Memorization has fallen out of favour these days. In grade school I was required to learn some soliloquys from Shakespearean plays and then write them out in their entirety by memory. Today I cannot recall my own cell phone number but I could still make a fair attempt at reciting the Bard’s verse! I wonder if students are still asked to memorize anything today. Why bother, you might ask, with Google at your fingertips? Catholics have always been known for their recitation of rote prayers and the repetition of rituals. Our faith uses ritual language and gestures to affect us at a level deeper than our conscious thought. Yet, who has not at some time found themselves rattling off the words to a prayer while their mind is elsewhere? The response is not to stop memorizing but rather to consider and practice what it really means to learn something by heart.
To know something by heart means you have it memorized but it also implies that, in the way the heart animates the body by pumping blood, the text or gesture is inside of you, animating your every word, action, and thought. Think about the things that you know by heart: A recipe passed down through several generations, a loved one’s date of birth, your banking PIN? What you know by heart says something about your history, your relationships, and your priorities.
Most of us have memorized some traditional Catholic prayers like the Hail Mary and a blessing before meals. We also know the Lord’s Prayer and the ordinary parts of the Mass. Yet, when it comes to the Mass texts, we often know them only conditionally. It is easy enough to recite something surrounded by others reciting the same thing or when reading from a screen but if you try to recite the prayers alone, you might falter. Sometimes saying a prayer quickly can help the memory until you trip up and then have to go back to the beginning because you did not really know what you were saying anyway. Or perhaps you can sing the texts but if the melody is taken away, you become completely lost. These levels of memorization are admirable but their conditional nature challenges us to deepen our efforts by revisiting familiar texts, pondering their meaning, learning more about them, and inviting them to penetrate our hearts.
Making the effort to learn by heart is a gift you can give yourself. Once you have learned a prayer by heart, it becomes yours to pray at any time in any place. We do not always know in advance when we will need a prayer and so when the need arises, we may not have at hand a bible, a prayer booklet, and definitely not a projection screen with power point! With memory you can look into your heart for prayers to implore God’s help, receive consolation, to comfort others, to strengthen those whose faith may be wavering, or to draw together with others in prayer. If you are still looking it up on Google, it is not yet yours.
Part of our identity as Catholics includes knowing by heart the texts, gestures, and rituals that shape our belief and bind us to one another. During this season of Lent, consider learning by heart a new liturgical text. Strive not to only rattle off the words by memory but rather to savour the texts, learn what they mean, and pray the words so that, having learned them by heart, they can animate every word, action, and thought of your life.
Here are some suggested texts to learn by heart:
- Apostles’ Creed and Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed
- Gospel Canticles from the Liturgy of the Hours: Benedictus (Canticle of Luke), Magnificat (Canticle of Mary), Nunc Dimittis (Canticle of Simeon)
- Psalms, especially 23, 34, 95, 141
- Angelus and for Easter season, Regina caeli
You can find texts to memorize:
- in most hymnals
- in the Sunday or weekday missalette
- on internet.
Tips for memorization:
- read the text over many times
- read portions of the text and repeat it to yourself
- repeat the text to others
- practice writing down the text
- test yourself on your recall of the text
- use mnemonic devices like melodies or images