What should we do with our pasts?

I’ve been watching Girls on HBO lately.  Amy and I curl up in bed, watch, and cringe.  The characters treat each other so horribly.  Watching the show makes me remember what I was like at that age, and realize that I didn’t treat people any better.  My cringing is as much about my own shame as it is about anything the characters do.

I spent last week revisiting that shame, but while I was thinking about my youth, I happened to read a passage written by Bernard of Clairvaux.  Bernard was twenty-two years old when he decided to enter the Cistercian abbey at Citeaux.   He convinced his brother and twenty-five of their closest friends to join him.  It’s hard to imagine that Bernard had much to feel guilty about in his previous life.  But apparently he was assailed by the same guilty memories as the rest of us.  Still, he didn’t think that these memories should or even could be ignored.  “In what way will my life be displaced from my memory?” he wrote.  And then went on to write that it wouldn’t be – that his life, all of the things he’d done, good or bad, could not be forgotten.  But he could be forgiven.  “God’s forgiveness blots out sin, not in causing it to be lost from my memory but in causing something which before used to be both in my mind and dyed into it by my moral habits to still be in my memory but no longer to stain it in any way.”

I wish that I could just push that past self away, and forget the things it did. But memory doesn’t work like that – it can’t be abandoned.  But it can be forgiven.  I once described my past to a mentor, and he asked me, “Who loved you, then?”  I thought back to that time when I was being so reckless and indifferent to the damage I caused.  I was able to name quite a few people who loved me.  “Were they fools?” he asked me.  No.  They must have found something lovable in me, even when I couldn’t see it in myself.

So, says Bernard, does God.  If we can face our pasts with the awareness of God’s forgiveness, the story changes.  We no longer live within stories of our shame, but within stories of God’s forgiveness.  God isn’t interested in knowing only half of us, the half we’re proud of and choose to show to the world.  God wants to know all of us, and is willing to forgive and absolve us in order to be part of our wholeness.

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