Reflections on Reminders in our Lives


The Return of the Prodigal Son (detail of father and son) by Rembrandt van Rijn

There’s an old joke about the definition of a college professor: “Oh, that would be someone who can’t say anything just once.” Having spent 35 years at the front of classrooms at two universities, I can attest to the aptness of the description. And it doesn’t matter, actually, what the subject matter of the course is: day in and day out, I find myself saying, “Now, remember, last week we talked about…,” a line that is certain to be met with a look that begins with an eye-roll and ends vacantly, without words: “Yes, yes, we’ve all heard that before.”

It’s true, of course: my students likely have heard it before, if not from me then from another instructor. Knowing this, however, does not help much when the final exam asks about such and such, a question that is answered with a confident smile by those who had remembered, and passed over by those who hadn’t with a helpless shrug of the shoulders, the nonverbal equivalent of the two-word answer, “Oh, whatever.”

What most students don’t realize is that daily reminders are just as important to me. There’s a reason why I spend the hour before class reviewing my lecture notes, and it’s something that Samuel Johnson explained 250 years ago: “…men more frequently require to be reminded than informed.”1 It’s not always that we’re forgetful, either. The explanation more likely involves in an uncertain sense of apathy, or perhaps analgesia, towards facts that are useful, ideas that are important—even crucial—to our lives.

The experience of realizing something that somehow has “slipped off the radar” is, of course, a familiar one, but it’s not limited to trivial instances of forgetfulness. The most important events in life often are accompanied with a sense of I knew that. Gerard Manley Hopkins expressed this so well in Spring and Fall, a poem about a young child’s reflections on the changes of the seasons:

…And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed.2

The fall of autumn leaves—“Goldengrove unleaving” in Hopkins’ verse—reminds Margaret, the child in the poem, of what she knew all along: her own mortality. “What heart heard of, ghost guessed”:

…is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.3

We’ve all had this feeling, even if we can’t put our finger on it. George MacDonald tells us in Lilith that “There is such a thing as remembering without recognizing the memory in it.” 4

Some of our most cherished reminders are letters we keep from loved ones. My maternal grandmother and I wrote letters to each other when I left home for college, letters I’ve kept for over 40 years. For me, few things evoke memories more vividly than handwriting in a letter, and the personal inscription on the fly leaf of a book given as a gift makes it all the more special. Handwriting is unique, like a fingerprint, the sound of a voice, the look in someone’s eyes. For Fanny in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, we discover that:

To her, the handwriting itself, independent of anything it may convey, is a blessedness. Never were such characters cut by any other human being as Edmund’s commonest handwriting gave! … there was a felicity in the flow of the first four words, in the arrangement of ‘My very dear Fanny,’ which she could have looked at forever.5

At the end of Willa Cather’s novel, One of Ours, Mrs. Wheeler learns of her son’s death in The Great War in a phone call from the War Department. His letters, however:

…kept coming for weeks afterwards … In the dark months that followed, when human nature looked to her uglier than it had ever done before, those letters were Mrs. Wheeler’s comfort…When she can see nothing that has come of it all {the war} but evil, she reads Claude’s letters over again and reassures herself; for him the call was clear, the cause was glorious. Never a doubt stained his bright faith.6

These reminders were what Mrs. Wheeler needed to cope with the death of her son, to cope with what his death might have spared him from had he survived the war.

In his Apologia, Blessed John Henry Newman recalled his childhood:

…my imagination ran on unknown influences…I thought life might be a dream, or I an Angel … my fellow angels by a playful device concealing themselves from me.”7

Elsewhere Newman wrote of angels that:

Every breath of air and ray of light and heat, every beautiful prospect, is, as it were, the skirts of their garments, the waving of the robes of those whose faces see God.8

Newman was keenly aware that our world, a world of sight and sound and touch, is full of reminders of another world beyond.

