Musing upon Memory Work

One of the things I love to do with my children during our Morning Time collective (which is a lovely word I recently heard to describe the gathering of all the ages to do a collection of things together – and I want to adopt the word!) is memorizing poetry.

Surprisingly, even to myself, I love memorizing with my children. I have never been good at memorizing anything, and I am not sure if it is a particular lack in the chemical make up of my physical brain, or a lack of having exercised my brain in quite this way as a child myself, or what… but memory work has always been the thorn in my side. It made studying for tests excessively difficult, and it made my pursuits of music extremely burdensome. I simply have not had very good recall. Not only of facts, but also of my own life. My memories are few and vague. It actually saddens me deeply. Thus, trying to memorize things has been a source of anxiety and struggle for me throughout my life. So the fact that I now completely love memory work with my children just blows my mind! And it goes to show me that I still have much room to grow and deepen and practice and learn. God is so good to continue my education, and to bring me joy in it.

To be precise: I love the pursuit of a certain kind of memory work. I am not a natural proponent of all kinds of memory work. In fact, I will be willing to stick my neck out here and tell you that I have rather a disdain for the memory work of Classical Conversations and other similar Classical education niches which emphasize the rote memorization of a multitude of facts, without giving the explanatory depth and fattening the curiosity which comes from having been introduced to a new word or item or idea or event.

I don’t want my children to be able to regurgitate things on command simply because it feels shiny or impressive. I want them to be able to regurgitate things of eternal value and importance. Will they memorize secular things along the way? Absolutely. You bet! Times tables and measurement conversions, recipes and formulas… and probably all kinds of things their mama can’t even begin to wrap my head around.

But the things which I absolutely believe ought to be hidden in their hearts are the things I take the trouble to bring into our Morning Time collective, and work to cycle through regularly on repeat. These are mostly faith based, but also some additional beauty-based things (my friend Heather would tell me they are wonder-based!) which are still nourishing the mind and nurturing the soul.

Being Renewed in the Spirit of our Mind for the Practical Existence of the  One New Man

What do I find to be the spine of our memory work? I don’t know whether boiling it down to “faith” is too simplistic or not, because it is so much more than just that. Scripture passages (sometimes a single verse, sometimes an entire chapter), catechism (which are formed around doctrines from Scripture), liturgical pieces (creeds, the Lord’s Prayer, and other high church forms I love to pull from early church fathers, saints, or the Book of Common Prayer), Psalms (in my home, usually sung- often verbatim Scripture, sometimes metrical/poetized), and hymns are the faith-based things we pursue daily.

So faith is our spine. No surprise there, I think.

But what do I pull in that isn’t faith-based, but rather draws us to beauty and wonder in a more material way? Poetry. Sometimes we have added in geography songs or ditties like that… and I think they do enhance our wonder, even if they lack a little bit in the beauty category I so love. But poetry is a joy, and we pursue it in our Morning Time collective regularly. We memorize poems as a group, but also as individuals. About two weeks ago my children finished memorizing their winter/snow poems that we began in January (which were on the heels of the Advent/Christmas poems they had memorized during those seasons), so after taking one week to cycle back through memorized poems from previous weeks and months, this week we began Lenten/Easter poetry. This is later than I probably should have started, but we will dig in and see if we have these memorized by Resurrection Sunday. If not, that’s okay. We will do our best recitations possible at our Sabbath feast that day, but if we need to read rather than recite, that’s okay too.

What struck me is how difficult it was to find excellent Lenten or Eastertide poetry. A simple Google search did not suffice. I asked some trusted resources personally (like Amy Sloan and my friends at Schole Sisters), and got a couple of recommendations. I pulled out some beloved books of poetry written by some friends (Jason Farley, Ben Palpant, and Joseph Carlson). I searched for specific poets I know we love, and found a few gems. And then after I printed them all up, I let the children (currently ages 12, 9, 8, and 5) choose which poems they wanted to memorize for this season. It is always interesting to see what they pick, and to ask if they can articulate why they chose a specific piece. Length? Rhythm? Rhyming scheme? Subject in general? The wonder of the words? The beauty of the image it evokes?

It never ceases to amaze me how we remember these things. Even when we revisit a poem memorized a year ago (which we have revisited multiple times previously since then as well), it still comes rushing mostly back. Perhaps we have to peek at a word or two for a good cue at the next line now and then… but for the most part, these things are rooted deep.

What I long for is for those roots to grow fat and tight around the brains and hearts of my children. When they are challenged, I want the roots to cling and stick. When there is suffering, I hope Psalms will spout up from the depths of their souls. When there is laughter, I hope poems of joy and silliness ring out of their mouths. When there is comfort to give, when there is doubt in faith, when there are growing pains of any sort… it is the Creed, the Catechism, the Proverbs, the epistles, the hymns… Psalms & other Scriptures!… those are what I pray will bud and flower and bear much fruit.

If something must be forgotten, dear Lord, let it be the times tables and the periodic table and the long lists of states & capitals. Please, Lord, let the faith and the beauty remain.

Amy at Humility & Doxology wrote about this recently, and simply echoed my own previous experience with my grandpa. After watching Grandpa forget everything from his address to his family members to what were his favorite foods, and then forgetting even how to walk or speak… there were faith and beauty memories brimming under the surface.

The miracle of hearing him hum along when my children and I would sing hymns to him… or mouth along the words of Psalm 23 or the Lord’s Prayer when we recited for him… or raise his hands and nod his head while listening to the reading of Scripture from the mouths of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren… HE REMEMBERED.

That was the experience that really drove home to me the importance not only of memorizing things, but of choosing carefully what to memorize. When everything else was erased from him, Grandpa still remembered what mattered most: faith.

Renewed Day by Day | 2 Corinthians 4:16

Our bodies will waste away, the things of this world will turn to dust; but our soul is eternal. That immortal part of us which can not die, but ought to be renewed day by day in God’s grace, is what lasts. That is what matters most.

So we will memorize all kinds of things in our pursuit of an excellent, nourishing education as I walk through life with my five children. But it is soul-fattening and faith-saturating memory work which will be the spine.

That begins here. For us, it starts with our Morning Time collective.

At the end of my life, may I too recognize the truth, beauty, and goodness in Psalms, hymns, poems, creeds, catechisms, and Scripture. When my body has wasted away, may I too (like Grandpa before me) still lift my hands and nod my head and groan in my spirit when the things of faith wash over me. And may my children and grandchildren be gathered around me, washing me with the Word.

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