The Value of Memorization

In reflecting on the distracted hearer, I had intended, but then failed, to make mention of a valuable practice that can be used to battle that problem: memorization of Scripture. It was going to be a brief point yesterday, but, thanks to its omission, merits something of an excursus. Yesterday’s article talked about the enabling role of technology in fostering a distracted mind (with its notable effect on preaching, for both the preacher and the hearer). However, this same technology can be used to develop mental focus.

One of the best ways is through memorization of Scripture and of the prayers of the Church. Before I say any more, just think about your favorite music. Choose any you like, as long as it has lyrics. When you hear the opening parts of a familiar work, the mind almost immediately recalls the lyrics. If listening to an album, the end of one song immediately prompts the memory of the next. Recall is the basis of old game shows like “Name that Tune” and new games like SongPop. Memorization has long been an important component of literature classes. How many can recite some portion of Shakespeare or Chaucer from a high school English class from long ago?

We can then ask ourselves the question, “If I can memorize the latest songs from Rihanna, Metallica, or Brad Paisley, why can’t I memorize the Psalms or chunks of a gospel?” Which one has greater benefit?

Memorization gives additional purpose to our listening to Scripture and to prayers. It is one thing to listen to, say, an audio bible as though it were any other audio book. It’s another thing to listen to the same chapter, or same Psalm, multiple times with an aim to remembering it word for word. Listening now has a purpose. It’s not enough to get the gist of what is heard. Rather, when listening for memorization, one aims to get it all, exactly. Listening (and reading) for memorization disciplines the mind, insisting on mental focus rather than allowing the aimless wandering of one’s thoughts.

There are numerous benefits. Memorization gives us an abbreviated bible and prayer book that stays with us even when the physical objects are not at hand. It provides a means by which the Holy Spirit brings important points to mind in times of crisis and conflict. A life of disciplined memorization provides invaluable comfort when the effects of age take away our mental acuity. (It is a beautiful thing to visit elderly parishioners suffering from dementia and memory loss an to hear them recite the Creed, Our Father, and psalms along with me. Many of these were acquired solely from attending church services, but the durability is amazing.)

From the standpoint of listening to preaching, memorization skills bolster the ability to pay attention. The faithful can be encouraged to remember what is preached. In turn, the preacher is encouraged to spend more time composing sermons with content worth remembering, instead of fluff written in the knowledge that it will be forgotten before coffee hour. More importantly for the pastor, memorization keeps important Scriptures and prayers at the ready, for use in confession and when crises small and large arise. Some of the best counsel I have received from father-confessors has been Scripture. Without it’s memorization, it wouldn’t have been on offer.

Readers: what are your thoughts on memorization? What things – specific Scriptures and Psalms, prayers, etc. – do you find most valuable to memorize? What role does this play in cultivating the spiritual life of your children? Is it used in your church school?