Sunday, February 17, 2013

Memorization: Learning, yes, by Heart!

I enjoyed reading St. Augustine’s Sermon 212 this morning. It is entitled “At the Handing Over of the Creed”. The great Bishop of Hippo caused me to think a bit more in terms of the task which is ours in this Year of Faith, especially as regards the handing on of the faith to the next generation. I’d like to quote the last part of his sermon:

Keep the Symbol in your memory
“And in no way are you to write it down, in order to retain the same words; but you are to learn it thoroughly by hearing it, and not write it down either when you have it by heart, but keep it always and go over it in your memory. After all, everything you are going to hear in the Symbol is already contained in the divine documents of the Holy Scriptures, from which you regularly hear extracts as the need arises. But the fact that the Symbol, put together and reduced to a certain form in this way, may not be written down, is a reminder of God’s promise, where he foretold the new covenant through the prophet, and said, This is the covenant which I will draw up for them after those days, says the Lord; putting my laws into their minds, I will write them also on their hearts (Jer 31:33). It is to illustrate this truth that by the simple hearing of the Symbol it is written not on tables, or on any other material, but on people’s hearts. The God who has called you to his kingdom and his glory will ensure that it is also written on your hearts by the Holy Spirit, once you have been born again by his grace; so that you may love what you believe, and faith may work in you through love. In this way may you please the Lord God, the giver of all good things, not out of fear of punishment like slaves, but out of a love of justice like free people. So this is the Symbol which has already been imparted to you as catechumens through the scriptures and sermons in church, but which has to be confessed and practiced and made progress in by you as baptized believers.” (Augustine, Saint; Daniel Doyle, O.S.A.; Edmund Hill, O.P. (2007-01-01). Essential Sermons (pp. 263-264). New City Press. Kindle Edition.)

As children (long ago!), we did no small amount of memorizing. By the time I got to college that method of learning or appropriating wisdom was sadly already very much passé. One of the fun experiences of my time here in Ukraine has been discovering people who still learn and recite things from memory: small children, adolescents, young adults and even seniors. St. Augustine is right in what he says about the importance of memorizing the Apostles Creed as one of the steps in the process of Christian Initiation and moreover in living the faith. To learn something, anything, we must commit it to memory or it is not ours. Genuinely studious people with big personal libraries not only know which books they own; they know what those books contain. So many great saints knew the Scriptures, especially the Letters of St. Paul, by heart.

I guess I could plead old age as an explanation for my slow progress in learning the Ukrainian language, but in point of fact, I shy away from the good work of memorizing! Osmosis as a way of learning? Not hardly! There is no substitute for the hard but noble work of memorizing, of committing things to heart.

Besides learning our basic prayers by heart, I would invite those who cannot recite the Apostles Creed by heart to deepen your faith by writing the great Baptismal Symbol on your hearts this Lent. Think of it as solidarity with all those in RCIA programs or other forms of Christian Initiation who will be or should be doing it this Lent in preparation for Baptism at Easter.




  1. From another of Augustine's Sermons on handing over the Creed (topic memorization):

    "In eight days the repetition of the Symbol. In eight days time you are going to give back what today you have received. Let your parents, who support you, start teaching you, so that you may be found ready; teaching you how you should wake up at cockcrow for the prayers which you celebrate here. Now we begin by giving you the Symbol here, so that you may diligently learn it by heart; but none of you must get into a state, and because of such agitation fail to give it back. Don’t worry, we are your fathers, we aren’t carrying the canes and switches of schoolteachers. If any of you get the words wrong, at least don’t get the faith wrong."

    Augustine, Saint; Daniel Doyle, O.S.A.; Edmund Hill, O.P. (2007-01-01). Essential Sermons (p. 271). New City Press. Kindle Edition.

  2. Our hearts are like a dry sponge anticipating to be filled with the love of God and the joy of the Holy Spirit writing upon us. Thanks for lent in the Ukrain


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