Zuzu’s Petals & the Sacramental Grace of Memory

“We see some one thing in this world, and suddenly it becomes particular and sacramental;…(and) there is a resurrection, and we are refreshed and renewed.”

— Hilaire Belloc, “On Sacramental Things

In his luminous and reflective 1910 essay entitled “On Sacramental Things”, the Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc (1870–1953) explores the phenomenon of recollection and communion. Catholic doctrine teaches us that sacramentals are physical and particular channels through which our benevolent God can work. Thus, Belloc’s piece is a treatise on grace, as well as the power of both contemplation and memory to catapult us to a kind of blessed spiritual transcendence. For Belloc, private and intimate memories connect us to our own lives and the outer world. Reminiscence is consecrated. “It is good for a man’s soul to sit down in the silence by himself and to think of those things which happen by some accident to be in communion with the whole world,” Belloc writes. “To consider such things is a sacramental occupation.”  

Recollection (what Plato called anamnesis) is often sparked by symbols and souvenirs of past joy, and Belloc notes that these evocative mementos reveal to us the sanctification of experience and reality.

The Japanese have a beautiful word that connotes a feeling of warmth and affection mixed with reminiscence: natsukashii. Roughly translated, natsukashii means ‘nostalgic’; having a resonant, fond memory of one’s past that is precious, longed for and yearned after—the memories that bring a smile to our face: catching a scent of lilacs that our long-deceased mother loved, hearing big band music that our departed father enjoyed, finding an old ticket stub to a coveted museum trip to New York City. (Author’s note: see Erika Hobart’s lovely article on natsukashii entitled “A Uniquely Japanese Take on Nostalgia”, January 20, 2020).

American film provides us with an extremely long list of protagonists who are revived by their reminiscences. Perhaps one of the greatest is George Bailey in director Frank Capra’s classic 1946 movie It’s a Wonderful Life. Portrayed by actor Jimmy Stewart, George is the reluctant and struggling successor to his father’s building and loan business. George spends the first half of the movie trying to escape what he views as the humdrum life of small-town America—the obligations of a seemingly petty job, the ties of family, and the day-to-day grind.

Screenshot of Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and Karolyn Grimes in the American film It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). National Telefilm Associates, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

At one point in It’s a Wonderful Life, George sits at the bedside of his ill daughter, Zuzu. Zuzu is despondent over the fact that some petals from a precious rose given to her as a prize at school have fallen off. Seeking to console Zuzu, George pretends to reattach the petals, but in actuality he secretly stuffs them into his watch pocket.  George then tenderly encourages Zuzu to go to sleep:

George: Now, will you do something for me?

Zuzu: What?

George: Will you try to get some sleep?

Zuzu: I’m not sleepy. I want to look at my flower.

George: I know, I know, but you just go to sleep and then you can dream about it, and  it’ll be a whole garden.

Near the end of the movie, after succumbing to deepest despair and stopped from committing suicide by his intervening guardian angel Clarence, George is shown what the world might be like had he never been born. It is a world in which the small town has been undone and infected with vice, families have been torn asunder, and virtue is absent. Tormented by this vision, George cries out in prayer to Clarence and to God: 

“Clarence! Clarence! Clarence! Help me, Clarence. Get me back. Get me back. I don’t care what happens to me. Get me back to my wife and kids. Help me, Clarence, please. Please! I want to live again. I want to live again. I want to live again. Please, God, let me live again.”  

George is granted a second chance by God, and all the darkness he has seen in the world is suddenly undone. He discovers that Zuzu’s petals are once again in his pocket, and he realizes that his world has been returned to him. When George makes this discovery (“Zuzu’s petals, Zuzu’s… There they are!”), he longs to return to his family. The newfound memories of his past ultimately give him hope for his future—hope for regeneration accompanied by the sure knowledge that things can be mended and restored. For George, Zuzu’s petals are priceless tokens, symbols of new life. In this epiphany, in this remembrance, George’s heart and soul are resurrected. The holy joy of being alive envelopes him.

Contemplating reality and beauty, being captivated by meaning and being grateful for our very breath all help us to recognize grace, as well as the sacredness of life. 

In this sometimes harried, harsh, chaotic and often brutal world, Catholics are still called to aspire to the beatific vision. We are called to communion. We are called to resurrection. Rediscovering the petals in our lives would serve us well.   

Photo by Alex Vasey on Unsplash

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Lori Brannigan Kelly is a freelance writer whose work has appeared previously in Catholic Exchange, The Human Life Review, The Pilot, Society magazine, First Things, St. Austin Review, Patheos and the New Boston Post. She currently lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts with her husband Dan.

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