“Treasure up in your minds continually the words of life”

Clark’s recent post on Death and the Atonement got me thinking about the fascinating preface to Lewis Carroll’s book Sylvie and Bruno. Clark’s subsequent post to his own blog related marginaly to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and how the characters in the book memorized whole books to preserve them from destruction reminded me of a different part of Carroll’s preface.

In the preface to Sylvie and Bruno, Carroll, whose real name was Charles Dodgson, wrote about two books that he would like to create but that he was afraid that he would never get around to. He described them with the hope that they would be taken up by someone else. First he proposed

…a book of pieces selected from the Bible–not single texts, but passages of from 10 to 20 verses each–to be committed to memory.

Second, he proposed

…a collection of passages, both prose and verse, from books other than the Bible. There is not perhaps much, in what is called ‘un-inspired’ literature (a misnomer, I hold: if Shakespeare was not inspired, one may well doubt if any man ever was), that will bear the process of being pondered over, a hundred times: still there are such passages–enough, I think, to make a goodly store for the memory.

In our modern culture, the ease of reproducing words either in print or as an audio and video recording has facilitated the abandonment of the art of memorization. I look back on the times in my education that I was required to memorize a poem or a passage of prose and they were few and far between. I find it pleasantly surprising, however, that I can still recall at will good portions, if not the entirety, of most of the the passages I was required to memorize: The Ride of Paul Revere, the Gettysburg Address, the Preface to the Constitution, the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, dozens of lines from Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale in Middle English. Most of these things I was required to memorize in the 5th grade and I have made no extraordinary effort to retain them. After the 5th grade, I was not encouraged to memorize anything until I studied Chaucer at BYU. I find a curious joy in the recitation of memorized passages.

Outside of my secular education I was required to memorize the articles of faith for primary, specific scriptures for the Scripture Mastery program in seminary, and the missionary discussions. I can still recite a number of the articles of faith word for word,though not all, but while I can recall a few verses more or less word for word, I find that my memorization of the seminary scriptures was not nearly as successful as my other experiences with memorization. I can still quote from memory several portions of the missionary discussions in Spanish.

Lewis Carroll makes the following observation of his proposed books:

I have said ‘passages,’ rather than single texts, because we have no means of recalling single texts: memory needs links, and here are none: one may have a hundred texts stored in the memory, and not be able to recall, at will, more than half-a-dozen–and those by mere chance: whereas, once get hold of any portion of a chapter that has been committed to memory, and the whole can be recovered: all hangs together.

It is interesting to note that all of the things that I am able to recall without as much effort consist of lengthy passages, but that the memorized scriptures that I struggle with are all single verses. My own experience seems to support Carroll’s observations about memorization.

Carroll provides two benefits of memorizing long passages of scripture and inspirational secular texts. First,

Such passages would be found useful, to repeat to one’s self and to ponder over, on many occasions when reading is difficult, if not impossible: for instance, when lying awake at night–on a railway-journey–when taking a solitary walk-in old age, when eye-sight is failing of wholly lost–and, best of all, when illness, while incapacitating us for reading or any other occupation, condemns us to lie awake through many weary silent hours: at such a time how keenly one may realise the truth of David’s rapturous cry ‘O how sweet are thy words unto my throat: yea, sweeter than honey unto my mouth!’

Different people dispute to what extent, if any, Terri Schiavo was aware and able to think. No one really knows how much her memory was lost by the damage to her brain. But regardless there are other people who have found themselves in a state where they are both aware and thinking while their brain has been damaged to the point where they cannot move or communicate. If I were to ever find myself in such a situation, I suspect that having memorized passages of scripture and literature would be a blessing beyond measure. And as Lewis Carroll points out, there are many other moments in life where the ability to recall such passages and ponder about them would be invaluable.

Carroll explains that the second reason for memorizing passages of inspiration is protective:

These two books of sacred, and secular, passages for memory–will serve other good purposes besides merely occupying vacant hours: they will help to keep at bay many anxious thoughts, worrying thoughts, uncharitable thoughts, unholy thoughts. Let me say this, in better words than my own, by copying a passage from that most interesting book, Robertson’s Lectures on the Epistles to the Corinthians, Lecture XLIX.

“If a man finds himself haunted by evil desires and unholy images, which will generally be at periodical hours, let him commit to memory passages of Scripture, or passages from the best writers in verse or prose. Let him store his mind with these, as safeguards to repeat when he lies awake in some restless night, or when despairing imaginations, or gloomy, suicidal thoughts, beset him. Let these be to him the sword, turning everywhere to keep the way of the Garden of Life from the intrusion of profaner footsteps.”

We have been commanded to let virtue garnish our thoughts unceasingly. There is a good deal of power in virtuous words. What better way to garnish our thoughts than with memorized passages from the best of books. This is not unlike president Packer’s admonition to memorize hymns as a defense against wicked thoughts and temptations.

