We are in the midst of a summer worship series called: The Souls Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Spiritual Practices for Seeking the Sacred, by Christine Valters Paintner. Today we encounter The Practice of Learning by Heart

When was the last time you had to memorize something? Your driving test? The periodic table for chemistry? Verb conjugation? Poetry? The Gettysburg Address? Shakespeare? Some of you may have had the experience of standing in front of the class to recite from memory with knocking knees. I remember having to learn the Preamble to the Constitution (thank you School House Rock); the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales – “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veyne in swich licóur Of which vertú engendred is the flour”; Shakespeare,’s “To Be or Not to Be.” What do you still carry with you that you memorized long ago?

In recent years educators and researchers have debated how helpful rote memorization is for learning.  Some say it impedes creative and analytical skills, and few educators have kids stand before the class for recitations anymore. Other researchers say memorization continues to play a critical role in learning and brain development – with practical reasons to continue memorizing at all stages of life.

With the advent of smart Phones and the advancement of technology we never have to memorize anything anymore.  We don’t have to memorize people’s phone numbers because it’s stored in our phones. Anything ever written we can always look up in the palm of our hands.

Ancient Greeks felt that learning poetry improved the mind. The Greek philosopher Plato worried about what the newfangled technology of writing might do to Greek culture. He feared that the common availability of written documents might “produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it.” Plato imagined that people would memorize less and less because they could always look it up.  History proved Plato right!

It turns out there are practical reasons to continue memorizing at whatever stage of life you find yourself. Some researchers found that rote learning benefits the hippocampal foundation, the ‘memory’ area of the brain, a key structure in the brain for episodic and spatial memory in humans. In a group of participants aged 55-70, researchers noted that repeated activation of memory structures promotes plasticity of neurons in the aging brain. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and grow throughout our lives. Apparently significant cognitive benefits can still be gained from memorization by minimizing typical cognitive decline by 7-14 years. Going through memorization exercises, you can postpone cognitive decline by years keeping you alert longer. Might pass counting backward by 7’s or remembering the 3-5 separate, unrelated words.
     Memorization exercises your brain– The brain is like a muscle, and it gets exercised when we memorize new facts and synthesize information.
     Memorization helps you practice focus. The more you memorize has an impact on your ability to focus on tasks. So if you are having trouble focusing, try memorizing more information.

There are also spiritual benefits memorization plays in our lives, not just practical ones. While Rote memorization has practical implications, it isn’t necessarily done as a way to cultivate a love for something. Although, I imagine there are those who have a deep connection with the Periodic table, or Pi (3.14….) While there are advantages technology offers to be able to look things up, the written word and information is so readily available we begin to take it for granted. Unless we have a true heart connection, we aren’t likely to see the value. Part of our spiritual life is making meaning and being able to access what’s important to us from somewhere deep inside of us. So it’s not so much rote memorization that is spiritually important, but learning by heart.

Caroline Kennedy in an interview with NPR a few years ago stressed the importance of memorizing poetry. She wrote a book entitled Poems to Learn by Heart, offering a collection of poems to internalize.

Sometimes … Having the opportunity to read deeply  – you have a poem that you feel captures exactly what you’re feeling, but you haven’t been able to put it into the words that the poet has, … it becomes part of you in a way. Kids today don’t develop the ability to focus and concentrate for long periods of time. Poetry is a way of reconnecting with that kind of focused part of yourself. Poetry allows us to connect in a way that other forms of the written word don’t.”

Memorizing Scripture  was an ancient spiritual practice. Jewish rabbis memorized much of Hebrew Scripture and able to recite it completely from memory. Imagine the Monasteries throughout the world where monks pray their way through the day, reciting the Psalms from memory. In Celtic spirituality memorization was prized. The Rhythm of the liturgy was intimately connected to the rhythms of the earth. When we speak and sing words of scripture, we join with these ancient prayers as well. Praying the scriptures aloud by heart, we bring them intimately into our core of being..

Dt 6:6 “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart.”
Dt 11:18 -“Lay up these My words in your heart and soul.”
Joshua 1:8-9: This book of law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it.
Ps 119:11 “Thy Word is a Lamp unto my feet and a light unto my heart.”
Ps 40:8 “I delight to do Thy will, O my God: Thy law is within my heart.”
Mt: 4:4:  “People don’t live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
Colossians 3:16 “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”
Ps 1:1-3 – One who meditates regularly on the Word of God will be like a healthy, thriving and fruitful tree which is planted by the river.

One way to memorize scripture or meditate on a breath prayer is the practice of singing Taize music – simple sung phrases from the community of Taize. When you sing these phrases over and over, they begin to take on a life of their own, living and praying within you.  Bless the Lord, Wait for the Lord, Stay with Me, O Lord Here My Prayer, In the Lord I’ll be Ever Thankful.

From her book Christine Valters Paintner writes:

In the Hebrew Scriptures, there are many passages that describe the new covenant as written not on stone but in the hearts of the people. Shift from a list of rules to follow to a true experience of conversion.  Internal motivation to do good than eternal motivation to earn one’s way to heaven.   What would it mean to have the poems, phrases, scripture that moves our hearts, inscribed on our hearts? Are there phrases of scripture or poetry or music that you are drawn to  – that move you to a deeper place in your spirit, perhaps you don’t even have any idea why, pay attention. Those phrases which speak to you on a deeper level is one of God’s ways of getting our attention, of the Holy Spirit speaking to us, communicating with us.  Invitation to meditate on those phrases, to learn them by heart, to live them, so they begin to not only live in us, but to live out our being, our values, our deepest core.   The blessings that they produce in your life will flow to others as well.

Dr Peter Kwasniewski in an article “On Liturgical Memory” writes,

“Prayers run the risk of remaining external as long as they are merely written, because their location is an external book. Memorized prayers, on the other hand, are internalized and, as such, are more available. The heart has become the book, the living book.” Advantage of learning by heart, becomes knowing by heart, and with the heart. What we carry in our hearts becomes a part of us, and we carry it with us wherever we go.

John O’Donohue:

“The Celtic stories suggest that time as the rhythm of soul has an eternal dimension where everything is gathered and minded. Nothing is lost. The happenings in your life do not disappear Everything is stored within your soul in the temple of memory.”