Commit your faith to memory.
I never thought about it very much, I mean having facility memorizing. Actually, I think my memory is quite ordinary.
Uncle would say, "Remember so-and-so? What was his name?"
I would give him the name, and he would say, "What a blessing! You've always had a great memory."
Uncle Willy - Father William La Verdiere, S.S.S. - died three years ago in February at the age of 89, a year and a half after celebrating the 60th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood.
Uncle Willy was a very cultured person.
Sometimes he would start: "The quality of mercy is not strain'd," nodding for me to continue, "it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven." And he would laugh.
For a long time, I did not understand what was happening in all this until I realized Uncle Willy was gradually losing his memory. "One of those things that comes with old age," he would say. He was fond of bringing up an old Belgian priest who taught philosophy, "They say I am losing my memory, but that is not true. I am only losing the use of it."
Memory is something we take for granted until it starts slipping away. This is true on a personal level as well as on a community level. It is also true at the level of the local church, even at the level of the entire church in the United States where the memorization of prayers, scripture passages, and other basic texts has become little more than a memory, and even that may disappear.
I long took for granted the value of knowing many things from memory, from the most obvious - the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary, which I learned in French as a child - to passages from scripture and literary classics, as well as responses from the catechism.
Many people my age have a well-stocked memory. We do not talk about it too much in an age that disparages memorization, but we do enjoy it secretly. Remember? -
O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or remember? -
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God ... and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
Remember even? -
Why did God make you? God made me to know him, to love him, to serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next.
When I see a homeless person crawl into a corrugated cardboard box for the night, living on the sidewalk in one of New York's nice neighborhoods, some of those classic lines come to me and help me see more clearly that "to know him, to love him, and to serve him" means with dignity as a human being, not sleeping on the pavement in a cardboard box; "and the Word was made flesh," just like us, like me, like all these people walking by, and like this poor, broken-down human being; I know, "the quality of mercy is not strain'd," but it is not clear right now that "it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven," at least not for this poor fellow. It is more like "she laid him in a manger [how about a corrugated cardboard box?] because there was no room in the inn."
It is hard to know how it happened that so many came to discount the value of memory in Christian life (human life!), catechesis, and religious education. The same thing happened for classic passages in literature. Somehow the turbulent '60s and '70s brought with them an anti-memorization reaction from which we have still not recovered.
If my memory serves me right, the reaction was directed at particular texts we used to memorize. There have been great cultural shifts in our country in which classics from my generation and that of my parents were replaced by other classics, some of them, I dare say, not so classic.
In catechesis and religious education, the reaction was part of a greater reaction against tradition, sweeping away many of our liturgical symbols and replacing them with explanations. The reaction was directed most especially at the questions and responses in the Baltimore Catechism, which by the way, I have never seen. For me, it was, "Qui est Dieu? Dieu est notre Pere du ciel." When those catechism texts went, so did emphasis on memorization, ushering in what some refer to as the "collage school of religious education," which provided a solid foundation for do-it-yourself religion.
As a result, entire generations of Catholics, with some exceptions, are unable to say what they believe and what makes them Catholics or even Christians. For some reason we failed to restock our memories with more adequate responses.
It is possible to express mystery with clarity, but, alas, only with the help of those symbols and images so often replaced by explanations. Fortunately we see wonderful new developments in this area, as for example in the transformed church of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary, served by the Norbertines in Albuquerque's West Mesa.
Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary has been redesigned to include an ambulatory around the main assembly area, in Southwest pueblo style, with 12 small nichos with santos placing the assembly in the communion of saints. As in many new churches today, the holy water font is the baptismal font.
To express mystery with clarity, we have the example of the gospels, which do it all the time and with highly imaged language. Take any one of Jesus' parables. The kingdom of God is "like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth" (Mark 4:31). We also have great classic religious literature that speaks very well and with great clarity of God's mystery and the Christian mystery. For those who do not like John of the Cross, how about Teresa of Avila?
One reason given for avoiding memorization was that people should not be made to "learn by rote" what they could not understand. At the time, the reason sounded pretty good, and I may have used it myself (I do not remember), but it missed an important distinction.
Learning by rote is not the same as memorizing. Learning by rote has to do with committing words to memory without regard for what they refer to. Note that I did not say without regard for what they mean.
Memorizing means stocking the imagination with the experiences, images, and symbols that undergird the words. Catechesis simply cannot do without liturgy.
Memorizing requires that we learn about things such as faith, love, and hope with whatever understanding we have at any given point in life and with openness to further understanding, enriched by new experience and deeper insight into classic symbols and images.
In light of this, one might consider memorizing Paul's very memorable lines on the primacy and eternal quality of love: "If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love ..." (1 Cor. 13). How about the Beatitudes, and why not the Magnificat? Had I waited to memorize the Lord's Prayer until I could finally understand it, I still would not know it from memory. That is right, from memory; I did not say by rote. Does the time ever come when someone can fully understand the Lord's Prayer?
Imagine how different the course of Christian history would be if, when the two men in Jesus' tomb said to the women, "Remember what he said to you when he was still in Galilee" (Luke 24:7), the women had not remembered his words. Remember? The women already had Jesus' words in memory, but it is only when the two men in the tomb recalled the words that they understood them and so went to announce everything to the 11 and to all the others (Luke 24:8-9).
Memory is not nostalgia or reminiscence. Nostalgia is a flight from the present, a fruitless return to the past that is no more. Reminiscence is connected with neither past nor present. Memory gathers up the past, brings it to bear on the present, and releases its potential for the future.
As Christians whose lives are based on jesus and the gospel, we cannot do without memory. Nor can we do without well-chosen, classic texts stored in memory for easy recall that give meaning to events surprising and new.
People who know they have a future care about the past. Like Uncle Willy, their memory is a precious depository of the church's classical religious heritage.
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|Title Annotation:||value of memorization in Christian life|
|Date:||Aug 1, 1994|
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