Few novelists have described this sense of the unseen more powerfully than George MacDonald whose rich imagination excites us with otherworldly reminders. In Lilith, we read:

Now and then, when I look round on my books, they seem to waver as if a wind rippled their solid mass, and another world were about to break through…At times I seem to hear whisperings around me, as if some that loved me were talking of me; but [then] they cease, and all is very still…I do not seek them; they come, and I let them go…Strange dim memories, which will not abide identification, often, through misty windows of the past, look out upon me in the broad daylight…9

In What’s Mine’s Mine, MacDonald writes that his character, Mercy:

…began to feel a mystery in the world … She saw a jubilance in every sunrise, a sober sadness in every sunset; heard a whispering of strange secrets in the wind of the twilight; perceived a consciousness of unknown bliss in the song of the lark;—and was aware of a something beyond it all … filling her with wonder… .10

Yes, how wonderful it is that strange dim memories, memories that abide not knowing, look out upon us—but out from where?—and in broad daylight, no less!, beginning with a jubilant sunrise, whispered on the wind, and sung by the lark, ending with sunset’s sadness.

Sometimes, though, it takes storms in our lives to remind us of God’s presence and providence. It was while he was recovering from serious illness that Newman composed his famous prayer poem, The Pillar of the Cloud, in which he admitted that he was “…far from home” and in love with “the garish day.” His prayer closed with words that have long lingered in my mind. Being reminded that:

So long Thy power hath blest me,
sure it still will lead me on,

Newman rested in the assurance that he would once again see:

…with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I loved long since, and lost awhile.11

The Church is blessed beyond measure in the form of prayers, and of gospel readings, in the form of sacraments—all reminders of God’s presence. Who can hear that favorite prayer, so aptly named Memorare, without feeling overwhelmed by its evocative plea: “Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known…”? How many times have we heard, in the cycle of readings that makes up the seasons of the Church, the Gospel about ‘The Rich Young Man’? Surely each of us has likewise asked: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Christ’s answer?—He reminds the young man of the Ten Commandments, and then He reminds him that he still lacks one thing: total surrender to God. When we hear this Gospel, is it the first time we encounter this lesson? Of course not. But there is something needful in its reminder.

If whispers in the wind and the lark’s songs are MacDonald’s reminders of God’s all-pervading presence, Catholics are likewise accompanied throughout our lives with more tangible reminders. Saint Thomas Aquinas taught that:

A sacrament is a sign that is both a reminder of the past, i.e. the passion of Christ; and an indication of that which is effected in us by Christ’s passion, i.e. grace; and a prognostic, that is, a foretelling of future glory.12

In A Retreat for Lay People, Msgr. Ronald Knox suggested that the “mortification which Lent has for its exterior sacrament is … a reminder and confession that everything we have comes from God.”13 In The Mass in Slow Motion, Knox wrote: “That is why we call it the Holy Eucharist. First and foremost, the Mass means reminding ourselves of our Redemption.”14

There’s an odd thing, though, about reminders, and it’s something that Knox explained in The Window and the Wall:

You see, we are so materialistic, our minds so chained to the things of sense, that we imagine our Lord as instituting the Blessed Sacrament with bread and wine … because bread and wine reminded Him of that grace which He intended the Blessed Sacrament to bestow. But if you come to think of it, it was just the other way about … He did not design the Sacred Host to be something like bread. He designed bread to something like the Sacred Host.15

This is why Christ himself instructs us, at the heart of the celebration of the sacrifice of the Holy Eucharist: “Do this in memory of Me.” At this holiest of moments, we are blessed, both with a command and a gentle, loving reminder of why He came into the world.

God’s creation, surrounding us in its glory, is a daily reminder of his love for us. But there’s one thing that God doesn’t remind of us—ever. A popular song on Christian radio includes a verse about the “sea of forgetfulness.”16 When we confess our sins and are forgiven them, does God forget them? Well, not exactly. In Micah17 we read that God “casts our sins into the depths of the sea,” and Psalm 103 assures us that “as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.” Although the Bible doesn’t include the phrase “sea of forgetfulness,” both Old and New Testaments are rich in verses about God “not remembering” our sins. In Isaiah18 and in Jeremiah19 we read that God “will forgive our wickedness and will remember our sins no more,” a teaching that is echoed by St. Paul in Hebrews.20 We find one of the most reassuring reminders in Romans: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us..”21 No, God hasn’t forgotten that I am a sinner—his All-Knowing-ness wouldn’t allow for that!…but I know that He “remembers not” my sins, which means, mercifully, that he doesn’t ever remind me of them.

