One of my favorite activities is reading a good novel. And yes, reading is definitely an activity. When one immerses in a book fully, the imagination comes alive and our emotions and senses engage. If we let it, a really good novel can transport a person as if through a portal into the world created by the writer. A novel which so transported me is A Gentleman in Moscow * about a Count Rostov who as a young man in 1922 is incarcerated for life in one of the most prestigious hotels in Moscow as a result of his opposition to Communism. While he could have suffered a worse fate, Rostov could never leave the building. He was moved from the luxurious suite in which he had been residing to living quarters that were rather tiny in what amounted to an attic. On the day Count Rostov was moved, he had to choose what to keep in the cramped space, losing the rest to the authorities. Among the items he retained were two bottles of brandy that had belonged to his long deceased father and were therefore precious to him. Later that night, three members of the hotel staff visited to console him. Without hesitation, Rostov opened one of the bottles of brandy, sharing the entire bottle with them. Earlier he had mused that what makes certain possessions dear is that they are “invested with memories” (pg. 14) which in turn makes them difficult to part with; and yet for a man who had just lost so much, he was able to offer the brandy as if he was inviting them into the beauty of his remembrances, finding freedom and joy in this ‘prized possession’ now poured out. In doing so, he had actually not decreased the precious brandy, but rather, he increased it, because in this simple gesture of sharing his unspoken memories with them, they had all created a new memory which then gave birth to the priceless intimacy of deep friendship that grew throughout the years.
This passage inspired me to reflect upon that which we hold valuable and what makes it so. Material things can evoke precious, joyful memories as well as difficult, painful lessons now valuable because we learned from them. And of course, the important people in our lives often do the same. It is in the intimacy of sharing with them that friendship blossoms; 'wisdom is doubled and pain is halved' when shared with our loved ones. In turn, this gave rise to another important question: what do we invest in our spiritual memories? In other words, has there been something special which we actively value that occurred through receiving a Sacrament, hearing a particular homily, praying privately, reading a passage of Scripture, or perhaps an interaction with someone that evoked a sense of the presence of God? What memories are invested in these experiences that make them precious? We all have these, but often we do not revisit them, thus diminishing the impact that they have on us now. Our memory can serve as an aid to remind us of graces received which either helped during times of challenge, or simply came as gift from God. Additionally, when we share our faith with another, we do indeed increase it just as Rostov did with his treasured brandy, discovering that the time of sharing becomes a new memory made which is more valuable than any material thing.
This weekend the Christmas season concluded and now Ordinary Time has begun. Perhaps we can take this seasonal beginning as an opportunity to commit ourselves to praying with the Scriptures more regularly. Doing so would enable our entrance into the wealth of ‘invested memories’ shared by the writers who came before us. We can learn from our biblical ancestor's mistakes, revel in their victories, and more easily recognize the mercy and love of God which is always with His people. And of course, we can delve more fully into the gospel message of Jesus so that we might better incorporate it into our own word and deed.** It is important when reading Scripture (or spiritual readings from a saint, other spiritual writers, or yes, sometimes even a novel), that we enter into it not just with our heads, but with our hearts. In this prayerful reading, our desire should be to “put on Christ” (Romans 13:14; Col. 3:10) that we might in turn offer what is most precious to us, our faith, as we share our time, talent, and treasure with our brothers and sisters.
As mentioned previously, the limitations on the world in which Rostov lived were profound. But in sharing so much with his friends, he was able to actually ‘expand his borders’ through interior freedom; that is, what should have confined him, did not. This is also the wisdom of our spiritual life: there are many different constraints upon us, all of which arise from being broken in a broken world. But with the grace of God, especially in the Sacraments and the Word, we are not at all confined or limited spiritually. Our ability to grow in holiness is a clear sign that there are no constraints to spiritual progress that cannot be overcome with God’s grace. This does not imply that life is easy, but when we recognize what we have been given, our valued loved ones, and our sacred memories, we become even more receptive of God’s actions within our lives, which in turn leads to gratitude… and gratitude begets joy.
May we spend time prayerfully reflecting upon what is valuable to us and why, and thus be moved to gratitude! May we immerse in our ‘invested memories’ of the Lord and His goodness! And may we grow in freedom, gratitude, and joy, as we work within the limitations life puts upon us, knowing that with the love and mercy of God we are indeed free! Let us meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
*The novel on which this entry is based is A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.
**It would be good to read actively, that is, to prayerfully enter into each passage of Scripture, allowing the imagination to flow and the senses and emotions to become engaged. No matter which part of the Bible we are reading, we can imagine how the place looked, what it felt like, (the physical environment), the smells, the people and their appearance, and even what something might have tasted like. For example, there is a great description of the manna in the desert during the exodus; what it tasted like is described in detail. (Exodus 16:31) If we are reading a Psalm or a New Testament letter, we can imagine the circumstances behind it, let the imagery or wisdom involved spark thoughts within us, and then respond in prayer.
1. My photo of some of my favorite novels.
2. Oil painting, Luncheon of the Boating Party by Auguste Renoir. You can find more on this at www.phillipscollection.org/collection/luncheon-boating-party
3. Fresco painting, The Baptism of Jesus by Giotto. I saw the original among his other great works on the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy. (Chosen in honor of the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord which was this past Sunday.)
4. My photo, the sky, taken in New Mexico just outside Albuquerque.
5. Image, Jesus After Jose Ribera, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. You can obtain a copy in one of many mediums at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/jesus-after-jose-ribera-321-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Note: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
Heart Speaks to Heart