It is a sunny Sunday morning in a typical London suburb. I am doing some quick work in the garden before Mass. My next-door neighbors are Evangelical Christians, originally from India. This morning, the grandmother, wearing a sari, is walking up and down with her little granddaughter, and when we stop to chat, she tells me that she is teaching the little girl a Bible verse for the child to commit to memory. As I resume my work, chopping away at an overgrown hedge, I find I am echoing the verse too, and it follows me into the house as I hurry about tidying things and getting ready to cycle off to Mass, reminding me that Christ loves me and died for me.
How often do we teach children things to learn by memory? I can’t imagine that there are very many — if any — other families in my local area where a child is beginning Sunday morning by learning a Bible verse by heart. But at one time it would have been normal. In my 1960s childhood, I recall elderly people — brought up in traditional Anglican households in the vanished world of Edwardian England, pre-1914 — telling me about having to learn a collect, or a Bible verse, or sometimes part of a hymn, as a routine part of Sunday morning. In general, it seemed to be a happy memory — or, at least, not one filled with misery or anguish. And the verses and prayers had in many cases stayed with them down the years.
I too learned things by heart: At school we were taught the Ten Commandments this way, and the Magnificat, and various Psalms (“The Lord is my Shepherd,” “Out of the depths,” and so on). And we were still doing this during what was supposed to be a very revolutionary period: In 1968 — the “summer of love” — one got mixed messages with “pop, pot, and the Pill” coming from the mass media, while standard Shakespeare and Chaucer dominated in the classroom and rather silly new hymns were beginning to oust traditional ones at school Masses.
During the 1970s, when a certain amount of liturgical and catechetical chaos was beginning to run riot in the Church, I remember Pope Paul VI vainly trying to plead that doctrinal truths could not flourish where the uses of memory were not valued. Some things simply do have to be committed to memory, and taught in a way that ensures this. The expression “learning by heart” is itself significant: Things committed to the heart remain there, and are cherished.
The Church has always set considerable store by the whole notion of memory. We are expected to know prayers and familiar hymns by heart. It is still done, and children find it easy. Recently, giving out prizes for a school project with which I was involved, I visited a number of Catholic primary schools. It was impossible not to be touched, every time, by the sight and sound of morning assembly — children gathered together, a mutual “Good morning,” a hymn, a chorus of voices raised in “Our Father, Who art in Heaven, ” and “Hail Mary, full of grace.” More than once, watching the children from beneath half-closed eyes, I was struck suddenly by the thought that the children — eyes (for the most part) tightly shut, hands firmly together — were concentrating more sincerely than I.
Today, I still use prayers that I was taught by heart as a child — the Prayer to a Guardian Angel, grace before meals, the “Eternal rest” for someone who has died, and more. When babysitting a small (non-Catholic) child some years ago, I started to say the old prayer, “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, bless the bed that I lie on,” and she was enchanted, interrupting me to tell me joyfully that her grandmother had taught her that, and happily saying it along with me. A lovely old prayer binds people together, makes for family bonds, delivers something precious.
Knowing something “by heart” opens up paths to God. The formula for confession, the ritual of the sign of the cross, the responses at Mass. Pope Benedict XVI has urged that Catholics learn the Latin Pater Noster (which is easy to say and sing) and other basic prayers, and these are included in the small handbook version of the new Catechism. There is something glorious about the sound of hundreds of voices joining together to sing the Credo. With the increasing ease of international travel and the gathering together of vast crowds for great events — World Youth Days, papal audiences, crowds in St. Peter’s Square — the use of common prayers, known by heart in a common language, is going to be more and more important.
To have prayers, and other basics of your Faith, in your heart is a very strengthening thing. To know the Ten Commandments, and the Beatitudes, and some of the Psalms, is to hold yourself in readiness for times when you may not have access to the books or other references that you need. Such basic knowledge unites Christians across denominations, builds bridges, celebrates a common heritage.
Modern Britain is, frankly, in many ways a depressing place. Our suburbs are litter-strewn and increasingly violent. There is rising drunkenness, especially among teenagers, and an increasing amount of vandalism and violent, angry behavior, with much public shrieking of obscenities. Teachers express well-founded fear of attack from pupils and parents. Relationships seem brittle — a majority of births are now out of wedlock, and most cohabiting couples break up within a few years. Probably one of the most useful things that a grandmother can do on a spring morning is to teach her grandchild to commit to heart some verses of the Bible that she can thus come to cherish and value.
Joanna Bogle is an author and broadcaster living in London.