Apr 14, 2020

Memorization for Moms (and Other Busy Ladies)

By Heather Judd

Gradually I am learning how much more pleasant life is when we embrace the present season rather than covet the blessings of the past or the future.  This includes not coveting how my neighbor seems to be in the same season of life and yet accomplishing so much more than I can manage.  My selfish heart is so very good at seeing the blessings I don’t have and the crosses I do while ignoring the good I would miss and the pains I would suffer if circumstances differed.

In my present season of baby-raising, I could make a long list of things I am not currently accomplishing:  learning German, reading epic poems, sewing adorable toddler toys, staying abreast of the news, writing regularly, let alone keeping the kitchen floor free of crumbs and yogurt splotches.  However, I have found that this is a very good season of life for something with a different sort of value:  memorizing.

I stumbled my way into memorization through sleepless nights with a colicky infant, but as I have incorporated it into the rhythms of my days, I have come to appreciate how wholesome it is for mind and spirit.  In the interest of encouraging others to share the refreshment of memorization, I offer some of the practicalities I have learned.

Memorize for Meditation

As grammar students of all ages can attest, memorization can be a stressful drudgery, but it needn’t be.  You, dear friend, are not a pupil under the tutelage of a demanding taskmaster, and your goal is to memorize not for Friday’s recitation grade but for life.  Memorize for life.  That is the key to refreshing, meditative memorization.

Since we are memorizing for life, we will choose to memorize things that we can love, treasure, and admire until our dying breath.  Scripture, but also the Catechism, the creeds, hymns, collects and other prayers, as well as poetry that delights your heart are all eminently suitable.  
So much to memorize!   If your impulse is to scribble a list and make a schedule or plan, please stop.  Simply start with something.  An excellent course is to pick up a hymn or a section of the Catechism that you sort of know but want truly to learn by heart.  The rapid results of a little study on such a thing are very encouraging.  

Have the Right Materials

Every home should have a Bible, a Catechism, a hymnal, books of poetry . . . and none of these beautiful bound books is conducive to studying for memorization.  Set them open on your kitchen counter while preparing dinner, and the gravy will assuredly slop onto their lovely pages.  Nor are they handy to haul around in the stroller or diaper bag.  

Instead, opt for thin, small, replaceable options.  My memorization of the Catechism benefited greatly from the booklet format “A Simple Explanation of Christianity.”  Your church may have these available, or they can be purchased through CPH.  Raid your Sunday bulletins for printed copies of collects, Scriptures, hymns, or the like.  I gleefully saved this past year’s Reformation bulletin, which had all the hymns of Divine Service Setting 5 printed out.  Sometimes copying or typing out things you wish to memorize provides the handy format you need.  For Lent I typed out the words to a slew of Lenten hymns so that I had my own little study booklet.

Don’t Set a Schedule

Remember, we are memorizing for life.  Although schedules and deadlines may have motivational power, they also have the power of guilt if not strictly obeyed.  Of course, you may choose to focus on some particular piece of memorization before you will move on to others, but remove the stress of planning to finish it by a certain date.

It really is possible for memorization to be soothing, not stressful.  Let your memory work be a comfortable companion, whose presence you will enjoy for the rest of life.  You wouldn’t set a deadline by which you must form a friendship with another person, and you surely know that a few dear friends are worth more than a host of shallow friendships.  So what if you only manage to memorize one of the Catechism’s six Chief Parts in an entire year?  That little addition to your personal “word hoard” is now your treasure forever.

Connect to Common Activities 

While schedules and deadlines may not be helpful, regularity is.  Ironically, the way I’ve found to make memorization restful in the busyness of motherhood is to tie it to other activities rather than giving it dedicated time.

I first began re-memorizing the Catechism during the long months when my infant son was waking every one to two hours all night long.  I was exhausted, and yet I struggled to fall back asleep after each nighttime waking.  Somehow in my haze I struck upon the method of mentally reciting the Catechism while listening to the whir of the white noise machine.  Made it to the Sixth Commandment last time before falling asleep?  Then pick up with the Seventh this time.  

