By Michelle Francl-Donnay
I will bless the Lord at all times; praise shall be always in my mouth. – Ps. 19:2
“But if it be a sin to covet honor, I am the most offending soul alive.” Upstairs grading papers, I can hear bits and pieces of King Henry’s rousing words rumbling below me. Mike is learning Shakespeare’s St. Crispen’s day speech by heart for an audition.
Bits and pieces roll off his tongue at odd moments – as he helps with dinner or spars with his brother. It seems to be always floating at the edge of his consciousness. I listen, a bit bemused, a bit amazed, as it becomes less and less merely words he recites, and more like Henry V on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt has come to life in my kitchen.
In the days before books and Google searches, words were not stored on paper nor held captive in bits of plastic – but kept alive in peoples’ minds and hearts. Every word of Sacred Scripture was held in the hearts and mouths of psalmists and prophets and evangelists long before they were ever committed to paper.
When I hear the Word proclaimed directly from mind and heart, not just lifted from the page moments before, I am more deeply aware that the Word dwells in each of us.
A few years ago I was at daily Mass in a small chapel on the very edge of the Atlantic Ocean. When the time came for the Gospel, the priest laid his hand on the book, and without opening it, proclaimed the Gospel of the day from memory. It made me wonder what it must have been like in the early Church to hear the stories of Jesus directly from the minds, hearts and mouths of those who had experienced them and then to pass those memories on to others. Unlike the pages of a book, which are unscathed by the experience of reading them, to pass the word on from memory to memory cannot help but change the bearers.
Cardinal Jean Marie Lustiger, archbishop of Paris, suggests at the very outset of his book, “First Steps in Prayer,” that the first thing one ought to do is memorize not the usual prayers, but the psalms. He admits it seems daunting, even outrageous in these days when the psalter can be so easily obtained, but encourages his readers to start with the shortest of the psalms, 117, and slowly stretch the memory to longer psalms.
Long ago, the desert fathers recognized the connection between mind and soul that memorizing the psalms required – even in the selection of the psalms to memorize, God is speaking to you. More recently, the 19th century Russian Orthodox bishop and monk Theophan the Recluse suggested starting with the psalms that strike your heart, “After you have considered and felt the prayers, work at memorizing them. Then you will not have to fumble about for your prayer book and light when it is time to pray… you will always be fully armed with prayer.”
Personally, the prospect of always having the psalms within reach is attractive, but keeping them in memory offers me more than just an alternative to Google, or the psalter stuffed into my purse. Reflecting on the practice of prisoners keeping hidden fragments of Psalm 90, “You shall not fear the terror of the night,” Father Henri Nouwen thinks, “I’d better learn it by heart so that I don’t need to sew it into my clothes and so it can become ingrained in my inmost being.” Committing Sacred Scripture to memory can reshape our very souls.
As Lent continues, with its call to reform our lives and to give up our hearts of stone, I’m taking an inventory of the Scripture that become rooted in my mind and discerning what God wishes to plant there next to slowly mold my heart. What might come to life?
May God, the Lord, bless us and make us perfect and holy in his sight. May the riches of his glory abound in us. May he instruct us with the word of truth, inform us with the gospel of salvation and enrich us with his love; through Christ our Lord. Amen. – From the Gelasian Sacramentary
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.