Two weeks ago I went through boxes of old files and threw out many folders worth of paper. The files weren’t simply old bills, warranties from devices we no longer own, or instructions for assembling IKEA furniture (I know, who would save those?). I threw away a large file box full of sermons I wrote and preached over many years. I got rid of all my handprinted or typed sermons starting back in the early 1980’s—from when I first began to write sermons. This was not an easy thing to do. To be fair, I still have digital copies of many of my recent sermons (from the past 15 years). But even though I had a personal computer in 1985, I can’t seem to find the digital files and hard drives in which I saved many of my sermons from my Cordova Presbyterian Church years (1987 until 2000). All my early writings are now gone. I finally figured out there will never be a Jim Zazzera Memorial Library and Archive (don’t laugh). Seriously though, it took me a long time to get to the point of getting rid of this stuff—even though I retired over a year and a half ago.
As I went through the files, I read snippets of some of the sermons before I threw them away. I uncovered some interesting insights into who I was at the time I wrote them. There were even a few profound theological thoughts! I was especially taken by some of my sermon titles. I always liked titling sermons and it seemed like there was often an interesting twist or two. If you like, you can peek at a few of the titles in the picture of my now trashed sermons. I have always remembered two particular titles from a few of my earliest sermons (but I can’t for the life of me remember the scripture references). One of the titles was “Afraid of the Water,” (a sermon about baptism). The other was “Biting Off Less Than You Can Chew,” (a sermon about communion/the Lord’s Supper). Both of these phrases make me smile.
As I was casting off all these pages I realized that I was leaving many things behind that went into these sermons—all the creativity, all the anguish, all the faith, all the questioning, all the hard work, all the words, and all the titles. I threw them away because I finally accepted that I would never return to those times and places. Even though I might still preach a sermon or two before I die, I’m not sure these writings would be of any use to me. Though I decided to leave them behind, it was surprisingly difficult to let go. I can never go back.
For quite a while I have been thinking about memory, pondering the past, and reflecting on what used be. I have been wondering what it means to leave things behind. The pandemic has provided me plenty of time for that wondering. This morning I was reading in Anam Cara, a book about Celtic wisdom by John O’Donohue. His words were eerily relevant to all this thinking about the past:
The beauty and invitation of old age offer a time of silence and solitude for a visit to the house of your inner memory. You can revisit all of your past. Your soul is the place where your memory lives.
Maybe thinking about the past and sitting with memories isn’t just a way of escaping the present moment or hanging tightly onto a bygone era. O’Donahue continues:
The Celtic stories suggest that time as the rhythm of soul has an eternal dimension where everything is gathered and minded. Here nothing is lost. This is a great consolation: The happenings in your life do not disappear. Nothing is ever lost or forgotten. Everything is stored within your soul in the temple of memory. Therefore, as an old person, you can happily go back and attend to your past time; you can return through the rooms of that temple, visit the days that you enjoyed and the times of difficulty where you grew and refined yourself. Old age, as the harvest of life, is a time when your times and their fragments gather. In this way, you unify yourself and achieve a new strength, poise, and belonging that was never available to you when you were distractedly rushing through your days. Old age is a time of coming home to your deeper nature, of entering fully into the temple of your memory where all your vanished days are secretly gathered and awaiting you.
Maybe I shouldn’t have thrown away all those sermons! Or maybe the real trick is not to throw away the memories. Because our past is not finished with us yet. Old age is the time to integrate our memories into who we are in this moment. The things about ourselves we love and the things we hate. Our joys and sorrows, our sins and successes. Old age is a time “when your times and their fragments gather.” As more than one writer has said “everything belongs.” Looking to the past isn’t about Making America—or anything/anyone—Great Again. It is a time of new learning. I get to revisit times and places to learn what I should have learned the first time. I get to notice those things I was too busy to see then. I get to appreciate how a particular person molded me. I get to celebrate how I have grown in the years since tragedy. I get to go back to see I can really never go back. That is the gift of memory.
Spiritual Practice: Pack Light
When Lena and I prepared to walk the Camino de Santiago, we became obsessed with packing. Our goal, as it is for so many pilgrims, was to pack light. The primary reason is practical—if you are going to hike 15 miles a day for a month, carrying as little as possible is essential. Too much weight and you will not be able to complete the walk. Most Camino guides recommend not carrying more than 10% of your body weight. Definitely not an easy task.
There is a spiritual dimension to all this as well. The more you carry, the less present you can be to the journey. The more pairs of socks you have to wash, to more pockets you have in your pack to lose things, the more equipment you are enamored of—the less time you have for the people and experiences that come across your path. There are so many things that weigh us down—physically and spiritually.
So here is the practice. Get rid of something. Let something go. Take it out of your pack. Remove it from your life. Do you really need a headlamp? Two boxes of bandages? A solar power generator? That toxic relationship? A job that denies the values you hold dear? A false shell that protects that which is most real inside? Excess baggage. Too much to carry.
How we pack for any journey is a clue to how we navigate our life. What can you get rid of? What can you leave behind? Doing this might just make it possible for your to walk the journey of your life in ways that are life-giving and joy-filled.