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Sunday, May 28, 2017

Why Catholics Memorize Scripture

I posted to an online community an encouragement to fellow Christians – Catholics and Protestants alike – to stir them to consider memorizing portions of God’s word. You can find it here:  http://bit.ly/2qmXIkE

It was not at all my intent to cause offense or to make anyone feel guilty about how they approach Scripture memory.

A short time later I received a reply from a fellow Catholic who wrote: “I don't see the point of memorization. In my life experience it's been more helpful for me to pray over bible passages and having Our Lord enlighten me.”

I thought perhaps she might have misunderstood my point. I do not negate the value of praying over Bible passages. In fact, in one of the books I wrote, “Prayer Strategies: A Series of Helps,” I devote an entire ‘prayer strategy’ to praying the scriptures.

But she did not misunderstand my point. In a follow-on comment she added: “Don't waste your time in trying to change my mind, because you won't. As a Roman Catholic I prefer our devotions and traditions and I'll go with praying scripture over memorizing scripture any day.”

I will not try to change her mind. But because she invoked her Roman Catholic faith as an excuse for not bothering to memorize Scripture, I thought that as a Roman Catholic myself, I ought to respond to her very un-Catholic view of Scripture. Indeed, it was the very Catholic St. Jerome who warned his fellow Catholics: Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.

My goal in this specific response is to provide some background regarding how Catholics in the past have treated the idea of Scripture memory. 

The Roman Catholic Church traces our origin to the apostles and the apostolic age. So, let’s first look at what those first century men and women said about Scripture – and by implication, memorization.

In her Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) the Blessed Virgin Mary from memory quoted or alluded to at least six Old Testament texts (1 Samuel 2:1-10, Psalm 34:2, Psalm 35:9, Psalm 98:1, Psalm 103:17, Psalm 107:9). (What Catholic does not want to follow our Mother’s love for Scripture and Scripture memory?).

In the Wilderness Temptation (Matthew 4 and Luke 4) Jesus responded to each of the devil’s lies with a quote from Old Testament Scripture. (And it is hardly necessary to remind ourselves that Jesus is our example ‘par excellence’ in whose steps we should follow (1 Peter 2:21).

Before his martyrdom, St. Stephen (Acts 7) extensively quoted and alluded to multiple Old Testament texts from memory. St. Paul wrote to the Christians at Colossae: 3:16 “Let the word of Christ richly DWELL WITHIN YOU (my emphasis), with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” And in which of the New Testament epistles did any of the apostles not quote from memory passages from the Old Testament?

As Roman Catholics, we are taught by the Church to revere Scripture. In his encyclical, Dei Verbum (The Word of God) Pope Paul VI wrote: “The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord . . . [T]he force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life. . . .”

And from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: 104 “In Sacred Scripture, the Church constantly finds her nourishment and her strength, for she welcomes it not as a human word, "but as what it really is, the word of God". "In the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children, and talks with them."

And again: 133 The Church "forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful. . . to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures.” And surely one can imply from these three Roman Catholic documents, memorization is an acceptable form of learning ‘the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ.’

Regarding Old Testament Scriptures, the Catechism teaches: 121 “The Old Testament is an indispensable part of Sacred Scripture. Its books are divinely inspired and retain a permanent value, for the Old Covenant has never been revoked.”

What then does the Old Testament tell us of the importance of memorizing Scripture? For example, Proverbs 7: “My son, keep my words and treasure my commandments within you. Keep my commandments and live, and my teaching as the apple of your eye. Bind them on your fingers; Write them on the tablet of your heart.”

Psalm 119:11 “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.” And while we are looking at Psalm 119, can anyone read those 176 verses and come away not sensing the value the Holy Spirit places on reading, meditating, obeying, and hiding His word in our hearts?

I can list hundreds of other examples of the Holy Spirit’s injunction to His faithful to know God’s word, but here is just one more: Deuteronomy 6:

4 “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates."

Is it of value for Catholics and other Christians to memorize and pray the scriptures? Of the life and work of St. Benedict we find this: “Benedict instructed his followers to practice sacred reading -- the study of the very Scriptures they would be praying in the Work of God. In this lectio divina, he and his monks memorized the Scripture, studied it, and contemplated it until it became part of their being. Four to six hours were set aside each day for this sacred reading. If monks had free time it "should be used by the brothers to practice psalms." Lessons from Scripture were to be spoken from memory, not read from a book.” (Citation available on request)

St. Dominic, founder of the Dominicans, was a great proponent of Scripture memory, as was St. Therese of Liseaux and many other Catholic saints of past centuries.

If an individual Christian chooses to not memorize Scripture, that is certainly his or her decision. But to claim avoidance of that opportunity on the basis of being a Roman Catholic – well, there is simply no justification for that attitude in the historic teaching of the Catholic Church.


Barbara Schoeneberger said...

Here's the most basic argument for me as a Roman Catholic to memorize Sacred Scripture - at least some passages of it: Jesus and the Apostles were good, devout Jewish boys from very devout families. From the age of six, if I'm not mistaken, they went to the local synagogue to study the Old Testament scriptures. In those days, the boys were expected to memorize those texts. Jesus set the example.

Jewish girls also had to learn the Old Testament by heart, too, as we see in Our Lady's example of the Magnificat. Of course, all Jews attending the synagogues participated in prayer from memory because the printing press hadn't been invented yet, and it is unlikely that families could afford copies of the sacred books for their own use.

If any part of this is incorrect, I am open to correction. In any case, since I've been attending Mass since the age of 2 and am over seventy, a lot of Sacred Scripture is burned into my brain and I'm grateful for it. I don't know if I will memorize entire books of the Bible, but I surely will continue to meditate on God's Word daily, and base my actions on it as much as possible given my sinful nature.

Rich Maffeo said...

Barb, you are not incorrect. Scripture study and memorization was a NORMAL experience and expectation of Jews. Dates to Deuteronomy 6 -- the 'Sh'ma" - Hear Oh, Israel . . . .

My point, really, in all this was not at all to make people feel guilty -- I think from the pushback I've received from a number of people, my comments have been interpreted that way . . . my only goal was to get people to think of the value of not only READING scripture, but memorizing portions of it is not a bad idea, either.

Certainly, though, meditating on scripture is great. Been practiced by hundreds (if not thousand) of faithful Christians (and Jews before us). And if that in and of itself is ALL God's people do, then the Church will have a revival.