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The Art of Memory Work

I recently read the collector's edition of Scientific American, July 2017, on the Mysteries of the Mind. Fascinating. From Consciousness as Art, to Engine of Memory, How Babies Think and Banking Against Alzheimer’s, it is full of articles which describe both cutting edge scientific discoveries as well as interesting hypotheses on how memory works, what is the mind, and why babies know more than they tell us. Our brain is a fantastic and still a mysterious thing. To quote Andrea Gawrylewski, in the article Your Marvelous Mind, “[…] a century of research on the brain has only inched us toward complete understanding of this most crucial human organ. New technologies using DNA and optogenetics are certainly pushing us closer, but the enigmatic human mind may remain biology’s final frontier for years to come.” What jumped at me was the role that memory plays in the well functioning of the brain. Babies learn by using their memory: they register, for example, that if they press the yellow button the jack in the box will come out 3 times out 5, but if they press the blue button it will come out only 1 in 10. So they go for the yellow button when they want to see Jack. The article talks about statistics and patterns - can these be observed if memory would not be involved in the process of learning the world? By the same token, exercising your memory and cognitive functions is good in keeping Alzheimer symptoms at bay. Memory, coupled with cognitive exercises, benefit cancer survivors, children with attention deficits, people with schizophrenia, and others. Without memory (short and long term) none of this would be possible. There are more than just “visible” health benefits. As Michael K. Beran points out in his article In Defense of Memorization, memorizing good literature, both poetry and prose, helps with vocabulary acquisition, enriches one’s language, and awakens the soul to sounds and rhythms and mysteries untold. It does not repress or enslave; it enlarges and strengthens and frees. It exposes the heart to the lives of literary men and women who struggled to understand themselves and make sense of their natures and in so doing offer a helping hand to those who come after them. Why then, as a modern society, are we reluctant to train children in memory work? Beran states that “In every epoch of Western history we find educators insisting that their pupils serve an apprenticeship in the works of masters of poetry and rhetoric. […] Augustine [for example] came ‘to love what he was learning. He had developed, through this education, a phenomenal memory, a tenacious attention to detail, an art of opening the heart, that still moves us as we read his Confessions.'" In memorizing Virgil, with its display of human passions (paternal, filial, pious, romantic, patriotic, heroic), Augustine was able to understand his own heart. In steeping himself in Aeneid’s speeches “he found a key with which to unlock the hearts of others.” Michael Wood, in his book Shakespeare, observed that the poet “was the product of a memorizing culture in which chunks of literature were learnt by heart.” Such learning by rote, Wood writes, offers many rewards, “not least a sense of poetry, rhythm and refinement - a heightened feel for language.” A special place in the world of memory work for me is memorizing Scripture. The words are God-breathed, the effects on our heart and spirit are hard to know completely on this side of eternity. And yet we see the results: in reciting memorized Scripture, one is drawn to yet a deeper meaning, a new perception of who God is, while the "inner being" is strengthened such that "Christ may dwell in your heart through faith". And with this comes a deep healing of the heart. God Himself commends us to gather His words and His commandments unto our hearts, impress them on our children and talk about them at all times. Tie them as symbols on our hands and bind them to our foreheads (Deuteronomy 6:8). For “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness." (2 Timothy 3:16). Having as much as possible of His word in our hearts means that the "teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" happens all the time. Memory work may seem drudgery when looked at from outside, and yet most children delight in committing to their memory all sorts of things as they navigate the Grammar stage of classical pedagogy. Rather than have them fill their minds with haphazard information it is much wiser to feed them enduring literature, the grammar of math, geography and history, and the life giving Word of God.

Floarea Suciu is a parent of two St. Timothy's graduates and has served as Director of the school and Chairman of the Board. She currently serves on the Vision Continuity Committee.

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