[This post continues the thoughts I started here…]
4. Conscious and Unconscious Shaping
One of the reasons the Church Fathers put so much emphasis on memorizing Scripture is that the more Scripture you had in you, the less space you had in your head for other things and the greater influence Scripture could have upon you. These folks were firm believers in the power of Scripture: that contact with Scripture was itself transformative, and it had an ability to exercise a shaping power upon the will and soul through its presence.
John Cassian describes it like this:
Hence the successive books of Holy Scripture must be diligently committed to memory and ceaselessly reviewed. This continual meditation will bestow on us double fruit. First, inasmuch as the mind’s attention is occupied with reading and with preparing to read, it cannot be taken captive in the entrapment of harmful thoughts. Then, the things that we have not been able to understand because our mind was busy at the time, things that we have gone through repeatedly and are laboring to memorize, we shall see more clearly afterward when we are free from every seductive deed and sight, and especially when we are silently meditating at night. Thus, while we are at rest and as it were immersed in the stupor of sleep, there will be revealed an understanding of hidden meanings that we did not grasp even slightly when we were awake. (John Cassian, Conferences 14.8.4)
He’s talking here at the end about the assimilation of the memorized material into the subconscious mind… The Desert Fathers due to their simplicity of practice and brutal honesty about conscious and subconscious motivations communicated a grasp on the inner workings of the human mind that would not be rivalled again until the 19th century and the rise of psychology as a scientific discipline.
Cassian continues to drive home his point:
But as our mind is increasingly renewed by this study, the face of Scripture will also begin to be renewed, and the beauty of a more sacred understanding will somehow row with the person who is making progress. (John Cassian, Conferences 14.9.1)
As the mind itself is conformed to Scripture, the more Scripture it will be able to understand.
An example of the belief in the power of Scripture to transform the soul is exhibited in King Athalaric’s letter to the Roman Senate confirming Cassiodorus as Praetorian Prefect. In speaking of Cassiodorus’s character, the letter says:
[Cassiodorus] showed good will to all, was moderate in prosperity, and knew no anger, unless gravely wronged. Although he is a man of strict justice, he does not refuse, in his severity, to forego wrath. He is remarkably generous with his goods, and, while incapable of pursuing others’ property, he knows well how to be a lavish giver of his own. Now this disposition his studies in divinity have confirmed, since affairs are always well conducted if the fear of heaven is opposed to human impulses. For thence is derived the clear understanding of every virtue; thence wisdom is flavoured with the season of truth. Thus, the man imbued with the discipline of heaven is rendered lowly in all things. (Cassiodorus, Variae 9.25.11).
The bolded phrase requires a second look. Barnish’s translation is a loose one here. The Latin is “Hos igitur mores lectio diuina solidauit” (Therefore these habits have been established through sacred reading). Thus, it is the practice of lectio divina itself that is identified as the source of these virtues (with the possible exception of humility—Cassiodorus penned the letter himself…).
Augustine, in fact, believes in this formation of character so strongly as to make the bold assertion that if a person achieves the pinnacle of perfect love, they will have transcended the Scriptures themselves. He builds to this crescendo over the course of several sections at the end of Book 1 which I’ll abridge here to concentrate his main point:
The sum of all we have said since we began to speak of things thus comes to this: it is to be understood that the plenitude and the end of the law and of all the sacred Scriptures is the love of a Being which is to be enjoyed and of a being that can share that enjoyment with us, since there is no need for a precept that anyone should love himself. . . Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and neighbor does not understand it at all. . . Thus there are these three things for which all knowledge and prophecy struggle: faith, hope, and love. . . Thus a man supported by faith, hope, and love with an unshaken hold upon them, does not need the Scriptures except for the instruction of others. And many live by these three things in solitude without books. . . In them, as if by instruments of faith, hope, and love, such an erudition has been erected that, holding fast to that which is perfect, they do not seek that which is only partially so—perfect, that is, in so far as perfection is possible in this life. (Christian Teaching 1.35.39-1.39.43, selections)
5. Rumination through out the Day
As the John Cassian quote above notes, the process of memorization is not restricted to the period of time when the book is passing before the reader’s eyes . Rather, it requires a rehearsal of the memorized material to ensure its retention (“diligently committed to memory and ceaselessly reviewed”).
Cassiodorus state emphatically the need for repetition and meditation apart from the text: “Therefore pray to God, the source of all that is useful; read, I pray, constantly; go over the material diligently; for frequent and intense meditation is the mother of understanding.” (Institutions 1.Pref.7).
In one of my favorite and often-cited vignettes of the Desert Fathers, Abba Lucius clarifies how monastic manual labor participates within the lectio process and furthers the command to “pray without ceasing”:
I will show you how, while doing my manual work, I pray without interruption. I sit down with God, soaking my reeds and plaiting my ropes, and I say “God, have mercy on me; according to your great goodness and according to the multitude of your mercies, save me from my sins.” [Psalm 51:1]
The time set aside for manual labor in the monastery, therefore, is not a time to stop praying, but a shift into a different mode of prayer. Distinct from the formal prayer of the Daily Office or the memorization of lectio, this is a time to recall those things which had been memorized to fix them in the mind and to occupy the thoughts with God’s words rather than idle brain-flittings.
