The Beggars Blog is a network of Lutheran pastors Commenting on the intersection between theology and everything.

The Lost Art of Memorization

The Lost Art of Memorization

Memorization is out. In the age of Google, why would we need to memorize anything when the answer is as close as a quick search on the internet? However, next to the fact that the internet is often a poor source for reliable information (I think my wife reminds her history students daily on this point!), a great deal is lost when we forgo the habit, the discipline, dare I say even the virtue of committing valuable pieces of information to memory.

I was reminded of the powerful role memorization plays in personal piety when I recently visited one of our homebound members for communion. As I walked through the communion liturgy piece by piece with her, I was moved by the way my sister in Christ mouthed the words along with me. Without the aid of a bulletin or hymn book, she recited words well worn into her heart and mind. These words were deeply familiar, but no less full of meaning.

I spoke our confession -  “Most merciful God, we confess that we are sinful and unclean…”

She followed along word for word – “We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed…”

The same occurred with the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Words of Institution, and even portions of the readings from Psalm 46 and Luke 23. As I spoke, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” I then saw her quietly respond, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Memorization is Hard

As I reflected upon all of this on my drive home, I realized that the words she recited with ease were once new and alien to her ears, just as they once were to mine. But a pastor, a father, a mother, etc. all worked together to impart these words to us repeatedly so that they would become no longer foreign, but rather familiar – no longer exterior, but interior. No longer a dead letter, but instead the life and sustenance of the Spirit.

Memorization is hard. It’s like taking a raw substance and breaking it down into something edible. The process takes time and focus, but results in saving time and focus for years to come. The work is at first cold and cognitive, perhaps even constraining, but its fruit is a life of deeper meaning and freedom.

I remember my first encounter with memorization for theological purposes (when I was in school, we still memorized multiplication tables and dates in history). I was a first year seminary student, assigned with an entire Small Catechism to master word for word in a few short weeks. It was daunting – especially since my familiarity with the Small Catechism was marginal (my adult membership class neglected the text, or at least if we did engage it I don’t remember it). I also complained – “Why do we have to do this word for word! I understand and believe everything in here!” But I am so thankful that we did this seemingly arbitrary exercise.

Memorization – A Worldview Readily Retrieved

More and more, I’ve come to see memorization of key bible verses and narratives, the Small Catechism, and portions of the liturgy as expressions of the Christian worldview accessible in short from. In other words, Christian truths committed to memory move from the realm of cognition to the realm of experience. I see autumn colors in New England and what comes to mind is “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” I kneel at the Sacrament of the Altar to receive God’s gifts and the words “Given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins” arises out of my memory. All of these phrases and assertions help me connect the dots of my daily life and experience around the grand narrative of creation, redemption, and the restoration of all things. In other words, I am given a readily accessible way of knowing life through the lens of Christian truth.

This catechetical way of thinking extends beyond the church and into our conversation with the world and others. Henri Nouwen once spoke of the art of spiritual reading – not simply the reading of sacred texts, but also the reading of everything from newspapers to novels through a Christian lens. Memorization of key biblical texts makes that Spirit-inspired text a part of the text we bring to the text as the reader (to speak in postmodern terms). We read the news as theologians of the cross, seeing God present rather than absent in the same suffering that looks absurd to the world. We even see themes of sin and redemption at work in novels where the writer had no intention of such things. And yet, the Christian worldview deeply ingrained in our minds and readily accessed on our lips is able to see human longing and searching for God in such things.

Finally, the habit of memorization aids greatly in the art of apologetics (the defense of the Christian faith). Voddie Baucham has argued in his recent book Expository Apologetics that memorization of the church’s creeds and catechisms takes the guesswork out of the substance of the faith we’re defending, and allows us to speak its truth in precise, universal terms to those who ask us for a reason for the hope we have. For example, what do Christians believe about Jesus Christ? Here enters words we teach to our children – “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord.” That simple sentence from the Catechism is packed with implications – hours upon hours of conversation with those who would clearly disagree with its assertions, whether they be Jehovah’s Witnesses or secular readers of Dan Brown novels. The memorized text, deeply ingrained in the heart, provides an assertion deeply valuable to the Christian speaker and clearly expressive of the Christian worldview to the skeptical listener.

Memorization – Spirituality with Substance

In the history of the church – and even in secular culture – a battle often exists between the two polar opposites of knowledge and experience. From a Christian perspective, both go together like fire and heat. Doctrine committed to memory is useless when it does not affect the heart, and likewise, affection for God that is not rooted in the reality and uniqueness of his being is naïve and groundless. The Christian is neither a Romanticist or a Rationalist. Writing in criticism of theologians who reduced religion to mere experience, James Orr once wrote:

A religion based on mere feeling is the vaguest, most unreliable, most unstable of all things. A strong, stable, religious life can be built on no other ground than that of intelligent conviction. Christianity, therefore, addresses itself to the intelligence as well as to the heart – pg. 378

Memorization of key texts provides the framework for a life of affection for the triune God. It offers a way of seeking God with neural pathways carved out by his narrative, along with all of his attributes, deeds, and promises. This allows for a devotion to our God that is rightly informed and connected to reality. Memorization properly practiced should never lead to a dry and dead intellectual faith. Instead, the more we commit to memory the excellence of his ways in our heads, the more we will love him ardently with out hearts.

Memorization – Living and Dying Well

Death is coming soon to all of us. And who knows what faculties we'll lose upon the way. Memorization is a way to safeguard in our hearts what we treasure most. We rehearse these sacred words daily as individuals, families, and to our children so that we may live well and die well.

In my visits with members who have begun to lose their memory, very often those keys texts they had memorized and rehearsed as daily rituals serve as connecting points during our visits. The child of God I visit may barely remember who I am - but when we pray the Lord's prayer together, those words still come from his lips. The fruit of a seemingly arbitrary cognitive exercise comes to its most valuable fruition in our older age.

God's grace holds us beyond the loss of our faculties in older age - it's not as if we persevere to the end because of a sharp memory - what matters is that God holds us, not that we hold him. But while we live and do have our memories at hand, ought we not live with God's word safely treasured in our hearts for the days ahead - whatever they may bring? By doing so we live well. Not even a prison cell can keep the Word of God from us if it dwells in our hearts. And doing so we die well. We approach that moment with the story that has saved us upon our lips. When the pastor comes and speaks those words in our ears in our last hours, having lost everything else, these words find greater power in their long path of repetition. It was to this end that we treasured them in our hearts and minds.

Yes - memorization is out. But there's never been a time we need it more - in our lives, in our children's lives, as families, and as entire congregations. Here are some helpful links to help you in this effort:


Pastor John Rasmussen - Our Savior Lutheran Church - South Windsor, CT

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