Attention is the beginning of devotion.
In elementary school I loved the rhythms of “memory work”—from reading the Scripture passage in class to taking it home to be written out again or pasted on the fridge or recited aloud with my hands covering the verses. And I was glad to have new words and mysterious phrases in my mind.
Sadly this communal grade school activity did not work its way into a personal adult devotional practice. In recent years I have memorized mostly academic formulas and facts, along with a few poems and favorite sentences. But I have not engaged with Scripture this way.
I’m sure I am missing out on an enriching experience, though. I think of friends who recalled passages in times of deep sorrow or overwhelming joy. I also think of the testimonies of those imprisoned for their faith who clung to memorized verses in the solitary darkness.
A New Yorker piece I read on the virtues of memorizing poetry pointed out that “if we do not learn [poetry] by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.” I am sure it is the same with Scripture.
So I am attempting to get back into the practice of memory work.
I have started, as perhaps most do, with a psalm—Psalm 103. It happened to be a recent “verse of the day” on my smartphone. Sometimes I read a digital version of Scripture or listen to an audio; other times I read verses I have copied out or use a Bible.
But whichever way I read Scripture, I read it as a work about memory: a startling revelation of God’s character that reminds me of all he has done—in the past and in the present, for me and for all. “Let all that I am praise the Lord; may I never forget the good things he does for me,” says David. I too long for that faithful recollection.
The version I have settled on is the New Living Translation. To me, the “let” language this translation employs speaks of invitation and reliance on God. I remember that I am listening here—letting God’s truth go through me as I continue to develop my memory for his unfailing mercy. As I memorize this passage, I hope I will also personalize it as a kind of prayer, recalling particular instances of God’s goodness and offering up my struggles to a Father who “knows how weak we are; he remembers that we are only dust.”
I have only been with this psalm for a short while. My memory still trails off and ultimately fails to hold it in its entirety. Some days I still neglect to look at it—or any Scripture—at all.
But I am determined to return again and again to the Word—to attune myself to the insistent heart of God and let myself fall into the beat of its persistent mercy.
(Originally published in The Banner magazine)