Here is the third and final excerpt from Jane Redmont’s 1999 book When in Doubt, Sing: Prayer in Daily Life. This excerpt includes some brief remarks I made about memorizing Scripture as a form of prayer. There are many other reasons to memorize Scripture: for information, to have key doctrines ready for quick recall, etc. But what I talk about here is the way memorizing Scripture is actually a means of directly communing with God.
Jane uses my remarks at the very beginning of chapter 18 to set up the much better remarks of “Matthew the Poor.” The overall chapter is not focused on memorizing Scripture in particular, but deals with the broader technique of memorization and recitation, and examines how these un-modern practices can inform the prayer lives of contemporary believers. So the chapter, which Jane cleverly entitles “Mantras for Modern Christians” (because rote memory sounds positively retrograde, but mantras sound eastern and cool), ranges through liturgy, the daily office, and praying the rosary. But I’m making a narrower point: memorizing Scripture can itself be a form of prayer.
“This memorization-prayer is a big part of my own disciplines,” said Fred one day when we were discussing the practice of memorizing Scripture passages. “I find it especially helpful because it’s one of those exercises that, as my charismatic friends would say, ‘you can start out in the flesh and finish up in the Spirit!’ That is, sitting down (or walking or working out on a treadmill) to commit words to memory does not require any intimidating gathering of spiritual energy, like the frightful prospect of actually beginning to address God with confessing and petitions in mind. But in the midst of the activity itself, you often find yourself already at prayer. It is,” he pointed out, “not quite the same thing as praying Scripture.”
Fred is one of academe’s great researchers. Rummaging through ancient and more recent texts for resources on this topic, he discovered the writings of Matthew the Poor, also known as Matta El-Meskeen, a Coptic Christian “spiritual father” in the Monastery of St. Macarius in Scetis, Wadi El-Natroon, Egypt. Born in 1919, Matta El-Maskeen became a pharmacist, left the profession in 1948, and became a hermit. A popular speaker, he was one of three nominees for pope of the Coptic Church in 1971. He distinguishes between “intellectual memorization” and “spiritual memorization.” The first “requires that the mind progress step by step through investigation until it is on a level with the truth, then little by little rise about it until it can control it, recalling it and repeating it at will as if the truth were a possession and the mind its owner.”
“There is another way of memorizing the word of God by which we may recall and review the text, though not whenever and however we wish, but rather whenever and however God wishes.” This is what Matta El-Meskeen calls “spiritual memorization,” granted by God’s Spirit, “the Counselor [who] ‘will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you’ (John 14:26).” When the Holy Spirit causes us to recall certain words of Scripture, he writes, the Spirit “does so in depth and breadth, not simply reminding us of the text of a verse, but giving with it irresistible wisdom and spiritual power to bring out the glory of the verse and the power of God in it.” While there is “a lection through the Holy Spirit…we must be prepared for this spiritual recollection by keeping our hearts conscious of the word of God though pondering upon it frequently and storing it up in our hearts out of love and delight. ‘Thy words were found, and I ate them’ (Jeremiah 15:16) and they were ‘sweeter than honey to my mouth’ (Psalm 119:103).”
From When in Doubt, Sing, pp. 247-248.