Willa Cather, in another of her novels, O Pioneers, described trees like this: “I like trees … I feel as if this tree knows everything I ever think of when I sit here. When I come back to it, I never have to remind it of anything; I begin just where I left off.”22 It’s the same with God: we don’t have to remind him of anything. When we come back to him—in fear, in gratitude, in prayer—we can simply “begin where we left off,” be that our last confession, our last petition, or our last praise. And what we find in his Presence are blessed reminders of his Infinite Love and Mercy.

  1. Samuel Johnson. 1750. The Rambler, No. 2, 24 March. Printed by D. Buchanan, sold by him, and by W. Creech, P. Hill, J. Fairbairn, and A. Constable, Edinburgh: by Ja. A Duncan, Glasgow, MDCCC, Vol. 1, 347 pp., Montrose.
  2. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Spring and Fall. In: Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Edited with Notes by Robert Bridges, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 1930, London.
  3. Gerard Manley Hopkins, ibid.
  4. George MacDonald. 1895. Lilith, chapter 8. (accessed 4 January 2016).
  5. Jane Austen. 1814. Mansfield Park, chapter 27. Barnes & Noble Books, 2004. New York.
  6. Willa Cather. 1922. One of Ours, book 5, chapter 19. In: Cather: The Troll Garden, O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, My Antonia, One of Ours, The Library of America, 1987, New York.
  7. Blessed John Henry Newman. 1864. Apologia Pro Vita Sua, chapter 1. A Norton Critical Edition, W.W. Norton & Co., 1968, New York.
  8. Blessed John Henry Newman. 1891. Plain and Parochial Sermons, Part II, Sermon 29: The Powers of Nature. Ignatius Press, 1997, San Francisco.
  9. George MacDonald. 1895. Lilith, chapter XLVII, (accessed 4 January 2016).
  10. George MacDonald. 1886. What’s Mine’s Mine, vol. III, chapter I. In: Delphi Complete Works of George MacDonald (Illustrated) (Series Five Book 14), Kindle Edition, Amazon.
  11. Blessed John Henry Newman. The Pillar of the Cloud. In: John Henry Newman: Prayers, Verses and Devotions. Ignatius Press, 1989, San Francisco.
  12. St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, Part III, Question 60, iii. (accessed 4 January 2016).
  13. Ronald Knox. 1955. A Retreat for Lay People, “Holy Hour—The Mass and the Life of Christ, ii” (text between chapters XVI and XVII), Sheed and Ward, New York.
  14. Ronald Knox. 1948. The Mass in Slow Motion, chapter 9, Sheed and Ward, New York.
  15. Ronald Knox. 1956. The Window in the Wall: Reflections on the Holy Eucharist, chapter 13, Sheed and Ward, New York.
  16. East to West, a song by Casting Crowns. (accessed 4 January 2016).
  17. Micah 7:19
  18. Isaiah 43:25
  19. Jeremiah 31:34
  20. Hebrews 8:12
  21. Romans 5:8
  22. Willa Cather. 1922. O Pioneers!, part 2, chapter 8. In: Cather: The Troll Garden, O Pioneers, The Song of the Lark, My Antonia, One of Ours, The Library of America, 1987, New York.
David B. Wester About David B. Wester

David B. Wester is the Frances and Peter Swenson Endowed Chair in Rangeland and Restoration Research and is a professor and research scientist at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute and the Department of Rangeland and Wildlife Sciences at Texas A&M University – Kingsville in Kingsville, Texas. His essays and poems have appeared in The Catholic Leader, The Catholic Poetry Room, Crisis Magazine, First Things, Homiletic & Pastoral Review, and The Imaginative Conservative.