Learning to forget through your prayerful imagination

My monthly column on The Catholic Free Press and Catholicmom.com

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Learn to forget? Seems to me I have to first learn how to remember! Those of us past a certain age know that feeling well. So do young mothers, workaholics and anyone else who is overly busy. We all know that sinking feeling when we’ve forgotten an appointment. How many of us search for a word in the middle of a sentence, only to have it pop into our heads hours later?

Then again, there are things I would like to forget. That scary movie I saw just before bedtime. The dirty house that I have no energy to clean. The accident I had last summer that now makes taking any left turn into traffic an ordeal.

And then there are regrets, some from many years ago, that periodically remind me of pain I would like to leave behind. Saying no when I should have said yes. Talking behind a colleague’s back. Not having spent enough time with my children. Deciding not to visit my mother one last time because it was too hard, only to find out later that she had died.

It doesn’t make much sense to confess to the priest and receive reconciliation if I have no intention of letting go of the sin. Since God has already chosen to forgive me, who am I to disagree?

How can we hope to forget what we can’t forgive? How can we learn to let go of those words and actions that weigh us down and block that life-giving joy that God so wants us to receive?

Sometimes our own imaginations can provide the way when used as a form of prayer. In his famous Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius encouraged the use of one’s imagination in meditating on the life of Jesus and the saints. He encouraged people to place themselves into Gospel stories – in essence becoming the characters – and experiencing their feelings and reactions as they interacted with the Lord.

In the spirit of this kind of prayer, I imagine the following:

It was the end of the day and the sky was orange, reflecting the setting sun. The air was warm and thick, the trees laden with leaves. I am sitting on a dock by a river, swinging my feet back and forth as I listen to the water rippling by underneath. I watch a leaf drop slowly to the water only to be carried out of sight.

David Stanley Sunset Over the Rupununi
David Stanley Sunset Over the Rupununi

I turn to see a barge by the dock, filled to overflowing with rubble—pieces of wood, open crates, blocks of concrete, broken bottles, stacks of newspapers. I notice an odor rising from the barge that suggests garbage lying beneath the rubble. It is an ugly sight, marring the otherwise peaceful scene. I want to get rid of that barge. I try pushing the rim with my feet but it will not budge.

Mark Morgan 0522 Rust Barge
Mark Morgan 0522 Rust Barge

In my prayer Jesus sits down next to me on the dock. Instinctively I lean upon his shoulder and point to the barge beside us. He places his feet upon its edge and motions me to do the same. “Push,” he says and we both push hard, stretching our legs out as far as they would go. Slowly the barge moves away from the dock into the river and, caught up by the current, proceeds downstream, meandering out of sight.

As I continue to lean on the shoulder of my Lord I can feel a burden lift from my heart, placing itself on that barge as it drifts away. I look up into his face as he says to me, smiling, “It’s okay, you can let go, I have forgiven you.” Tears coming to my eyes, I thank him and kiss him on the cheek.

I repeat this exercise periodically as regrets come to mind. It reminds me that I am forgiven and I need to claim it.

Perhaps you too can sit with Jesus and push away your barge full of rubble as your way of learning to forgive and forget.

For a brief overview of Ignatian spirituality, visit http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-spiritual-exercises/pray-with-your-imagination/

Copyright 2015 Susan W. Bailey

Art/Photography: Sunset Over the Rupununi, Name – David Stanley, PD/CC/SA, Flickr Creative Commons;
0522 Rust Barge, Name – Mark Morgan, PD/CC/SA, Flickr Creative Commons

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Book Review: Unsaid by Neil Abramson – the moving story of a husband’s grief journey and how he honors his wife’s life and love of animals

unsaidUnsaid was recommended to me by a friend whom I know to be thoughtful. We are both animal lovers and she warned me to “have the tissues ready.” While the idea of reading about animals drew me in, I was also curious about the lead character’s grief journey since I have journaled extensively about my own since my mother died four years ago. My reflections have been from the point of view of faith in heaven; Unsaid told the story of grief from a purely human angle. And yet I found the same spiritual truth: if we allow our grief to carry us, it will take our loss and help to shape a new life.

The premise of the book

The story is told from the point of view of the beloved dead wife, Helena, pondering the meaning of her life as she observes her husband David trying to carry on without her. She, a dedicated veterinarian, had died of breast cancer at the age of thirty-seven. Her husband, a high-powered Manhattan lawyer cannot deal with his loss.

Author Neil Abramson
Author Neil Abramson

Life regrets

Helena and David met attempting to rescue a deer one night that had been struck by a car. In the ensuing years they bought a farm an hour out from the city which housed two horses, a pig and several dogs and cats. Upon reflection the now dead Helena feels she may have imposed too much of her life upon her husband. She sees how he struggles to maintain the routine of caring for the animals each day. It eventually becomes too much and he hires some help: a nurse from a competing vet and her autistic son Clifford who has extraordinary drawing ability and insight into the mind and heart of animals.

Defending the life of a chimpanzee

Coming into contact with a former colleague of Helena’s, Jaycee, David learns of their work with chimpanzees. Jaycee has developed a strong parental relationship with a four-year-old female, Cindy, who can communicate on the level of a four-year-old child. David finds himself going to trial defending Jaycee who tried to take Cindy from the lab when she found out the chimp was scheduled for medical experiments.

Exploration of the characters

Unsaid builds slowly but I didn’t mind; I was interested in David’s grief process. The book probed the mind of a man who had to come to grips with his loss, not only of his wife, but of his very self. At the same time Helena needed to make peace with her own life, seeing that it did, in fact have value. It is how the value of her life and its impact on David unfolded throughout the book.

Grief is a mysterious and creative process whether we believe in an omnipotent God or not. Unsaid does a wonderful job of pointing out the value of grief and its transforming power so long as we are able to go along for the ride. David is eventually able to move on and as a result, discovers a new and deeper way of living.

paperback version
paperback version

Two sides to the story

Unsaid is provocative in what it says about the value of animals and animal lovers will rejoice in this. While the arguments during the trial certainly favored the chimpanzee, I felt that Abramson tried to be fair in presenting the other side of medical experimentation: the need to find cures for human diseases.

Satisfying conclusion

There are subplots including a sickly dog and his touching relationship with Clifford (and yes, tissues were needed for that subplot) and how his mother, scarred by her own losses, came to embrace the goodness of life again.

The slow boil of this story explodes near the end of the book; one chapter left me positively breathless. The way Abramson resolved the many issues in the story through a series of twists and turns, was very well done. This is not just a feel-good story about animals; it is a gritty and realistic exploration of human love and loss.

Abramson has an interesting background combining his love, respect and knowledge of animals with a thorough knowledge of the law. His understanding of human nature isn’t too shabby either. Unsaid is his first novel; I hope there are many more.

I wrote back to my friend and told her that I loved Unsaid. I hope that you will too.

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