Some time ago Brandon Vogt, a Catholic convert from Protestantism, wrote about how reading and memorizing scriptures is something he’s held on to from his protestant days. It’s an old post, but somehow it came to my attention back in March and I’ve been chewing on it for a while, trying to write up some thoughts of my own, and finally they’ve come together. Vogt writes:
The first Psalm encourages us to “meditate” on God’s word day and night; deep meditation, in this case, leads to memorization. In Jesus’ desert temptation, we see both Jesus and Satan using memorized Scripture as weapons for spiritual warfare. Good and Evil forces alike understand the potency of Biblical memorization. When it comes to memorizing Scripture, Catholics can learn much from our Protestant brothers and sisters. (Devotion and Memorization of Scripture)
He links to a series by Baptist minister John Piper that is both an exhortation and a guide to memorizing scripture, the why and the how. Of the Why Piper says:
Bible memorization is absolutely fundamental to spiritual formation. If I had to choose between all the disciplines of the spiritual life, I would choose Bible memorization, because it is a fundamental way of filling our minds with what it needs. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth. That’s where you need it! How does it get in your mouth? Memorization. (Why Memorize Scripture?)
And then in a later post he lays out his How:
And basically he says to take your first verse, read it ten times, and then close your eyes or shut your Bible and say it ten times. And that’s the end for that day. (I think if you do that you can memorize almost any verse in the Bible: ten times read, ten times said, and then you’ve got it.)
Then you come back the next day. You open your Bible up, and you say that verse again 5 or 10 times. If it’s easy, just 5 times. And then you do the same thing with the next verse. And then you do them both together. And then you shut your Bible and you leave. Then you come back.” “I’m not into mechanical memorizing. I’m into fighting the fight of faith. I want to memorize Scripture so that I can defeat the devil at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, that’s why! It’s so that I can minister to a saint in the hospital at 10 o’clock at night if I’ve forgotten my Bible. This is for our soul. So I carry it around and I review it. Review is so crucial.
So I would just encourage people to set aside 5 or 10 minutes, and then repeat, repeat, repeat. Read the verse 10 times, say it 10 times, close your Bible, and then review it during the day from a piece of paper. (How Do You Memorize Scripture?)
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At around the same time I stumbled across Vogt’s recommendation of Piper, someone in one of my homeschooling groups shared a link to a page on Simply Charlotte Mason that explained a system of memorizing scriptures with children. It involved writing verses on index cards and sorting them into a box with dividers. One new card every week, practiced daily. Plus last week’s card to review daily, and the previous weeks’ every other day.
Each day you will say together the verses behind four dividers:
• Odd or Even
• Day of the Week
• Date of the Month
So if today is Tuesday, the 3rd, you will say the verses behind Daily, Odd (because 3 is an odd number), Tuesday, and 3. The next day (Wednesday, the 4th), you will say the verses behind Daily, Even, Wednesday, and 4. Keep in mind that only the verse behind Daily is a new one that you are memorizing; all the others are just review.
The method is simply this: once or twice each day read aloud the verse or passage you are memorizing. As the words become familiar, the family members should join in saying the parts they know. Continue the one or two readings a day until all family members can recite the Scripture together with confidence.
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Now both John Piper’s system and the Simply Charlotte Mason approach definitely have their merits nor do I mean at any point to disparage them. In fact, I was almost ready to jump on board one or the other, but then I concluded that am sadly far too lazy and disorganized for such schemes. They just don’t seem a good fit for me or for our family. Or rather, they appeal to me at first glance, but my second thoughts veto the plan as unrealistic and doomed to fail.
Fortunately, I realized upon reflection that I already had a scripture memorization scheme in place that suits my family’s needs and my capabilities. It’s not a perfect system and I’m sure my children will not learn as many verses as they might if I implemented these other systems. But I do think my system has a few features that make it superior in other ways.
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First, it’s tried and true and very simple, a method that I have come back to over and over and over even if I let it lapse for a time. I’m terrible about sticking with long-term projects, but this is one I won’t ever drop altogether— and that by itself is a strong argument for my system.
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Second, one question the other systems still leave in the air is how to pick and choose the verses you are going to memorize. Yes, if you don’t know what verses to memorize, Simply Charlotte Mason provides you with a handy list, but that feels kind of arbitrary to me. Who put together that list and using what criteria? Will that really be the best list for us? My system removes the element of choice, either choosing which verses or choosing which list. Now choice can be good, but it can also be paralyzing and I’m already making so many choices each and every day that it’s nice to let someone else do the driving for a change.
