Wicked Nostalgia vs. Sacred Memory

“And he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’” (Mt 4:9).

God wants us to remember. Satan wants us to forget.

By distractions, promises, and vanities Satan dupes us into forgetting how merciful God has been to us. Instead of remembering sin—particularly our sins—as bitter and regretful, we are prompted by the evil one to see only good times and freedom in choices that have ultimately caused us remorse. Underscoring the need to resist this spiritual amnesia, Pope Francis once preached with particularly arresting language: “Often our courage must be expressed in escaping without looking back, so as not to fall into the trap of wicked nostalgia.”

It’s hard to read the Holy Father’s words without thinking of the Exodus, the central saving event of the Old Testament—and the event that permeates so much of the liturgy of Lent. Pope Francis’ language of escape coupled with the temptation to look back longingly fits the plight of Israel practically from the night of the Passover to their entrance into the promised land.

God especially never wants His people to forget Egypt because of what Egypt stands for. It was not only a place of slavery but also a place of idolatry for the Israelites. They were trapped in body and spirit. Politically and militarily it was impossible for them to leave, but spiritually it was an even more difficult departure.

Before the Lord would deliver His people, He needed them to commit to a cold turkey renunciation of their idols: “Cast away the detestable things your eyes feast on, every one of you, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the Lord your God” (Ezekiel 20:7). But the warning fell on deaf ears, so attached had they become to the goods of the gods of Egypt: “But they rebelled against me and would not listen to me; they did not every man cast away the detestable things their eyes feasted on, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt” (20:8).

Why didn’t they? Because trusting in the invisible God is always harder than resisting what St Teresa of Avila calls “ready cash.” In other words, I could wait on the Lord and trust in His providence for my life, or jump the gun and do what Satan tells Jesus to do: seize power and glory for yourself, create a private stash of food, etc.

G. K. Chesterton in his classic The Everlasting Man aptly describes certain forms of ancient pagan idolatry as a very crass, commercial exchange between demons and men. The evil spirits worshipped under the appearance of idols “delivered the goods” to those seeking wealth, power, and sexual indulgence. It was, and remains, simply a question of supply and demand. And the devil is more than happy to broker the deal: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

Shortcuts to happiness are the devil’s stock-in-trade, whether they are short-term or long-term gratifications. Gratifying pleasures, after all, need not be only a momentary thing. For some, they last a lifetime—decades of power, wealth, indulgence that do no apparent harm to their health or wellbeing. But whatever the longevity or brevity of the desired good, all have a shelf-life. Time heals but inevitably time also kills: “And I will lay the dead bodies of the people of Israel before their idols; and I will scatter your bones round about your altars” (Ezekiel 6:5). Our idols die along with us.

What the Exodus generation needed to know, and what we need to recognize, is that at the heart of the Exodus is not a devil demanding worship in exchange for goods and services, delivering only an illusion of freedom, but a tender Lord clearing a path for people who cannot help themselves. God’s purpose is union with His people, not domination. If the Israelites had become attached to a pagan lifestyle and the plentiful goods surrounding them, it is God’s strategy to attract His people away with the promise of a higher love, a tender espousal, so beautifully captured by Hosea:

I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her…. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. … And I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the LORD. (Cf. Hosea 2:14-20)

An anonymous Carthusian comments with like eloquence on the courtship:

The wilderness is the privileged setting into which God, in his boundless love, draws the one he cherishes in order to give himself to him. It is the whole mystery of Israel in the desert which is thus summed up in the tenderness of God, who seeks to free his friend from all shackles, so that they might meet in a secluded place, far from misleading distractions, in intimacy of heart. [1]

If from Eden’s forbidden tree to the Lord’s desert fast to our most recent moment of temptation, the devil’s sales pitch is ever the same (Grab the forbidden goods and forget about tomorrow, put eternity out of your mind), the Lord is ever sending a counter-message to His people. “Remember” is the refrain echoing throughout the Scriptures:

Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you, you are my servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me. (Isaiah 44:21)

And you shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness… (Dt 8:2)

You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt; and you shall be careful to observe these statutes. (Dt 16:12)

From the far side of the Red Sea, therefore, to wherever we stand now, mercy is our point of departure for our new life, just as the Exodus is the point of departure for Israel. Lent, Holy Week, and Easter will sound the beautiful alarm: Never forget the mercy that delivered you, from what you were saved, and why. Who we are now, and where we go from here, is the result of the mercy that we have been shown.

St Paul, a New Testament icon of this renewal, cannot forget: “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Tm 1:16). Just as St Paul’s identity changed from persecutor and blasphemer to ‘trophy’ of divine mercy, so our identity is no longer what we once were but who God, in His mercy, has made us to be.

And who is that? The ‘cherished friend’ of the Carthusian, the bride of Hosea, and the child of God as described by St Josemaria: “I want you to be rebels, free and unfettered, because I want you — it is Christ who wants us! — to be children of God” (Friends of God, no. 38). This new status needs to be the lever that detaches us from good memories of bad things.

Unlike the devil who counterfeits true freedom by proposing (to Jesus and us) indulgence, power, and daring stunts as though it were the real thing, God frees us from the illusion of liberation by reaching down to us in our misery, and giving us genuine compassion, real love.

To be a good child, friend, and spouse you need to be a real human being—humble, vulnerable, trusting, and loving. You can’t be a self-indulgent attention seeker. Mercy makes us into the gentle, mindful, and grateful friends of God. To remember all the good God has done for us during this Lent is the sure antidote against believing the devil’s spin on our past and his solutions to our present struggles. The same Lord who carried His cherished ones out of bondage is the one who carries us, and we should never forget the arms that cradle such fragile beings as ourselves, all along our journey.

[1] From The Wound of Love: A Carthusian Miscellany. Cistercian Publications, 1994.

Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem. Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem.

Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he is a formator in his community's seminary, preaches retreats, is chaplain to several communities of women religious, serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California, and is author of Praying from the Depths of the Psalms , Home Again: A Prayerful Rediscovery of Your Catholic Faith and Scatter My Darkness: Turning Night to Day with the Gospel. Father's latest book is Coached by Josemaría Escrivá (Scepter Publishers 2023). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.

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