Timeless Moments

They seem to bob into consciousness without announcement or connection—images of people and places. A multitude of figures and scenes, fragmented recollections, show up at unexpected moments. There are faces of strangers I sat beside on a train and exchanged a few words with; the face of someone I took shelter with under the same awning in a rainstorm; there’s the haggard face of an alcoholic panhandler; there’s the quiet girl who sat at the next desk in the fifth grade. Thomas Merton referred to this phenomenon and suggested that these images are of people who are in some kind of trouble and we are being called to pray for them. Interesting.

So many images suddenly flame to life and insinuate themselves in my life. They are fragmentary recollections. Lost times and forgotten scenes suddenly return: my mother pulling down the blinds at sunset; suddenly for a moment I’m back in my Aunt May’s kitchen. There are so many images from the past that pass through my mind and show up at unexpected moments: a seagull with a broken wing, frost on a windowpane, the look of a street at twilight, a scene of Manhattan weather. I’m carried back to the dead people I knew. Momentary recollections like these seem to dot my being.

I have many recollections of scenes that belong to childhood. As I get older, my childhood self seems to become more accessible to me. The recollections are usually delicious moments, for example, the shore where childhood played. They are bright memories of kind people and lovely places. They are remembered with love and with a longing for a happiness I wish I could regain.

For oft…they flash upon that inward eye…
And then my heart with pleasure fills
And dances with the daffodils
(Wordsworth, “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud”)

A frequent recollection is myself, a small boy, crossing a street, alive and going somewhere.

But there are also dark memories of old unhappy far off things. There are the sudden remembrances of things that made me feel scared and lonely, old failures and old hurts.

These sudden fragments that float in and out of my mind can both brighten and darken my life. There are recollections of sounds: feet on a stairway; a clanging bell; the clip-clod of a horse; a train whistle; the calling of a voice through the autumn dark; a voice calling from the foot of the stairs; the barking of an old dog. When I was little my older brother often followed me and kept shouting “Tommy wait!” I often recall that. All these recollections stir something in me, vague and tender.

There are fragmentary memories of fragrances, for example, the sweet, dry fragrance of talcum powder that clung to a girl. There are fragmentary memories of touch. After all these years I can still remember, and almost feel, the pressure of my father’s hand on the small of my back, guiding me across the street.

As someone said, the night is never alone, it remembers. It is often at night that peculiar memories pop up out of nowhere.

It is extraordinary the things I remember—so many seem like trifles. It puzzles me that I remember these impressions. Why were these things stirring to be remembered? Why do these scenes revive, or are awakened? Why are they remembered when they are? Why are some things engraved in memory? Do they arrive from “deep down”? Are they there for some purpose? I expect psychologists might have some answers.

In a way, they can evoke in me a sense of reverence. St. Augustine wrote about the religious significance of memory. Maybe these unbidden memories that suddenly form and dissolve mark places in one’s life where we were to hear the “more” that runs through it all. Life is holy ground. It is possible to see the presence of the sacred in the realities of the everyday. One can find meaning in the briefest and most unexpected moments. Maybe there is something like playing jump rope going on. You can miss the split second where entry is possible and you’ve flubbed up everything. Maybe we keep missing entries.

Do some of these memories involve moments of transcendence? There are holy sparks in every occasion. Are these recurring memories calls to listen to our lives? The co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, expressed it this way: “Life gives us moments.” There are moments of illumination, when the most ordinary objects and commonplace events shed the shackles of matter-of-factness and enter the realm of mystery. T.S. Eliot wrote in Little Gidding of “the timeless moment.”