grace that happened in that very moment so long ago? We were blind to God’s workings at the time, but now we see them and we are ever grateful. Perhaps the largeness of our favorite places and people and experiences of the past are in reality a more accurate depiction of what God was actually doing then! We so often find God not in our distracted present or our fanciful future, but in the well-trodden past where we can see his footprints and hear his voice. Our Lord Jesus was there — and he was larger than life!
As I preached the retreat to the ever-younger seminarians and visited my favorite places, I remembered many happy things from my years in seminary. Occasionally, I would round a corner and a strange thought would flicker through my mind — thoughts of being hospitalized for double pneumonia, being caught in the middle of diocesan politics, experiencing family division and strife, narrowly avoiding a fatal car accident and long nights studying. But why remember such things from so long ago? They are so small.
I quickly went back to what this seminary in the mountains meant to me. And what it still means to me. Yes, in the rearview mirror of life, things are often smaller than they appear. Smaller in reality, they grow ever larger in our memory. For God was there.
Fr. Girotti is vicar for canonical services and associate moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Green Bay.