Poetry and Prayer: How Memorisation Shapes the Soul
I once asked my godfather what poem I should memorise, and he told me, “Choose carefully because it will change the landscape of your soul.”
So I chose “The Shield of Achilles.” And memorising the words changed me; it placed images in my mind and deepened my understanding of the poem. “A plane without a feature, bare and brown” became an image of a dry and dusty landscape cloaked by a hot breeze – now a familiar place. Instead of words, the poem became a tapestry of places and people, some dancing, feasting, and pouring out libations, others surviving a world of despair. Once I memorised the poem and contemplated the images as they appeared in mind-wandering moments, I found a new, fuller knowledge of the poem. In fact if I ever want to know a poem, I have to memorise it to even begin to broach an understanding. Through memorisation pictures develop, and I can dwell on both the meaning of the words and the images and symbols as they take shape in my mind; it is then I begin to know the poem. And as the images shape my soul, I see connections to other things through them. Now when I see “ three pale figures were led forth and bound / To three posts driven upright in the ground,” I also see three men, each on a cross, one who is there for the salvation of the world. When I hear the axioms of the boy “who’d never heard / Of any world where promises were kept, / Or one could weep because another wept,” I see contrasted worlds of love and hopelessness, both worlds I know.
I recently finished Anthony Bloom’s Beginning to Pray where he applies this concept of knowing to prayer.
Bloom says we need to be attentive in our prayer. When praying, we must choose a prayer that makes sense to us, is worthy of us, and is worthy of God. He says, “The first act of prayer is to choose such words of prayer as are completely true to what you are, words which you are not ashamed of, which express you adequately and are worthy of you–and then offer them to God with all the intelligence of which you are capable. You must also put all the heart you can into an act of worship . . .” (40) To do this, he instructs us to choose either a prayer of our own or a prayer written by another, and choose something we are capable of concentrating on, for God does not receive an expression of love if our heart is not in it. So, when we are teaching ourselves to pray, the first thing to do is choose a prayer, and Bloom says we must understand this prayer “with all the richness and precision it possesses” (55).
He presents three kinds of prayer: 1–spontaneous prayer, 2–short vocal prayers, or 3–“ready made” prayers
Spontaneous prayer is the kind of prayer that “gushes from our own souls.” This kind of prayer, he says, is possible when we have become so aware of God it calls out in us a response of praise, or when we despair knowing there is no chance of salvation apart from God’s. However, these are two infrequent extremes, so we cannot always pray from one of these states.
A short vocal prayer is one that is used as a constant background prayer throughout the whole day.
We are not always capable of these first two kinds of prayer, especially without training ourselves to be; when you cannot pray from spontaneity, you can pray from conviction. To do this, Bloom says we should learn and know enough prayers that at any moment the right prayer will be available to us. To do this, he suggests marking passages that move us or express something already within ourselves and memorising these passages. Then one day, when we cannot use spontaneous prayer, “[we] will discover that these words come up and offer themselves to [us] as a gift of God, as a gift of the Church, as a gift of holiness, helping our simple lack of strength.”
To choose a prayer that is a true expression of our love, that we can recall and apply, we must know the prayer. So we should choose the prayers we memorise keeping in mind they will change us, and we will gain a deeper understanding of them and of God. The prayers will shape our soul, and we want the shape of our soul to reflect holy things. When we memorise, we become immersed in the prayers and focus our concentration on truth, so as we dwell, for example, on the beatitudes, we wonder what it means to inherit the earth, to be filled, to see God. And as our understanding of these ideas expands and takes shape, our souls change also.
Through contemplation, we develop an ache for God, like a pain or a sorrow, but we cannot pray constantly until we embrace this longing and gain an attitude of broken heartedness and teach ourselves to pay attention. Bloom also says it is not enough to learn a prayer by heart, but the prayer must be lived; once we pray a morning prayer, we are to live that prayer throughout the day. The words of our prayers will come alive in us and “begin to go deep into [our] will and to mould [our] will and [our] body, because it is with [our] body that [we] have to apply commandments.”
So here are some passages, prayers, and quotes that I have memorised or will soon attempt to memorise.
The Lord’s Prayer which Christ gives us Himself.
The Jesus Prayer which is a summation of the whole Gospel.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Have mercy upon me, O God,
According to Your lovingkindness;
According to the multitude of Your tender mercies,
Blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
And cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my transgressions,
And my sin is always before me.
Against You, You only, have I sinned,
And done this evil in Your sight—
That You may be found just when You speak,
And blameless when You judge.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
And in sin my mother conceived me.
Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts,
And in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Make me hear joy and gladness,
That the bones You have broken may rejoice.
Hide Your face from my sins,
And blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from Your presence,
And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation,
And uphold me by Your generous Spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors Your ways,
And sinners shall be converted to You.
Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
The God of my salvation,
And my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips,
And my mouth shall show forth Your praise.
For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
You do not delight in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,
A broken and a contrite heart—
These, O God, You will not despise.
Do good in Your good pleasure to Zion;
Build the walls of Jerusalem.
Then You shall be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness,
With burnt offering and whole burnt offering;
Then they shall offer bulls on Your altar.
O Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace. Help me in all things to rely upon Your holy will. In every hour of the day reveal Your will to me. Bless my dealings with all who surround me. Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with firm conviction that Your will governs all. In all my deeds and words guide my thoughts and feelings. In unforeseen events let me not forget that all are sent by You. Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others. Give me strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring. Direct my will, teach me to pray. Pray You Yourself in me.
Lord, how they have increased who trouble me!
Many are they who rise up against me.
Many are they who say of me,
“There is no help for him in God.”
But You, O Lord, are a shield for me,
My glory and the One who lifts up my head.
I cried to the Lord with my voice,
And He heard me from His holy hill.
I lay down and slept;
I awoke, for the Lord sustained me.
I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people
Who have set themselves against me all around.
Arise, O Lord;
Save me, O my God!
For You have struck all my enemies on the cheekbone;
You have broken the teeth of the ungodly.
Salvation belongs to the Lord.
Your blessing is upon Your people.
Prayer for Enlightenment
Shine within my heart, loving Master, the pure light of Your divine knowledge, and open the eyes of my mind that I may understand Your teachings. Instill in me also reverence for Your blessed commandments, so that having conquered sinful desires I may pursue a spiritual way of life, thinking and doing all those things that are pleasing to You.
“Whatever a man loves he inevitably clings to, and in order not to lose it he rejects everything that keeps him from it. So he who loves god cultivates pure prayer, driving out every passion that keeps him from it.” St. Maximos the confessor.
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