The Church as Memory Palace
Why We Need to Take Our Children to Liturgy
Have you ever found yourself remembering a place while you think? I remember the first time I noticed this habit in myself. In 7th grade, I went to my mom, also an avid reader, one night after finishing an assigned book. “Mom, I just realized something. This entire book seems to be overlaid in my mind with the bus route through my friend’s neighborhood.” She related to the experience, but we didn’t know what to call it. Fast forward a couple of decades, and I found out that there’s a name for this sort of thing: memory palaces.
Keeping track of stories through memories of places is so effective that the world’s best memory champions use the technique to win competitions. The practice is simple: think of a place with which you are very familiar. Imagine yourself in it, and imagine a prompt to what you’d like to remember. For instance, if I wanted to remember the day my daughter was baptized, I might imagine myself by the font in church, along with a plaque reading 711. This would remind me that she was baptized on July 11.
But the practice also extends to larger thought patterns. Remembering a long story, a poem, a group of names, prayers, an entire book of the Bible, can all be helped along with the memory palace technique. It can even be used to sort out ideas that haven’t happened yet, to help solve problems or match prayers to needs.
Memory palaces were common tools in the early and medieval Church. Scholars, teachers, and preachers used the method to memorize the scriptures, long sermons, and even the traditional teachings passed down through the fathers. The remarkably universal faith was spread not only by letters, but also by the trained memories of Christians. St. Augustine devotes several pages of the “Memory” section of his Confessions to describe the practice of recalling memories. Memory can be trained not only to remember the past, but to envision the future. Simply put, we can picture what we’re going to do before we do it. God can also work on our memories, not only by giving visions, but also by shaping the memories. We don’t worship things we see or imagine, but they can point us toward God. Our memories can become God-shaped, in the sense that everything we have experienced in life can point us toward God.
As St. Augustine reminds us, these interactions take place in the “palaces and fields of our memories,” the places with which we are familiar. The more familiar we are with a place, the more layers of memories we can imagine there. The transformation of memories into holy memory happens – you might have guessed – in Eucharist, giving thanks.
Now, take a moment to think of the places that shape your daily life. Your home, your kitchen, your walks, the church… What if you tried to remember in the church building? What if the place of Eucharist was the place that your memory was trained around? Think of the solace and hope if you recall the memories of a loved one alongside the icon of the Resurrection. How would your vision of the future change if the Theotokos were before your eyes? If you struggle with a passion, examine your soul beside St. George slaying the dragon. What courage to remember alongside Archangel Michael with his spear in the devil!
Since you cannot be alone in the Church, your memories would also include your fellow Christians. Imagine praying for a light to shine in your despair or a person with whom to share joy, and recalling the parishioners who usually stand just there beside you. What would your memories smell like if incense filled them? How would the memory of harsh words sound with the choir singing over them?
This week, as we celebrate St. Barbara, patron saint of architects, I began to think of how all of us, and especially our children, are formed by the places around us. A holy place, shaped around the Remembering of God, is a sacred gift. We want our Church to be our children’s memory palaces, as well as our own. The gift of familiarity is granted through repetition. Our minds can only be formed by the Church and church buildings when we gather regularly. It’s not always easy to bring children to church. But it will be a far harder life for them if we neglect the shaping of their memories.
Going to church gives our children the space to lift their memories, with their hearts, toward the Lord. Supposing they grow familiar enough that their minds take on the shape of the Liturgy. Perhaps then they will be ready to say, when the time comes, “Remember me when you come into Your kingdom.”
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