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The Sacred Relics Of Memory

“I know that you are regularly asked to memorize things which you forget soon after. You are asked to memorize lists of names, you repeat those lists for tests, then forget them later. How much memorized material from last year have you already forgotten?”

My sophomores laughed.

“And yet, I will wager you this, as well… There are some things you had to memorize from years ago— two or three or four years ago— and for whatever reason, those things are still with you. Perhaps you are amazed you still remember them, but you do. What do you still remember from years ago?”

I had this conversation just yesterday while explaining to my sophomores why I had written “a Medieval catechism” for them, and why we were going to begin class every day by cycling through every question on the catechism. What did they remember from years ago?

After reflecting for a moment, they began describing the things which time had not corrupted from their memories. Everything they remembered had this in common: it was memorized in a community. What they had crammed for on their own was lost. What they had worked at together stood a far greater likelihood of clinging to the mind.

Yesterday at lunch, some colleagues and I discussed a page of stats which detailed the results of a survey about personal Bible reading by denomination. Of course, some denominations tended toward higher percentages of weekly Scripture reading than others. However, I noticed with some vexation that the survey only concerned Bible reading which was done while alone. Why this distinction? Over the years, I have noticed that students tend to not recognize their own piety when it is performed in concert with others. While we might all responsively read from the book of Isaiah at chapel in the morning, just two hours later I will ask, “How many of you have read the Scriptures today?” and nearly every student glumly says they have not.

Obviously this all speaks to impressive victories by the devil. If a man is more apt to recall something studied in a community (his soul opens wider to receive it), and if a man is simultaneously prone to think sacred things recited and studied with others “don’t count,” then we sadly have ideological prejudices against methods which work best.

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