Throughout the years with an Irish father, I heard many an Irish blessing. He was fond of these little lessons, and would often repeat one of his favorites over a cup of hot tea and a warm piece of apple pie: “May you never forget what is worth remembering, nor ever remember what is best forgotten.”
In time, this particular blessing took on new meaning for me, especially when, as a Hospice volunteer, I would visit patients during their final days in a nursing home.
It was here that I learned the often repeated lesson that life can be as difficult as it is beautiful, and where I began to understand the lesson my mother taught me over and over again as a child through her frequent visits to sick or lonely family members, friends or aquaintances.
My mother would enter a room with a smile to warm any heart, a plate of homemade Jiffy muffins and everyone would begin to feel better. She was love in a dime-store apron.
On one of the few occasions when I saw my dad get mad at her, it was because she had gone to the hospital to visit someone on Christmas Eve, and hadn’t returned before my bedtime. I couldn’t understand why he would be mad about that. Having my mom there, with muffins and presents, sounded to me like the best gift in the world for someone who might be facing Christmas alone.
That’s a heavy cross to bear, but life teaches us that crosses come in all shapes and sizes, some heavier than others, and we are all destined to carry one at some point in time. Perhaps the heaviest of all is loneliness, and the belief that we are forgotten.
When I was a catechist for children, I sometimes saw the fear of “forgotten” in the faces of students waiting for overdue parents. Often a young child would cry inconsolably believing they had been left behind.
But I saw this pain experienced most profoundly with a homebound friend—aged, infirm, fearful, lonely; a beautiful child of God who truly was left behind by family and friends.
On a particularly bad day she called to talk and her words will never leave me: “This is not living,” she said. “And if it is, I would rather die.”
She was living a forgotten life; one that was acutely empty and painful. For her, as for anyone who suffers from such loneliness, the pain is made worse, not simply by the absence of human love but more so by what that represents.
When we have been forgotten by family and friends alike it is not hard to believe that God has forgotten us, too.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote powerfully of that experience: "There is no human misery more strongly felt than the state of being forsaken by God. Nothing is so terrible as rejection by Him. It is a horror to live deserted by God and effaced from His mind.”
His words recall the pleading, pain-filled cry of Christ as he hung dying on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
How often have we felt the need to speak the same words? How often and how deeply does the wound of loneliness rupture our hearts? In these moments of pain it is easy to believe that God has lost sight of, what we believe to be, our insignificant lives, but Heschel would not agree.
This prayerful man of God wrote of "Divine pathos," the grief and suffering of God with God's children and God's creation when they are in pain.
Anyone who has ever loved knows that this kind of suffering can only flow from love, for without love there can be no grief. The deeper the love, the more profound the grief.
It is comforting to believe that God knows our pain, feels our pain and holds our hearts and souls in the passionate embrace of divine love. It is from such an embrace that we are able to renew our strength and overcome our loneliness, so we can be God’s hands and feet and heart for people like my dear, lonely friend.
Even in the midst of our own pain, and sometimes because of it, we are all called to put God's love into life because every life is worth remembering.
How well we do that is up to us, but “forgotten” should never be anyone’s last memory.