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Third, the someone doing the driving in this case is much wiser than I am. And, well, I trust them more than I do the unknown person at SCM who put together that list, as good as I’m sure their list is. And really, I’m sorry I’m being a bit snarky. I have no reason at all to doubt that their list is anything but solid. It’s probably a really great list of passages to learn by heart and maybe some day I’ll even print them out and learn them all.
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Fourth, this scheme of mine puts us in touch with the liturgical year and that seems to me to be superior to the SCM list which does not track to the liturgical year.
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Fifth, the scheme builds in weekly and monthly repetition so you are constantly rehearsing the verses you’ve already learned. Both Piper’s system and SCM’s emphasize the need for constant repetition, to always be revisiting the verses you’ve memorized so as to refresh your memory. Piper says:
“Review, review, review. There is no way to memorize Scripture that keeps you from losing it. Some people don’t lose anything. Some people have traps in their head that just hang on to it. But only 1 in 10,000 people can do that. Average folks like me have to work real hard to memorize the first time, and then recurrently review to keep it. So I memorize verses every day, and I forget them every day.”
. . .
“The answer is, review. But don’t try to do that with every verse you learn. You should be learning hundreds of Bible verses by heart, and forgetting 90% of them. But then you get to them again and relearn them, and they are still with you because you learned them once. Somehow they will function to get out into your life.” How Do You Avoid Forgetting Scripture That You’ve Memorized?
I like Piper’s framing of the question, his acknowledgement that you’re going to forget much of what you memorize, his recognition that our memory doesn’t do what we’d like it to. One of my character flaws is that I get bored easily and have a low threshold for imposing repetition and mental drudge work on myself or my children. My scheme removes much of the appearance of drudge work by eliminating the notion of work altogether and making the whole point of the exercise prayer and praise and thanksgiving.
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And that brings us to the sixth and final point– and this is the primary advantage the other schemes don’t have– my system puts the scriptures into the context of prayer and worship instead of having separate times prayer and memory work. To me it seems organic where the other systems seem artificial. And it flows from the Church rather than being created by me. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, my scheme binds us into the communion of the saints, the Church militant and the Church suffering, and the Church triumphant.
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In short, my scheme for memorizing scripture is this: pray the divine office daily, out loud, in front of the kids. Or, listen to the divine office podcast. It is a simple, elegant, solution as I will explain.
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I’ve been praying the liturgy of the hours every day (with a few periods that I lapsed out) for at least fifteen years. I can’t imagine keeping up with any system of index cards for that long. It’s seen me through grad school, working, dating, marrying, pregnancy and childbirth. All my kids have heard these verses from the time they were in utero. They have nursed to the rhythms of the divine office, they’ve toddled around to the sounds. And once they’ve begun to speak, they’ve all joined in reciting bits and pieces on their own, with no prompting from me.
This is the memory system for me because it’s the one the Holy Spirit provided me with from the time my dad first gifted me with the one volume Christian Prayer. For more than fifteen years I’ve been led on this journey into prayer. It has formed me and taught me how to pray. And I’ve found myself living exactly what John Piper describes, except even more so. Through repetition daily, weekly, monthly, they have worked their way into my brain, but more so. The words are ever on my lips and in my heart.
And what sticks, what grabs my attention, the verses I’ve learned, have all been chosen for me by my loving mother, the Church. I know these verses are the ones I should be focusing on because they are the ones the Spirit puts into my mouth as I, an obedient daughter of the Church, his Bride, pray the prayers laid out for me each day, not consulting my own whims, but taking what is given to me, my daily bread.
Brandon Vogt said that deep meditation leads to memorization and that’s what the divine office does, it’s a daily invitation to deep meditation on the word of God, it’s repetition over and over and over in an endless cycle of prayers that has daily repetition (as in the great canticles of the Benedictus, Magnificat, and Nunc Dimittis), weekly repetition (as in the appearance of Psalm 51 every Friday during morning prayer) and repetition of some psalms that only appear once a month. There are readings and antiphons that only appear on certain feasts but they come back year after year. Constantly changing but always the old and familiar reappears in new guise so that you can meet it freshly and meditate again and again.
The proof is there when my children recite the psalms and canticles, when they choose to copy out verses from the psalms and canticles in their daily copywork. It doesn’t look like we’re working hard most of the time. There are no lists, no neatly filed cards, no marked up margins of our Bibles. Just the words on our lips and in our hearts singing praise and thanksgiving, joy and lamentation, and all the rest.