Memorizing single verses or couplets compartmentalizes their meanings. By memorizing lengthy passages we benefit from context and relationship. If Carroll is right, by memorizing length passages rather than decontextualized sound bites we should also benefit from the ability to recall the information more readily.

Perhaps we could all benefit from a program involving the memorization of longer passages of scripture and literature. In D&C 84, the Lord has commanded us to “Treasure up in [our] minds continually the words of life.” In the church we have often associated this scripture with simple, regular scripture study, but the image of “treasuring up” words in the mind seems to me to suggest memorization.

What are your thoughts on this subject? What passages of scripture or literature would be good candidates for LDS versions of the two books Carroll suggested?

18 thoughts on ““Treasure up in your minds continually the words of life”

  1. I think memorization is largely underused and underappreciated. That said, I have trouble memorizing things.

    As for the books, I’ve always wanted to compile every prayer in the scriptures, perhaps dropping a few of the Psalms.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this lately. I try to memorize poems, though so far I only have less than a dozen. As you say, there’s nothing better than memorized poetry or scripture for when you’re standing in line or commuting with nothing better to do (though trying to strike up conversations can be equally rewarding, though more difficult). What I have noticed, and I think this would apply to the scriptures too, is that memorizing the poems has taught me a lot more about them then just reading and pondering the poems would have done. The reason being that I am continually able to link things I discover to the poems because they are present in my memory.

    Two examples: I recently ran across the cliched phrase ‘to the death!’ in some context or other, and I realized that the line in ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’ takes a lot of its power from its resonance with it. the line I’m talking about is the one that goes, ‘now stab and end the creature, to the heft!’

    Second, I was recently reading some British work when I ran across ‘pavements’ used in a context that made me remember that the Brits use ‘pavement’ to mean something like sidewalk or tiled, cobbled, etc., surfaces used for pedestrians. This all of a sudden illuminated the line from the ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’–‘while I stand by the roadways, or on the pavements grey’

    I also try to memorize scriptures, but have difficulty. I wonder if the trouble is, as you suggest, that I’m trying to memorize solitary verses and not passages?

  3. By the way, this is one of the most interesting posts it’s been my privilege to read.

  4. Perhaps you will be pleased to hear that the art of memorization is making a resurgence among classically-educating homeschoolers. By taking advantage of the elementary years, when memorizing is fun and easy for kids, and the fact that they can bounce around while practicing instead of sitting still in little desks, we’re able to get quite a bit memorized with little pain.

  5. Forgot to say: we use the book Harp and Laurel Wreath for poetry selections.

  6. I’ll look into that, Julie in A. The one thing I regret about my childhood is not memorizing more things, so I’m trying to make up for it now.

  7. Thanks for your comments and compliment, Adam. My experience has been similar to your own. The very process of trying to memorize scripture helps me understand it better and once memorized it is interesting how one’s mind can make spontaneous connections. I think that memorizing can help promote those the kind of epiphanies that you describe.

    Ben has trouble memorizing things, and I do think that some people have more talent for it than others. I think that it is a talent that can be acquired through practice though.

    When I memorize I follow a kind of pattern: I repeat everything from the beginning and then add an additional line or two. I was reading Joseph Smith’s account of his visit from the resurrected Moroni recently and I noticed this same pattern. On each visit Moroni would repeat the entire message from before and then add additional information. While we have no way of knowing how much of these conversations Joseph remembered word for word, it is interesting.

  8. Julie, I was homeschooled for periods of my life and I wish that my studies had involved more memorization. I’m glad that it is making a come-back in some circles. I tend to walk around the room while trying to memorize, though it is much harder to bounce off the walls at my age.

  9. I memorize the same way you do, including the walking around the room.

  10. When I was a Deacon back in the Pleistocene, we had little booklets of goals we were supposed to set. One of them had to do with memorizing scriptures. The minimum goal was to memorize three or so, and I checked that, but I had no intention of actually doing it. As Barbie might say, “Memorizing’s hard!” I didn’t think I could do it.

    On my mission, we were required to memorize all 70-some discussion scriptures (some as long as 10 verses) word perfect. At Zone Conferences, you had to stand up, and the MP would give you a cite, and you had to recite it in front of everyone. So I made a set of index cards on a ring and started trying to memorize them, and I found that it really wasn’t that hard at all. It just took repetition. So I didn’t stop there, but I memorized way more than I had to. (For instance, I memorized all of the scriptures used in the Messiah libretto, that sort of stuff.)

    I discovered almost by accident the power of memorization in public speaking. I had just been transferred into a new area and was asked to give a short talk on faith one Sunday. I wrote out what I wanted to say, including a handful of scriptures. Almost as a lark, I decided to memorize the scriptures and not look at any notes for my talk, but to maintain complete eye contact. When that sacrament meeting was over, I felt like a rock star; I was surrounded by people I didn’t know clamoring to shake my hand and trying to give me referrals. I had never experienced anything like that before. Since that time, I have made it a practice to memorize scriptures and other quotations and to speak without notes, and I’ve found that people always react very positively to those talks.

