Call them keepsakes or mementos, most of us hold on to various objects as reminders of people we have cared about over the years—often friends who have died. I prefer “memento” because of its clearer relationship to the word “memory.” Coming across them from time to time—in a desk drawer, for example, or among personal papers—can set in motion a chain of remembrance that can take you back decades. Admirers of Marcel Proust will recall the famous incident of the “petite madeleine”; tasting the little tea cake initiated the memories that form the basis of his monumental Remembrance of Things Past.
For members of religious congregations, a memento must be both small and portable. As new assignments arise, we have to move; and wherever we are, the space allotted to us is seldom more than a single room in which all our belongings have to fit. But the variety of what constitutes a memento can be large. Even small articles of clothing can qualify as mementos.
When I was living in a Jesuit parish in the 1970’s, our community members one Christmas decided to have a Kris Kringle gift exchange, with each gift to cost no more than five dollars. What came to me as a gift that year was a plaid scarf—nothing special, and now somewhat threadbare. But I have kept it because of the Jesuit who gave it to me—a humble, faith-filled man now long gone. Once, having forgotten it at a parish meeting in another church, I felt relief on rediscovering it lying on a dusty bookcase shelf at a subsequent gathering at the same location.
Though not quite an article of clothing, except in the liturgical sense, I have held on to a scrap of white and yellow fabric that once trimmed a stole used by Horace McKenna, a Jesuit who worked with poor people in Washington, D.C. Because he was short of stature, his cousin had shortened it for him, and afterward two scraps came my way. Much later an acquaintance familiar with the holiness of his life asked for a “relic” (in a way the scraps are that), so I sent her one piece for a seriously ill friend, who found comfort in it.
Knowing me to be on the staff of America, a gravely ill friend of my own—a Religious of the Sacred Heart—once gave me an easy-to-hold Pilot Dr. Grip ballpoint pen. Now that she has died, the pen lies on my desk as I work, a clear reminder of her valued presence in my life. I tend to use it not for workaday purposes, but for writing to people in spiritual or physical need.
An item with a more distinctly spiritual overtone relates to my earlier apostolate as a prison chaplain on Rikers Island, near New York City’s LaGuardia Airport. One winter, two laywomen and a sister began an evening prayer group for a small gathering of prisoners. We met in a corner of the prison gymnasium, as cold as a refrigerator on nights when the wind swept across the island from the East River.
Because they lived at a considerable distance, the three women faced a long drive both coming and going, as well as all the frustrations of passing through the several security checkpoints. But they never missed a prayer session, and I felt it an honor to accompany them and the inmates in their prayer amid those bleak surroundings. At one point they gave me a small wooden cross, and now it hangs in my room at home as a reminder of their faith-filled commitment to those behind bars.
Mementos of this kind, intensely private as they are, convey no meaning to others. None would guess that a threadbare scarf, a few scraps of cloth, a ballpoint pen or a small wooden cross could carry such deep significance for me. But the meaning is there, as the image of the remembered person rises to my mind whenever I come across these and other mementos.