By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
How many words, songs and rhymes are stored in your memory? If I say, “Take me out to the…” or “Oops I…” you could probably finish the two lines (“Take me out to the ballgame” and “Oops I did it again”). We have an immense world of words filling our interior lives, and many of them we made little effort to memorize. Now, what if those words were not the silly lyrics of pop songs but something soul-deepening and beatifying?
This is an important question. Our memory of the past contains the vocabulary with which we understand our present and imagine our future. We see ourselves through what we remember, or through what ‘comes to mind’ in the moment. For example, when you suffer for doing what is right, which is more likely to come to your mind: “No good deed goes unpunished” or “All things work for the good of those who love God” (cf. Rm 8:28)? This is an important question! For which sentence we say — which sentence we remember to say — will shape our present and thus our future. What should be the vocabulary to understand and tell the story of your life? Describe yourself right now. What words, songs and poems come to your mind? Are those the right ones, or are they only the ones you know? How often do we suffer for not having the right word, or for being unable to name what we see and feel?
One of the greatest gifts I received when I entered the monastery was a new vocabulary with which to see and therefore live. As monks, we chant texts from Scripture for about two hours every day, especially the psalms. And, slow as I am, it was inevitable that these texts would begin to sink into my mind and shape the way I see myself and the world. Before I joined the monastery, my head was filled with words and associations from our popular culture; and it still is, but I think this vocabulary may be weakening as another is growing. Today, I internalize words like ox, oil, planted, rock, fortress and deer far more than oops, ballgame and the like. And the associations of this new vocabulary bring before me such wonders as the beauty of creation and its transparency to the goodness and wisdom of the Creator; the love of God’s providence and the sweet feeling of his nearness; the dramatic story of David and his intimacy with God; the experience of suffering and sin, mercy and redemption; the joys of belonging to a people, and of being led by God through history. Thanks be to God, I have a chance to allow this story of salvation to shape more and more my vision for all things.
You can do the same! This vision belongs to everyone! So, let’s dwell within the language of the Bible. Read the psalms or the gospels until you find a beautiful verse, then write it on a card and set it somewhere around your home. Pray with it for a few minutes; try to memorize it, then allow your imagination to run freely to discover associations. Try to recall the verse later in the day, knowing that you’ll probably forget exactly how its wording goes (and that is okay, for it is healthy to be at peace with not remembering ‘perfectly’ all the time). Then try again to memorize the verse at night before sleeping.
And let’s take advantage of the liturgy! As we wait for Mass to begin, or as we sit listening to the responsorial psalm, let’s memorize our favorite verses! Even more profoundly, the words of the liturgy invite us not only to imagine ourselves, intellectually, in the life, death and resurrection of Christ; they actually bring us to participate in that his life, death and resurrection. Before his passion, Christ made bread and wine into a sacrament of his body and blood, and then he told his disciples to do this ritual “in memory” of him. At the liturgy, we are sacramentally remembering ourselves into Christ – into his life-giving communion with the Father. In the unity of the Holy Spirit, our memory is a mystical participation in the present reality of Christ – the memories we share at mass are not just ideas! We are being grafted onto the real Body of Christ and its destiny. Through the Eucharist we deepen our reading of the Scriptures — the words of salvation — to the point where they touch the reality of our lives.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.