That’s why silence is key within the monastic enclosure. If you’re talking to another person, the less likely it is that you’re talking to God as well. Certainly that’s how the Rule of the Master understands it, specifically directing “silent labor” several times and clarifying the command this way:
Now, the reason we say that the brethren must always observe silence is that sins of the tongue are not committed when the mouth is at all times kept from speaking. However, the brothers while working are to keep silence as follows: They must refrain from uncontrolled chattering and from worldly matters and from idle words which are out of place. But the brothers may have permission at any time, provided the abbot is not present, to rehearse the psalms and to repeat the Scriptures and to speak about God if it is done humbly and quietly (RM 50.24-26).
The rule goes on to direct that if a large group of brothers are working together a reader who is physically unable to work should read to them to keep their minds on track!
Carolingian sources confirm this intention—that the time of work is a time for recalling Scripture. Smaragdus’s commentary on the Rule of Benedict quotes the rules of Waldabert and Isidore on this point which evidently do not enjoin complete silence during work times:
…[W]hile their hands are occupied outwardly in what is of temporal benefit, their minds should be sweetened with the tongue’s meditation of the Psalms and the remembrance of the Scriptures. If someone breaks this rule and takes pleasure in storytelling, he should be chastised with the penalty of silence. . . Now the monks as they work should meditate and sing psalms so that they may lighten the work itself with song and with delight in God’s word. But especially in the time of Lent they must work with the body, the mind’s attention being fastened on God. And the hand must be engaged in the daily work in such a way that the mind is not turned away from God. (Smaragdus, Commentary 48)
So—going back over the memorized material fixes it in the mind and gives the mind something with which to occupy itself so that the recollection of God can be a continual activity. Without Scripture resident in the memory, it cannot be pondered and ruminated upon. Again, there’s no way that a collection of prooftexts can provide fodder for the kind of long-term mind-occupying material the monastic teachers are describing here. Psalms and larger blocks of text are definitely in mind.
6. Memorization begins with the Psalms
Following everything that has been said and cited up to this point, it’s a complete no-brainer that the process of memorization enjoined by the Church Fathers and inherited by the monastics starts with the Psalter. As I alluded in the previous piece, if all 150 psalms are being sung every week and many of those are sung multiple times a week or even a day, they’ll get memorized pretty quickly.
Many reasons recommend the psalms for this role. I’ve written on this a fair amount in the past so I won’t go through all of that again except to summarize in brief the reasons Athanasius lays out in his Letter to Marcellinus:
- The Psalms are a microcosm of Scripture itself, containing all of the scriptural genres within its pages: prophecy, law, wisdom, Gospel. To memorize the Psalter, then, is to possess a summary of Scripture.
- The Psalms are an example of proper prayer to God spoken by the Holy Spirit through David expressing the thoughts and feelings of his descendent Jesus.
- The Psalms are a mirror that teach us the Christian affections and provide language for how to communicate and understand them.
But where do we go from there?
Jerome helpfully lays out his preferred order in a letter that instructs a woman hw to prepare her daughter who she is raising to be a virgin (the category of “nun” did not yet exist, but that’s what we’re talking about…)
Let her begin by learning the psalter, and then let her gather rules of life out of the Proverbs of Solomon. From the Preacher [Ecclesiastes] let her gain the habit of despising the world and its vanities. Let her follow the example set in Job of virtue and of patience. Then let her pass on to the gospels never to be laid aside one they have been taken in hand. Let her also drink in with a willing heart the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles. As soon as she has enriched the storehouse of her mind with these treasures, let her commit to memory the prophets, the heptateuch, the books of Kings and of Chronicles, the rolls also of Ezra and Esther. When she has done all these she may safely read the Song of Songs but not before. (Jerome, Letter 107.12)
After that he recommends the writings of Cyprian, the letters of Athanasius, and the treatises of Hilary.
So, the order given here is
- Wisdom literature (minus the Song of Songs!)
- NT Epistles
- Major & Minor Prophets
- Genesis – Judges
- Ruth – 2 Kings
- 1 & 2 Chronicles
- Ezra, Esther, & the Song of Songs
And, yes, that’s a lot of stuff!!
What it does, though, is emphasize the principle of moving from milk to meat, beginning with the easier material that conveys clearly directives for virtuous living, then highlighting the gospels and epistles before moving into the prophets and histories. If the memorizing of Scripture is to form the character into the virtues of Christ, then start with a strong foundation of Wisdom first.
Cassiodorus, for his part, identifies his own canon-within-the-canon; his pattern of citation generally confirms what he says here except that the gospels do show up in large amounts as well, Matthew and John in particular:
Although all Divine Scripture shines with heavenly brilliance and the excellence of the Holy Spirit appears clearly in it, I have dedicated my efforts to the Psalter, the Prophets, and the Apostolic Letters, since they seem to me to stir deeper profundities, and to contain, as it were, the glorious citadel and summit of the whole Divine Scripture.
While he does identify the Psalms as the first text to be memorized, he doesn’t provide an order beyond that, but rather implies that these are the parts to be worked over next, his order of citations suggesting the Epistles [and Gospels] before the Prophets. He quotes from the Wisdom books surprisingly little.
To be continued…
Absolutely fascinating to a modern Christian the idea that the Psalms and Wisdom literature should be first in memorization before the Gospels at least according to Jerome. I would hedge a guess that you average modern Christian would reach for one of the Gospels as a devotional/ internalization text before psalms or Proverbs.