Memorization and Repentance
(This essay was written for First Things.)
Memorization is underrated. But it’s understandable that contemporary society puts it down: Why worry about mental storage when we have digital storage?
One answer is that repentance depends on memory. Thus, memorization is a Lenten practice, a repentant turning back to the memory of God. The link between memory and character formation was recognized long ago. Cicero insisted in the first century b.c. that we can only make prudent moral choices by consciously drawing on past experiences. He linked memory to prudence as one of its three constitutive elements. Memory, he explains, is the faculty that “recalls what has happened.” It deals with the past. Along with intelligence and foresight, memory allows us to make prudent decisions.
Thomas Aquinas also recognized the close link between memory and prudence. In the Summa Theologiae he deals with the topic of memory as part of a broader discussion of prudence. Aquinas thought of memory as an intellectual virtue that allows us to make practical moral decisions. “Experience,” he explains, “is the result of many memories…and therefore prudence requires the memory of many things.”
All animals have storage capability. Only humans, however, have the ability not just to store things in the mind but also to recollect them. Aristotle therefore distinguished between memory (memoria) and recollection (reminiscentia). Past experiences shape who we are and enable prudent decision-making. In other words, virtue depends on memory.
God’s memory is as perfect as his virtue. Scripture depicts God as someone who remembers. To be sure, our experiences don’t always match up with this truth. Sometimes we cry out with David in Psalm 13, “How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” Or we complain with Asaph in Psalm 74, “O God, why do you cast us off forever? Remember your congregation, which you have purchased of old.” But eventually, we come around and confess: God never forgets; he always remembers.
We come around because we know memory and virtue are linked—God is good because he remembers. In the leadup to the story of the burning bush, God expresses compassion for his people in Egypt: “God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew” (Exod. 2:24–25). Yahweh is the name of the God who always hears, remembers, sees, and knows. Yahweh is the name of the God who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod. 34:6).
God’s memory is flawless, while human memory is patchy at best. We sin when we forget God’s perfect memory. Psalm 103, a celebration of God as steadfast love and mercy, righteousness and justice, is bookended with reminders that we should celebrate this character of God: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits” (Ps. 103:1–2). We’re barely into the psalm, and we’ve already reminded ourselves three times that we should be blessing the Lord. At the end of the psalm, twice we remind the angels to “bless the Lord” (103:20–21), then tell all of creation to “bless the Lord” (103:22), and finally remind ourselves, yet again, in the concluding line: “Bless the Lord, O my soul!” (103:22). If our memory functioned well, we’d praise God all the time, for we would never overlook even the smallest blessing as a sign of his faithful character. But we are sinful creatures, so we need reminders.
God always knows, always remembers: “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (103:13–14). God’s steadfast love is “from everlasting to everlasting” (103:17). His memory is immutably faithful, while we are forgetful and easily distracted.
Nothing is as toxic to the mind as distraction. Monastic writers devised all sorts of mnemonic devices to assist in memorizing Scripture and eliminating distraction. For Hugh of St. Victor, Noah’s ark became a storage place whose innumerable cabins contained biblical events, doctrinal truths, and moral practices that offered safety in the storms of this world. For Bonaventure, the twelve branches on the tree of life contained fruits of Jesus’s life, passion, and glorification. Savoring these fruits would revive and strengthen the soul. Meditating on the ark’s cabins or the tree of life’s fruits gave stability in an age of distraction. As Hugh put it: “If, then, we want to have ordered, steady, peaceful thoughts, let us make it our business to restrain our hearts from…immoderate distraction.” Ordered thoughts make for ordered lives.
We may be tempted to think that digitization makes memorization redundant. The truth is, rather, that digitization yields distraction. I can select whatever I want from online storage at any time. The possibilities are endless, and so the order, steadiness, and peacefulness to which Hugh alludes consistently escape us.
The distraction of our information age fails at character formation. What’s in cyberspace cannot shape our characters, only what is in the mind. (To be sure, data and images often move from cyberspace to our mind, at which point they do shape our character for good or ill.) Having information at our fingertips is not the same as having stored it in our mind. This is why both classical and medieval authors were deeply concerned with memorization. Traditional practices such as lectio divina are grounded in the recognition that distraction must be countered by memorization and meditation. (The two were virtually synonymous in the Middle Ages.) Medieval monks devised all sorts of ways to facilitate Scripture memorization because they recognized that it offers the boundaries and confines within which the moral life can flourish.
Memorization is a Lenten practice, reshaping our memories to be like God’s. When our memories are reshaped and reordered according to the immutable faithfulness of God in Christ, we re-appropriate God’s character—his steadfast love, his mercy, his compassion. Repentance, therefore, is a turning back to the virtues of God as we see them in Christ. Being united to him, we are united to the very character of God, for it is in the God-man that God’s virtue and human virtue meet. The hypostatic union is the locus of our repentance: In Christ human memory is re-figured to the memory of God.
Memorization may be a largely abandoned practice. But is by memorizing that we turn away from sinful distraction and share in God’s own, ever-reliable memory in Christ.