The Rule of St. Benedict offers a sobering reminder to me of how little I actually pray. Consider this passage from chapter 18:

Members who in a week’s time say less than the full Psalter with the customary canticles betray extreme indolence and lack of devotion in their service. We read, after all, that our holy ancestors, energetic as they were, did all this in a single day. Let us hope that we, lukewarm as we are, can achieve it in a whole week.

In a similar vein, St. Jerome advised monks as follows: “[A]lways keep in your hands and beneath your eyes the Bible, learning the Psalter word for word, praying unceasingly, keeping your mind in an alert state and not open to vain thoughts.”

Granted, the “holy ancestors” whom Benedict and Jerome had in mind were largely, if not exclusively, those who had removed themselves from attachments and responsibilities in the world (family, parish ministry, etc.) precisely in order to enter into “a school for God’s service” and to give their entire lives over to prayer. But even so, I can’t help noticing that my conception of “devout” falls rather far below Benedict’s conception of “lukewarm.” I thought I was doing well when I started praying the 30-day Psalter in the Daily Office!

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Particularly striking to the modern ear, I think, is the idea of memorizing the entire Psalter. That sounds so daunting as to seem nearly unattainable, not to mention superfluous and unnecessary. Some of the desert fathers and some of Benedict’s monks were illiterate, and so the only way for them to keep up in choir was to know the words by heart. And the literate memorized the Psalter for other reasons, not least to keep it available to them when they didn’t have a book nearby. But now, most people can read, and having the text of the Psalter before our eyes is as easy as a few clicks on the iPhone. So why bother going to the trouble of memorizing the thing?

This is not necessarily a pitch for you to memorize the Psalter (though it wouldn’t hurt). But I do want to reflect for a moment on why adopting a discipline of memorizing prayers in general is a good idea. First, consider that the Latin word memor means not only “remembering,” but also “mindful of, careful, thoughtful, observant.” Memorizing prayers, by definition, means that the prayers become inscribed on your soul in a new way. You become mindful of the words, and they come to rest in the “fields and vast palaces of memory” (see Augustine, Confessions X.12-26), engraved on the walls of those palaces for your perusal at will.

The phrase “learning something by heart” gets at this element of memorization: to memorize something brings it close to your heart, you become more intimate with the words you memorize as they become a part of you. Memorized prayers, moreover, give you a peg on which to hang your attention whenever it is being drawn away into “vain, evil, and wandering thoughts,” and their distinctive phrases are inclined to pop to the surface of your consciousness when triggered by a resonance in something you hear or read or see. In other words, having a store of memorized prayers, hymns, passages of Scripture, and so forth always ready to mind is a bit like having a clear stream of pure, running water always available to wash and direct the various and scattered inclinations of your thoughts. “The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined from ore and purified seven times in the fire” (Ps. 12:6), and it is these words that ought to give us not only our speech, but our thoughts as well.

A second reason to adopt a discipline of memorization has to do with the fact that our world is inundated with words. There is a staggering proliferation of books to read, links to follow, blogs to comment on, news to note, reports to consider, position papers to weigh. It’s hard to know where to begin, where to place our energy and attention. Taking the time to memorize a prayer slows you down in the midst of this overwhelming proliferation and focuses you on a few key, careful, precise, well-chosen words. One of the great gifts of the Book of Common Prayer is the concision and precision of its prayers, the economy of its speech, the turns of phrase that say exactly what needs to be said and no more, keeping us from “heaping up empty phrases” (Matt. 6:7). Memorizing good prayers, passages of Scripture, hymn texts, and so forth, keeps us mindful of the words and the texts that we ought to know inside and out, texts that are inexhaustible in their richness and will constantly surprise us with new resonances in the varying circumstances of our lives.

Finally, if becoming a Christian is about learning a new language, then that language is primarily the first-order language of prayer: penitence, supplication, thanks, and adoration. But anyone who has gone through the slog of learning a new language knows that a key component of that process is the hard work of memorizing vocabulary. This takes daily repetition, carrying flashcards around with you on the bus, reviewing them in your head as you brush your teeth, as you lie in bed, as you sit in the doctor’s office. Only when you have a very firm command of the lexical content of a language can you begin meaningfully to converse in it. Similarly, to be fluent in the language of prayer requires that you have an intimate familiarity with the vocabulary of that language, a storehouse of words and phrases ingrained on your soul through days and weeks and years of repetition. And the lexicon from which these words come is the inexhaustibly rich storehouse that is the prayers of the church. Her collects, hymns, antiphons, sentences, versicles, responds, readings, and — probably above all — her psalms.

The good news is that if your life is already inundated with this language on a daily and weekly basis — by regular Mass attendance, keeping the Offices, singing hymns with your family, studying Scripture — then much of this “memorization work” will happen automatically. We may not be able to say the whole Psalter from memory every day, but we can at least aspire to be fluent enough in this language that God may, through it, cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of his Holy Spirit.

The featured image is “Psalm 137” by Raffaele Esposito. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 

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This excellent appeal reminds me of yesterday’s Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy 18. The Lord says, “I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet.” In Jeremiah and Ezekiel this is intensified with the image of eating the scroll of the law. In the age of the Church, with the institution of the prophet fulfilled in Jesus, we are all called to ingest and speak the Word of the Lord. I find it interesting that as early as the canons of the 5/6th ecumenical council, church leaders were worried that newer bishops (and who knows about everybody else?!)… Read more »

Memorization goes for anything worth remembering – like poetry, precepts, etc. Recently a group of my high school senior English students got together on Facebook to remember how I made them memorize the prologue to The Canterbury Tales in middle English, Cavalier poetry, Donne’s sonnets and Tennyson’s Ulysses, soliloquies from Shakespeare etc. – these were public school kids in Fairfax county Virginia in 1968-69. They loved getting together and saying it all at their reunion and thank me now for making them do it. John McCain writes in Faith of my Fathers, how the creed and prayers and passages from… Read more »

I first heard this “pitch” from the late Bishop of Oregon, Matthew Bigliardi, more than 30 years ago. He talked about how when he had heart surgery and was “out of it” at various times before and after, that the words of hymns were what came to him in the moment, and helped him through. And my experience of those who manifest dementia, either temporary or chronic, is that whatever they know “by heart” is what comes out of their lips. Sometimes it’s a surprise–and not always a pleasant one!–to those around them. When my very devout father had heart… Read more »

“Thy word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against thee.”

All the verses I seem to know are in the KJV!

[…] A Pitch for Memorization by Mac Stewart at Living Church (h/t Wesley Hill) […]