    A number of years ago I was asked to prepare the Christmas program for Sacrament meeting. I selected a number of passages of scripture I wanted to read as narrator among the various musical numbers. Again, as a lark, I decided to memorize them. There were maybe eight selections, all fairly lengthy (a total of 114 verses!). It took me about two and a half months, but I finally memorized them all. The program was a smash hit; people loved it. And I think you’re right that it is actually easier to memorize long, contextual quotes rather than shorter ones divorced from context; at least, that was my experience.

  11. Wow, this post and discussion is an inspiration to me. I’m going to start doing some serious memorizing. In a former stake of mine, we were challenged to memorize the Proclamation on The Family. I regretfully never finished, but was so impressed by entire families with kids ranging from 4 to 18 who memorized the entire text.

    I have been amazed by the capacity of my children to memorize. I memorized a Christmas poem this year and my 3 year old picked it up by just hearing me practice, which makes me think we really should tap into that ability much more. Thanks for a great post, JMW.

  12. I’m glad Adam likes Childe Roland as much as I do. I’ve been trying to memorize that poem for years now. (Well admittedly for a goodly part of that time I wasn’t trying to hard)

    The best trick for memorizing was one I found on my mission. You write on a 3×5 card the first letter of each word. Then you try and repeat it from the card. It takes a little while of looking back and forth, but you can do it.

    I have an absolutely horrible memory for data – that is exact quotations whether they be quotes, phone numbers, names or whatever. On the other hand I’m pretty lucky to have an amazing memory for ideas and faces. So I guess it’s a trade off.

    The problem was that only my mission you had to have hundreds of scriptures memorized. I think you had to have something like 70 just to be allowed to drive! And you were tested fairly regularly. So it was definitely a struggle for me.

    And, in hindsight, I think having that many scriptures memorized was a bit detrimental. One tended to quote too much. Further I think it encouraged bashing. But it did have some benefits as well.

  13. Confession, Clark Goble. I only have the last few stanzas memorized, beginning with ‘Burningly, it came on me all at once. This was the place!”

    As for loving it as much as you do, I have to give you credit for that. I got interested in it after reading your description on your website.

  14. A sweet memory is walking a mile and a half to seminary, memorizing scriptures from those little cards under the dawning sky.

    Once as a missionary, my companion and I sitting in the back of a bus started reciting Joseph Smith’s testimony of the First Vision, alternating lines between us. We had never made any particular effort to memorize it, but some things stick when handled so many times. A companionship in one of my district’s had memorized the dialogue of Ammon and Lamoni. Their recitation had a powerful quality of the sort that Kevin Barney describes to draw the listener in and make him ponder what he was hearing. This post has me thinking some memorization would be a nice part of my present days.

  15. Once, between meetings, my companion and I were sitting in the foyer in Colorado Springs testing each other on various scriptures. The bishop, Mark McConkie, came out and asked if he could join us. And he kept up with us, scripture for scripture. He didn’t have them all 100% word perfect, the way we were required to do as full-time missionaries, but he was dang close.

    I was tremendously impressed. It’s one thing to memorize the scriptures when you know you’re going to be called on it at Zone Conference. But to have that level of commitment when you don’t really have to says something.

  16. I agree with Andrea about the capacities of the young. I can still play many piano pieces from memory that I learned as a youth or adolescent, while there are whole programs of music that I memorized for solo recitals at BYU that are no longer available to my memory.

    Partly, I think, this is because of the greater malleability of the young brain, but also it might have something to do with style of memorization: when I was younger, I did a lot of rote memorization, where I would repeat over and over, until something was firmly established in the muscle memory and I could play it almost on autopilot.

    Later, as I learned more about music theory and formal structures and pattern recognition, I could memorize much more efficiently, to the extent that it becomes possible to memorize a piece simply by looking at the score (although, in order to actually play it, time still had to be spent establishing the physical gestures in the muscle memory). In some ways this was superior, since it was faster and more redundant, since the intellect could take over. One could memorize many small fragments and then memorize how they fit together, and one would have more confidence against a lapse that, had one memorized the first way, would leave one with no alternative but to start from the beginning. But it is a less lasting memorization technique (though, luckily, things once learned, can be brought back relatively quickly).

    On the other hand, after the hard work of memorization is done, occasional repetition is helpful and probably necessary to keep things available for mental retrieval: I used to have almost all the French texts of the hymns memorized, but since I never sing them anymore, only fragments remain.

  17. (#17) Kevin, a follow-up story to the progression of Mark McConkie is that he was just called to be stake president of the Colorado Springs Stake on Sunday! I’ve known him since the late 1970’s, and am satisfied that he was selected not because he’s a son of the great Bruce McConkie, but because he really is the best qualified candidate for the job.

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