On Memorizing Scripture

I woke up today with Imagine Dragon’s “Natural” in my head.

Not even the whole thing, but the hook and part of the chorus. It was on repeat for something like two hours or so.

That’s not a terribly unusual state of affairs for me. I live in a very musical household. We listen to it, we talk about it, we make it, we listen to it some more. I have a lot of songs memorized in my head and—like this morning—they tend to just leak out at points. A particular feeling or temperature or smell will call to mind a song, a lyric, or a riff. (I remember one conference I was doing with the bass line of Gojira’s “Backbone” playing constantly in the background…)

But it’s not just music. Sometimes it’s a sentence or part of one, sometimes just a small clump of words—some well-turned phrase that has gotten stuck in my mind like a piece of popcorn jammed up between two teeth.

More frequently than not it’s a psalm fragment—and that’s not really on accident either on my part or the church’s: it’s what the liturgy, the Daily Office in particular, is intended to do. Intended, but insufficient. The Office certainly exposes us to the Psalms, but what monastic spirituality asks is that we take the next step to be intentional about the process.

Because that’s the point we’re heading too here: things have a hard time bubbling up at odd times in your head if they don’t already have a home there. And that’s a key reason why monastic teachers and the Church Fathers advocated for memorization so strenuously. Because your mind can’t be molded and shaped by something that’s not inside of you.

In today’s American context, memorization gets a bad rap. It’s frequently denigrated as “rote learning,” and eschewed in favor of critical thinking skills. In Christian circles, it’s usually associated with the collection of proof texts or clobber verses that are pulled out of context to win an argument rather than to edify.

Despite these concerns, memorization was identified as a powerful and important tool in Christian formation by the Church Fathers & Mothers and their monastic heirs, and a critical part of spiritual development. However, this activity must be seen within the broader scope of their method for achieving biblical literacy.

Thus, I’ll set out a number of key points that hopefully sketch a clearer picture of how these things worked together:

  1. The first goal of patristic Bible reading was comprehensive familiarity, not necessarily understanding.
  2. Memorization was not a substitute for comprehensiveness, but worked alongside it.
  3. Memorization was at the pericope level at the least and, more typically, at the book level.
  4. The purpose of memorization is the shaping of the mind and habit both consciously and subconsciously.
  5. Memorization enabled rumination and contemplation throughout the day.
  6. Memorization follows a progression that starts with the Psalms.
  7. The order of memorization underscores and enables the twofold division between the “practical” and the “theoretical” arts of interpretation.
  8.  The “higher arts of interpretation” are reserved until after a substantial amount of Bible was read and memorized.
  9. The patristic method implies but does not require a quasi-monastic lifestyle; it’s possible to do this as an active layperson—but challenging, requiring solid planning! 

Now I’ll elaborate on each of these points…

1. Familiarity, not necessarily Understanding

The starting place for the patristic method was to read a lot of Scripture. Augustine makes clear that a functional familiarity with the biblical text is essential: “He will be the most expert investigator of the Holy Scriptures who has first read all of them and has some knowledge of them, at least through reading them if not through understanding them” (Christian Teaching 2.8.12). However, he is also concerned lest the beginning readers get lost in the weeds. He emphasizes that the purpose of this initial step is not understanding, but establishing familiarity. That is, don’t get hung up on what seems strange, unusual, or things that just plain don’t make sense—they’ll be plenty of time to deal with those things later.

One of the reasons why he downplays understanding at this stage is because of the conviction of the fullness of the Scriptures. There are some teachings, doctrines, and truths that are immediately graspable and applicable. We read, we say, “oh, yeah!” and we do. He and his fellow teachers also believed that there were deeper and more complicated truths in the Scriptures that we could neither recognize nor apply until we had mastered the basic skills and until our minds and wills had been conformed to the pattern of Scripture. The more deeply you take in Scripture, the more layers and levels you would be able to perceive. That is, part of spiritual growth is the increasing capacity to discern deeper truths within Scripture.

This is clarified as Augustine lays out his method more fully:

In all of these books [of the Bible] those fearing God and made meek in piety seek the will of God. And the first rule of this understanding and labor is, as we have said, to know these books even if they are not understood, at least to read or to memorize them, or to make them not altogether unfamiliar to us. Then those things that are taught openly in them either as precepts for living or as rules for believing are to be studied more diligently and more intelligently, for the more one learns about these things, the more capable of understanding he becomes. (Christian Teaching 2.9.14)

Cassiodorus too insists upon this familiarity—and even memorization—before he begins teaching the higher arts of reading:

…the recruits of Christ, after they have learned the Psalms, should study the divine text in corrected books until, by continuous practice, with God’s help, it is well known to them. The books should be corrected to prevent scribal errors from being fixed in untrained minds, because what is fixed and rooted in the depths of memory is hard to remove. Happy indeed is the mind that has stored such a mysterious treasure in the depths of memory with God’s help… [A]fter the soldiers of Christ have filled themselves with divine study and, grown strong by regular reading, have begun to recognize passages cited as circumstances indicate, then they may profit by going through this guide. (Institutions of Dive & Secular Learning, 1.2, 3)

So—the fundamental level is familiarity which is achieved by reading. To get better at reading Scripture, read more Scripture! Liturgically, this was enacted by the goal of reading all of Scripture every year in the monastic Night Office with the spill-over absorbed by out-loud reading during the otherwise silent mealtimes.

