The Wide Plains of Memory

“The memory of the righteous is a blessing” (Psalms 10:7).

If your house were on fire, what would you save? Thousands of people have answered that question at a website called The Burning House. Many said they would salvage objects that had little worldly value, simply because the objects reminded them of the past.

Although you wouldn’t care to rush through flames to salvage your iPhone, you might do it to rescue the lava lamp that your first crush gave you in 1974.

That tells us three things: One, that material value isn’t what truly matters. Two, that even ordinary objects become precious when they are associated with memories. And three, that you’re really into retro décor.

“The power of the memory is great, O Lord,” wrote St. Augustine. “It is awe-inspiring … The wide plains of my memory and its innumerable caverns and hollows are full beyond compute of countless things of all kinds.”

It’s interesting to consider that the great St. Augustine, Doctor of the Church, may himself have treasured trinkets for sentimental reasons. What would he have salvaged from a house fire?

I’ll tell you what I would save: the two glass doorknobs that I keep on my desk. The doorknobs are from my home in the Bronx, a very old house with tall windows that overlooked a canopy of grapevine, and French doors that opened into a great big room filled with books.

These days, I can look at those doorknobs and picture myself at age 10, walking through those French doors to visit with my friends the Mad Hatter, Huckleberry Finn, and Robin Hood. And sometimes, to pretend that I’m Becky Thatcher of the long blond braids. In that great big room, I learn about the world of imagination.

At other times, the doorknobs will remind me of the summer of 1972. This Becky Thatcher wannabe has met her Tom Sawyer, whose name is Richie. Richie and I are in that great big room playing a game with baseball cards. That’s when Richie says the three little words I will never forget: “Playing for keeps!” And he snatches my prized Tim Foley card, never to be returned to me. In that great big room, I learn about both love and loss.

Sometimes, a glance at those glass doorknobs will take me back to 1984. I’m a new bride being carried by my husband through those French doors, and into the great big room that would be the centerpiece of our first shared apartment.

But because there can be no “firsts” without “lasts,” the time comes when I close those French doors forever, leaving behind my childhood home with its great big room. And I learn about bittersweet goodbyes.

“And I come to the fields and spacious palaces of my memory,” said St. Augustine, “where are the treasures of innumerable images, brought into it from things of all sorts perceived by the senses.”

To St. Augustine, memory was more than just the ability to remember. It was nothing less than a storehouse filled with experiences, knowledge, perceptions, emotions, and imaginations: in short, the essence of personal identity.

“Memories are how our path through life has been shaped,” said Father Michael Rennier, editor of the journal “Dappled Things.” “Each memory, as fleeting and untamed as it is, breaks us free from the tyranny or the present moment, uniting our past, present, and even future.

“It is a precious gift.”

What would you save if your house were on fire?

By Celeste Behe, a parishioner of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus, Hellertown. Find her online at


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