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Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Cathedrals of Memory: A Word Shaped Life

In a recent Sunday’s New York Times Magazine I read the often interesting “Lives” essay that closes the publication each week. Tom Chaffin, a visiting scholar at Emory University tells the story of his recovery from brain surgery to remove a tumor. The following day a physician approached him asking if he would name all the animals he could think of. Chaffin could only name four. Chaffin writes,

“Then about a day or so later, while working with a speech therapist, I found that I could recall the first dozen or so lines of a favorite poem, Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of the Open Road’:

‘Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me, leaving wherever I choose.’

I soon discovered that I could repeat—and find solace in—other bits of cherished poetry and song lyrics long commited to memory: shards of Whitman, Wallace Stevens, Bob Dylan, Cole Porter and others.”

Months later, after fully recovering, Chaffin finds himself still puzzling over the recall of poetry when all else was forgotten. He closes the essay with this:

“I’ve since learned that an ability to repeat memorized passages from poems and the like is a common trait among expressive aphasia patients. Even so, I can’t help thinking of those words and images of my interior life as essential landmarks in finding my way back to the ouside world. Those lines that came back to me, when all other words failed, provided me with a geography of hope, like some distant but clearly visible shoreline.”

Essential landmarks of an interior life. . . . .Doesn’t this make us wonder what we would remember in such an instance? What is most deeply stored in our memory? When my late grandmother had no recall of anyone around her she could still recall the words of hymns, scripture texts and oft-repeated prayers.

More fascinating to ponder is the way these “landmarks” of memory must undoubtedly steer our course. Nothing more shapes our life than the content of our memories. Perhaps this is why the Psalmist says things like, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you,” and “but his delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law he meditates day and night.” The question we must ask is whether our memory is moored in Wisdom or are we tossed about on the ever shifting seas of popular culture. Despite their popularity, the wisdom quotient of Whitman and Dylan remains debatable.

There must be some prescriptive guidance in Chaffin’s discovery. What if we thought of our memory like it were a building project? And what if we thought of our building project as a cathedral? How would we build? What materials would we choose? This is how I am thinking about Scripture the past few years; essential landmarks of an interior life. I suppose I first learned it from Maxie Dunnam, who taught me his daily practice of rehearsing Colossians 1:29. He says aloud, “Maxie, the secret is simply this: Christ in you, yes-Christ in you, bringing with him the hope of all the glorious things to come.” You see, this isn’t a Scripture memory program. It’s a daily rehearsal. This simple affirmation started me on a Word-pilgrimage that is slowly forming a well contoured landscape of Scripture in my soul.

“Consider this guidance from Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa along these same lines: “God says to the prophet, ‘Take and eat this scroll, gobble it up, swallow it.’ There is a huge difference between simply reading or studying a book, and swallowing it. In the first case, the book remains outside; the relationship with the Word is mediated and detached. The Word has only passed by way of the eyes or the brain of the proclaimer; a sort of simple decanting takes place, from the pages of books to the ears of the listeners. . . In the second case—the swallowed book—the Word becomes ‘incarnate’ in the proclaimer, becomes ‘word made flesh,’ a living, efficacious word. The relationship between proclaimer and Word is immediate and personal. There is a sort of mysterious identification, which gives one indeed to think (by analogy, of course) of the incarnation. Proclaimers who swallow the Word and welcome it into their belly, as Mary did, allow the Word of God to become incarnate again and to ‘dwell among men.’ The Word swallowed is a Word assimilated by a human being, even though this is a passive assimilation (as in the ase of the Eucharist); the proclaimer is in a sate of ‘being assimilated’ by the Word, subjugated and overcome by it as the more powerful vital principle.” The Mystery of God’s Word, p.30-31.

Bit by bit I am growing in my practice of swallowing the Word of God, of hiding these words in my heart and I’m finding myself more and more at home—almost inside of them. They are literally forming my memory through simple acts of daily remembering them. For the past few years, each morning in the shower I repeat John 15:1-17 aloud. As I tie my shoes I say Psalm 121. These past several weeks I rehearse Colossians 3 as I have a cup of coffee. As I am walking down the sidewalk to the office I whisper Psalm 1. Each night before closing my eyes I whisper Psalm 127. Every seventh day it’s Psalm 131. At every meal together we chant some word of scripture aloud as a family. Through the 40 days of Lent it’s been, “Humble thyself in the sight of the Lord and he will lift you up.” Post Easter we are having fun with, “Wake up, O sleeper, and rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you.” I think they are adding up to something. These small simple daily hidden acts of remembering are building a cathedral of memory. I once practiced a devotional life primarily rooted in my own words. I feel like I’ve discovered the obvious reality of a devotional life primarily composed by God’s words. And I’m finding that bit by bit in the most simple ways these landmarks are landing me in a geography of hope.
posted by John David Walt | at 4/11/2007 03:50:00 PM



Blogger eli said...

Teach, teacher. Thanks JD for putting a couple of puzzle pieces together for me this morning.

8:55 AM EDT  

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