A couple of years ago, I lost a cherished little book of prayers that had accompanied me on my travels for decades.
Initially, the loss did not seem that significant. The little book had become quite worn, and by now I had both an iPhone and an iPad that accompanied my travels and sustained my prayer life while I traveled, through a variety of liturgical Apps and websites.
Some months after the loss of my prayer-book, however, I realized what I had truly lost: not so much a little book of texts, but rather a whole distinctive material culture of memory. This material culture lived in my prayer-book in the form of holy cards, pictures, hand-written Scripture verses, and yes, some photos and pressed flowers, by which I was able to map not only my life’s journeys, but also the lives of those I continued to pray for, and the images of saints I had a particular devotion to. There were also dates scribbled into the margins that reminded me of when a certain psalm had spoken to me very deeply or when a specific heart-wrenching prayer of mine had actually been answered. There was the prayer card from the funeral of a friend who had committed suicide in her twenties. There was the holy card with a photo of Thérèse de Lisieux already close to death, and one of her startling meditations on her own calling to love. There was dried lavender from the monastery of Hildegard of Bingen. There were even holy cards I had inherited from my mother’s prayer-book, some for people I never heard of. All this was lost, when I lost my little prayer-book.
What I have been wondering about since I realized what I had lost is a broader issue however, namely that I have seen an analogous loss sweep over much of Catholic life in the last few decades in the cultural context in which I live. And I cannot help but wonder what the loss of this material culture of memory means.