Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Using Sacred Art to Help Memorize the Words of the Liturgy

I have a problem. I recently recommended that we should commit passages of the liturgy to memory, in order to deepen our participation and to free us to engage with imagery. You can read about this here, in the article Rite by Rote,

The problem I have is that I struggle to commit anything to memory. This is genuinely difficult for me. I have often wondered if I missed a class I should have attended at some point in my formative years. I did quite well in classes requiring a high level of understanding such as physics, but poorly where memorization of facts or words was necessary. I’m pretty sure I could never have been a doctor, for example. The painful boredom - and I do mean painful - entailed in trying to commit lists of anatomical details to memory would have defeated me. I was a trainee accountant for about 2 months once, and left when I realized I was going to fail all my exams. I have always been hopeless at learning languages, I never managed to memorize the poems we were supposed to be able to recite, and I couldn’t take part in school plays because I knew I would forget my lines. For me, walking into a room and then forgetting what I wanted to do is not senility; it’s been happening to me since I was 10 years old.

This can even affect your social life. My parents and my grandparents were avid Bridge players, but the game was beyond me. At various stages in my life, I have tried to learn to dance with a partner, and tried Ceroc jive, for example. Being reasonably coordinated, I could manage most of the steps, but as the man is supposed to lead, and I couldn’t remember those steps five minutes after the lesson. It seems that even my muscle memory is lacking. And don’t ask me to remember your name. I regularly embarrass myself at social events when I’m unable to introduce people I’ve known for years.

I would use mnemonics, but I forget those too. I’m at the level of needing a mnemonic to help me remember my mnemonic. For example, I thought I’d found the answer when I saw a book that explained the secret of St Thomas Aquinas’ remarkable memory. Apparently, the technique involved associating names and facts with the visual memory of articles in different rooms of a house that I was familiar with. The problem for me was that I didn’t have the layout of any house committed to memory sufficiently well to enable me to do it. Now at age 57, I’m at the stage where most of the time I even forget what it is I’m supposed to remember. I live permanently in the realm of Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns.”

So here’s what I have decided to do so that I can gradually learn some psalm and canticles by heart. If anyone out there has a better system, I am open to suggestion.

I memorize short sections of text, maybe a psalm verse at a time, so that if I see the first word, I know what’s coming, and then I sing the verse while looking at one of the images in my icon corner. I try to make the image appropriate in some way to the text. I have a print of the Ghent altarpiece in the center of my icon corner, along with the core images of Christ on the Cross, the Risen Christ and Our Lady. Between these and a few other personal Saints and festal icons, I can find connections with many of the themes of salvation history that run through so much of Scripture. This means that I then follow a set path with my eyes, which through repetition becomes a habit as I go through the canticle, and the visual memory helps prompt the linguistic memory.

Once I know the separate sections, I connect them by memorizing two at a time, as a new longer single passage. In practice, this means that I connect the last word of one passage with the first word of the next; if I have remembered each, then the longer one flows. I do often need to look and remind myself, but with repetition, it does come to me. I’m pretty sure that the fact that I sing my prayers helps too.

The next step is to connect these longer passages together until the whole is memorized. This is still a slow process for me, but I am getting there. My goal is to engage the aural, linguistic and visual components of memory in such a way that I can always recite the skeleton of a generic office even if I don’t have any liturgical books or my cell phone, with me. It occurs to me that in the process, it will help my approach to worship by developing my instincts for using all my senses in conjunction with the imagination that connects perceptible realities to those that are imperceptible.

I wonder, have I stumbled onto something which everyone does anyway? I’d love to know how you commit facts to memory.

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