Practically, this is what the scripture is for us in the Daily Office. It’s not a Bible study; it’s not lectio. It’s reading at the speed of proclamation which only enables us to hear it and get a sense of it, not to ponder it, dig into it, or memorize it. And that’s ok because its our regular rehearsal for the sake of familiarization. The time for Bible study and lectio is outside of prayer time! And this leads directly to the next point:

2. Memorization alongside Comprehensiveness

Memorization is a different activity than reading for familiarity or information. This is why Benedict talks about a balancing of three fundamental activities: the Divine Office, Sacred Reading, and Manual Labor. Here’s the secret: all three of these are about Scripture and its internalization! But all three are operating in different modes—and that’s what we tend to lose sight of.

In the Divine Office, only the psalter can get memorized, and it is memorized through the vehicle of song. Just as I pick up a song heard frequently on the radio, singing all of the psalms every week—including several that are repeated many times each week (Psalm 51, I’m looking at you…)—monastics praying in community acquire the psalms through this same mode. The other Scripture can certainly be heard, but—as mentioned above—it’s at the level of familiarization.

A separate block of time for Sacred Reading (Lectio divina) was appointed for active, intentional memorization. Benedict’s rule directs that each monk be given a book at the beginning of Lent. The rule is a little ambiguous here: it doesn’t say what kind of book, and it doesn’t say when the monk has to give it back. One common way to read this passage suggests that monks get some special devotional reading specifically for the days of Lent. Reading this in context of patristic reading and monastic practice more generally suggests a different interpretation: the book is a book of Scripture assigned to be memorized, and at least one should be memorized each year—more if possible. And this leads us smoothly into:

3. Memorization of Large Sections

The memorization we’re talking about here is not about out-of-context verses to be tossed around as proof-texts. Instead, we’re normatively talking about reading at the book level.

It would be inaccurate, though, to claim that all memorization was at the book level. While that seems to be preferred and assumed by several authors—Augustine, Jerome, Cassiodorus—it’s also valuable to look at certain pieces of early monastic legislation that throw some light on this subject. And the place I’ll begin is with a literalization of the metaphor I just used…

We moderns take light for granted. We just assume that whenever we’re in the dark we can reach for a switch to alleviate it and illuminate our surroundings. We expect clear strong lighting—especially in places where we have to read. Now place yourself imaginatively into a Romanesque church building at 3 AM in the 6th century in a mountainous region of Italian wilderness. The few windows in the thick walls are small and wouldn’t be much help even if there were light coming in from the outside. At best, they’re openings to draw off the smoke from the few guttering rushlights—not even candles—that you and your fellow monastics have to light the one large book you’re all sharing, propped up on a stand several yards away. (And glasses have yet to be invented…) Light and visibility is precisely what you don’t have! Furthermore, the book you’re working off of is a manuscript: hand copied, not printed to an exacting standard.

Memorizing the Psalms doesn’t just have a spiritual purpose but a practical one as well—you don’t have to strain to read them if you already have them committed to memory! And the same is true of other biblical passages appointed to be read in church as well…

The Rule of the Master, the monastic instructions of which Benedict’s Rule is the abridged version, gives us some helpful insight into what is supposed to happen during lectio: it shows new monks learning their letters within their deanery (group of ten lead by a more experienced dean). Then they are assigned a psalm which they copy out onto their wax tablet and memorize, then, once their dean is satisfied, they recite it for the abbot and his staff who then assigns another until all of the psalms and canticles are memorized (RM 50). The rule doesn’t immediately state what comes next, but a clue a few chapters on and evidence from later  in the early medieval period gives a strong recommendation of next steps. Here’s what it says about monks going on a long journey:

If a brother is sent out on monastery business in the morning and, because of the demands of the trip, does no reading between Prime and Terce in winter, or between None and Vespers in summer, and returns to the monastery the same day, let him take his meal at whatever time he gets back, and let him do at least a little reading or memorizing, to show that he is observing the rule that day too. But if he is sent on a longer journey, let him take with him from the monastery a small book containing some readings, so that he can do at least a little reading whenever he takes a res along the way. But only if he knows his psalter. (RM 57.1-6)

Keep in mind that monastic libraries—especially in the Italian early 6th century—are nothing like what you might see in Name of the Rose, housed in towering buildings dedicated to books. No, studies of monastic holdings in the Anglo-Saxon era reveal that most monastic libraries numbered around 25 volumes. They were contained not in a special building  but within a single large wooden chest! The books they had multiple copies of were liturgical books: psalters and lectionaries…

Later on in the early medieval period we see directives that after the psalms are memorized the next texts given the monastics newbies are the Epistle and Gospel pericopes read in church. Indeed, the perfect candidate for “a small book containing some readings” is an old lectionary. In these later sources it’s a practical matter: ordination up the ninefold grades became standard and teen-age boys were often ordained as subdeacons—the grade responsible for reading the Epistles at Mass. Memorizing the liturgically appointed Epistle pericopes is a matter of good policy given, again, issues around lighting, visibility, and potential book quality. Liturgical proclamation, then becomes more of an exercise of memory aided by the book rather than a dependence upon it.

And, recognizing how few single-volume Bibles existed in the early medieval period, it’s likely that most biblical knowledge started with the Psalms, the liturgical Epistles and Gospels, and spread out from there. (Indeed, I haven’t done this yet, but I bet that if you were to go through the many biblical allusions that litter St. Patrick’s Confessio, I’d wager that the majority of them come from these appointed liturgical sources…)

So—all of that is to say, evidence shows us that the fathers and the monastics following in their footsteps preferred to read and memorize at the level of the biblical book. Barring that, memorizing at the level of liturgical pericopes was also quite practical. The key point is that the memorization here is not about collecting disconnected verses or prooftexts, but acquisition of big chunks of material.

Ok—that’s all for now; I’ll take up the rest a bit later.