To practice memorization without cultivating a culture of memory is like planting a rosebush in sand. All the water in the world will not bring it to flourishing, for the soil in which it’s planted simply cannot sustain it.
The memory of the modern West is similarly arid. The forward-focused euphoria of progress and innovation, the memory-replacing tendencies of technology, the horror associated with memory for those inheriting a century of World Wars—a host of causes could be suggested for the sandy soil in which we find ourselves. But whatever the cause, the fact of it remains, and those who would reclaim their memories must first repair the ground.
To put it more practically: If parents require their children to memorize Scripture, but do not discipline themselves to do the same, then the children will believe Scripture memory is a temporary chore, a meaningless rite of childhood, that they too will one day outgrow. If teachers grade their students’ poetry recitations, but never punctuate their classroom lectures with spontaneous declamations from Shakespeare and Homer and Hopkins and Dickinson, then students will believe that poetry memorization is merely a curriculum checklist, a mental gigabyte that can be stored and then erased, since it does not actually enrich thought and experience. If we start to try to practice memorization ourselves, building memory palaces for chapters of Scripture and Shakespearean sonnets, but excuse the thousand lazy forgetfulnesses of every day—grocery lists, appointment times, phone numbers—then we cannot really expect to become people who remember.
How, then, to cultivate a culture of memory? The following are initial ideas for the home.
Include confession of that day’s particular sins and thanksgivings for that day’s particular blessings in end-of-day family prayers, to cultivate the discipline of holding the whole day in memory.
Celebrate the anniversaries of significant days in the life of your family—birthdays, the day you moved into your current home, the day a little girl’s doll joined the family, the day a grandparent got home from the hospital, the days family members were baptized—to cultivate both a discipline of long-term remembering and an association of joy with remembering.
Encourage older family members and friends to tell stories of their younger years, listening actively and asking questions, to cultivate the sense that memory is joyful when shared.
Ask children questions about things they have recently heard or seen—the day at school, the sermon at church, the movie or concert with friends—to cultivate the association of remembering and sharing with interest and love.
Get a book of the “this day in history” variety and read it each day at mealtime, to cultivate the conviction that one can seek to do things worthy of memory.
Give each family member a special journal, a pen, and a glue stick when you go on vacation, and set aside time at the end of each day to write out memories and paste in clippings from the day’s adventures, to cultivate the practice of using memory to enrich experience with meaning.
Play memory games—the “How did we get here?” game during a lively conversation that started with Aunt Susan’s potato salad and ended with spelunking in Kentucky, the “What month was it?” game on New’s Year’s Eve in which participants guess the month of the year’s significant events, even the “What happened on this day last week-month-year-twenty years?” game that wives seem to always be pulling on their husbands—to cultivate the fun of memory.
Try family entertainment centered around playful remembering rather than around the TV; plan an evening in which every family member will dramatically recite a humorous poem, or hold a spelling-bee-style tournament to see who can recite the most Scripture verses correctly, to cultivate a togetherness in practicing memory.
Make spaces in the home that help to remember—a chalkboard for prayer requests in the kitchen, a cabinet for treasures collected on family trips, a bulletin board where family memory projects (Scriptures, poems, timelines) can be pinned up and changed out when completed—to cultivate community in remembering.