As my knowledge of the Commandments solidified, I wanted to review the other Chief Parts, but those needed more work.  I put up a bulletin board above the changing table, and at every diaper change I worked on a portion of the Catechism posted there.  To this display, I added a hymn or two that I could sing to my son before bed or upon waking.  With a little intention and a lot of repetition, these too made their way into my memory.  Currently, I work on memory while taking stroller walks, which has the added benefit of making my exercise time pass more pleasantly. 

Find the activities and times that work for you.  Post your current memory piece by the kitchen sink or the stove.  Tape it to the vacuum.  Store it into the laundry basket.  Place it in a Ziploc bag in the shower.   

Make It Stick Like Velcro

The ancient Romans were fond of the maxim “repetition is the mother of memory.”  It is certainly true that memorization requires repetition, but mindless repetition is not enough.  You need memory hooks.  These are the specific little details that you note to keep your mind in the right place as you recite.  Find enough of them, and the words will stick to your mind like Velcro.

Most things worth memorizing have built-in memory hooks.  The rhyme of poetry or the Trinitarian structure of creeds are simple examples.  Perhaps some alliteration catches your eye, or you might note the parallel construction in a hymn stanza or the logical narrative which a group of stanzas follows.  Other times, some particular phrase will just strike you and become a personalized memory hook.

Repeat, Review, and Rest

If memorization is a completely new foray for you, it may seem daunting.  However, regardless of experience or inexperience, the truth is that we all start the same way.  Begin with a small portion, such as one hymn stanza or Scripture verse, and study it phrase by phrase.  As the days turn to weeks, you can add more while also reviewing what you have learned.  Somewhere in the months beyond, you can establish a comfortable rhythm between recitation and new memory work.

Deep memorization consists of several distinct steps.  The initial learning is usually nothing more than rote back-and-forth between reading and repeating aloud.  Next comes the process of trying to recite, while stopping to check and correct as needed.  Once most of the errors and gaps are eliminated, there must be a certain amount of deliberate repetition to reinforce memory.  Finally, the piece is truly learned by heart, and you may recite it as your own with restful confidence.  

The loveliness of these steps is that they require differing amounts and types of attention, thus lending themselves to differing situations and states of mental vigor or fatigue.  I can always work on reinforcing memory while cleaning the bathroom, but learning something new is better done when I can have the written copy at hand.  On a day when my mind is cloudy with angst, I may simply soothe it by reciting stores from my learned-by-heart treasury.  When I am feeling more brisk, I may push my mind up several of the more rigorous steps in one session.  

This brings us back to the importance of meditative memorization.  In the early steps, your contemplation of the words will help you find your memory hooks.  As you review, your mind will be able to ponder the text in even greater detail, sometimes finding insights in what had previously seemed mundane phrases.  

Yet, there will also be those moments when you straighten up from wiping oatmeal blobs off the floor only to realize you’ve just recited an entire psalm without paying one ounce of attention to its meaning.  Fear not.  Simply move on.  There will be time enough for meditation at some other opportunity.  After all, you are memorizing for life.


Heather is a pastor's wife in rural Illinois, prior to which she was a teacher in a classical Lutheran school in Wyoming and spent time in the Washington, D.C. area working on a master's degree in English.  She has an abiding love for reading, baking, deep intellectual conversations, and persistent Lutheran matchmakers.

Post image is in the public domain. 

1 comment:

  1. I read a while ago about Cindy Rollins, who used to be on the Mason Jar podcast, having her children memorize the Handel’s Messiah texts (the whole piece is sung scripture). I’ve kept that in the back of my mind, and now with my oldest beginning 9th grade and youngest in utero, we’re trying it out, no matter how long it takes. We listen each day to the section we’re memorizing. The youngest actively participating is 5. We’ll see how long it takes, but so far it’s a deep comfort. I find myself putting on the music when I need to hear “comfort, comfort, ye my people, speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem..” etc


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