When I was taking my senior seminar on medieval literature, Dr. K – a beloved mentor of mine with a long white beard and Mosaic countenance who was both an ordained Lutheran minister and a full-time tenured medieval literature professor – required, as one of the baselines for passing the course, that we memorize the entire Middle English prologue to The Canterbury Tales, complete with correct pronunciation.
His concession to us was that we could come by and perform our little monologue for him in his office, which spared us from having to launch into it in front of the collective gazes of all of our classmates. I have a knack for memorization, but even I struggled in the weeks leading up to my fulfillment of the requirement as my tongue tried to learn the new pronunciations and retain the rhythmic scheme of the book.
Still, when I finally came to his office and rattled off the prologue, I managed to do so flawlessly. He congratulated me and then we chatted for a bit, as we often did. “Why memorize it?” I asked him. “Why not just have us read it and quiz us on it instead? We’d be forced to learn it either way.”
He had the speaking style of a minister, of a priest: he paused, templed his hands together, and took a deep breath. “When we memorize,” he said, “what we memorize is written into the heart. You’ll be surprised by how long you retain it, and when it will come back to you.” He winked. “It enriches the soul. A valuable practice not just for this reading, but for many others, hm?”
He wasn’t wrong.
To this day, over a decade after the course ended – years after Dr. K himself went to be with the Lord – I am sometimes surprised in idle moments to find that the entire prologue, pronunciations and all, springs to mind:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droght of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour…
The same has happened to me with Keats’ poetry, passages from 18th century literature, quotes from beloved Christian authors, and prayers from medieval mystics. I memorize the pieces either purposefully or by accident and then, to my surprise, carry them along with me for years after. They float to the surface of my mind unbidden, often at strikingly appropriate moments. Imagine my surprise when, as I ambled through an afternoon last autumn, I found myself thinking “Nature’s first green is gold, / Her hardest hue to hold” and realized I had somehow memorized part of a Robert Frost poem (Nothing Gold Can Stay) without even knowing it.
This practice does enrich the soul. It feeds me. And that’s why I want to start applying it to my Scriptural study, too.
It’s not that I haven’t before. As I grew up, memorizing Bible verses was de rigeur. In VBS we got prizes for recalling them; in my Bible class in high school, we played games and competitions to help our memory along. But that was mostly during my childhood. As an adult, if I’ve memorized Bible verses, it’s mostly been from sheer familiarity: I have memorized vast chunks of the book of Romans because it’s one of my favorites, and I have reread it over and over and over and over again.
But lately I have started wondering what effect the purposeful memorization of Scripture might have on my life.
If God commands us to write His word on our hearts, to meditate upon it, isn’t being able to quickly call it to mind meaningful? Isn’t it a way of nourishing myself that the Holy Spirit will surely use when needed? Isn’t the mere act of focusing on God’s word with the effort required to memorize it (whether I manage to do so or not) a way of deeply ingesting and focusing on that word?
The more I think about it, the more it appeals to me. At the same time, I’m wary of the rigors of memorization, the rote feeling of chore-ness about it, and the enormous potential for failure. It’s hard to memorize stuff, much less to keep it in mind when all of your adult life is rolling around in your head. And it’s easy to turn memorizing Scripture into an end in itself, without ever using it for the Lord. So I did a little bit of research and came up with some rules that I’m going to apply to my memorization practices:
1. No cherrypicking or hopping around. Many guides to Scriptural memorization actually recommend (slowly!) memorizing whole books over time, rather than random sets of individual verses. Why? It’s easier to remember verses when you can remember the context around them, and remembering how they all fit together and work within a larger book prevents proof-texting and misreading. To that end, I intend to pick a book and start memorizing verses from chapter one forward, rather than memorizing verses by topic, by promise, or by interest. It will also give me an excuse to deep-dive certain Biblical books.
2. No pressure. I’m setting up a structure for myself because that’s the way I like to study, but I’m not punishing or penalizing myself for what I can’t manage. If it takes three weeks to get one verse, fine. It’s not a race or a competition. If I forget for a little while, fine. I’m not making some kind of covenant with God to do this (as I have seen recommended here and there). It’s just something I want to approach and to try out.
3. A willingness to let go of the material once it’s memorized. One of the guides I read pointed out how difficult it is to retain enormous amounts of Scripture (consciously, anyway). After a while, you’ll reach a saturation point. It’s okay to memorize 80 verses, then “let go” of them so you can memorize another 80. I believe the Holy Spirit will call those older ones back whenever I need them.
4. The memorization isn’t the point. I’m not doing this, nor do I intend to do this, so that I can stand up and announce to people that I have memorized x% of God’s word. Maybe I’ll be garbage at it. Maybe I’ll forget I even started this in three weeks. But memorizing Scripture is a means to an end for me: a way to aid me in focusing deeply, intently, and contextually on God’s word over a long period of time and really meditating on it.
5. Lots of forgiveness. My dirty secret? I’m pretty good at memorizing Scripture by itself – i.e., the actual words and verses – but I am a nightmare at memorizing chapter and verse. I jumble up everything, and that’s part of why I’m going at this from a book-by-book perspective – I hope doing so will make it easier for me to keep everything straight. But if I don’t, I’ll just try again. I’m not going to get uptight or down over missing a word or two or mixing up the numbers.
If you’ve ever longed to memorize Scripture but felt put off by the enormity of the task, maybe flexible rules like those above will help. For me, the fact that I felt convicted to attempt it is enough. Where it will lead or how long it will last, I don’t know, but the fact remains that the more of God and His word I can get and embed into my heart, the better off I’ll be.