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Memorize the Reasons for Your Faith

Kevin Vost

For when a man’s will is ready to believe, he loves the truth he believes, he thinks out and takes to heart whatever reasons he can find in support thereof; and in this way human reason does not exclude the merit of faith, but is a sign of greater merit. —St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 1. a.10)

We say that art of memory is best which Tully teaches. —St. Albert the Great (De Bono, IV, q.2. a. 2)

Have you ever been asked to explain or defend your Catholic beliefs—perhaps on the papacy or on the adoration of the Virgin Mary—and given your best answer but walked away a little disappointed in yourself? You know in your heart the beauty, truth, and goodness of your Catholic faith. You know it is eminently reasonable. And yet, when you are challenged to explain why you believe such things, or show where those beliefs are in the Bible, or to show they are not mere “traditions of men,” well, the words just don’t seem to come.

There is no reason to blame yourself. Our beliefs form a vast, interconnected network of the truths of reason and revelation, developed by Christ’s Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit for nearly 2,000 years. That’s a lot to remember (and maybe your memory isn’t the greatest, either).

Still, wouldn’t it be nice if there were a method to remember the key reasons for things like why we acknowledge the primacy of the pope, the adoration of Mary, or the proper roles of the Bible and Tradition in the one true faith? Many Christ-loving Protestants, after all, can cite, literally chapter and verse, scriptural texts that support their beliefs. Too bad the great Catholic theological doctors did not develop methods to help us remember the fundamentals of our faith.

But hang on a minute—they did.

The art of memory for apologetics

Buried deep within the heart of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica (II-II, q. 49 a. 2) is the Angelic Doctor’s simple, four-step prescription for how we can perfect our memories. His teacher, St. Albert the Great, in De Bono (On the Good), recommends the same system of memory improvement. As our opening quotation shows, St. Albert considered this method, invented by the Greek poet Simonides and transmitted to the Latin world by the Roman orator and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero, (i.e., “Tully”), simply put, “the best.”

At a time when the reemerging thought of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle was perceived by many as a threat to the Church, Albert and Aquinas separated the abundant harvest of wheat from the occasional pieces of chaff in Aristotle’s writings and used them to help erect the mighty bulwark of a perennial philosophy showing how reason and faith go hand in hand in pointing us toward God.

Among his many achievements in the fourth century B.C., Aristotle wrote about the nature of human memory and how it functions. Cicero, three centuries later, wrote about the perfection of human memory—of practical ways to improve it. Albert and Aquinas, in the thirteenth century A.D., integrated the theories of the two and transformed an ancient “art of memory” (art deriving from the word artificial or man-made—something that man, employing his reason, contrives to perfect his natural memory abilities) from its origins in rhetoric (as a means for speakers to remember the key points of their speeches in exact order) to the realm of ethics (how to remember the things we need to know to live out Christian lives.)

Both great saints wrote about this “art of memory” in the context of their writings on the virtue of prudence or practical wisdom. Echoing Cicero, Albert wrote that the three key components of prudence are memory, understanding, and foresight. To achieve prudent goals in the future, we must act according to our present understanding, guided by the memories of what we have learned in the past. In fact, Albert considered memory the most important of the three: “Among all those things which point towards ethical wisdom, the most necessary is trained memory, because from past events we are guided in the present and the future, and not from the converse” (De Bono, IV, q. 2., a. 2). If we are to live our lives as Catholics and share and defend the wisdom our faith, we need to know and remember the essential truths of that faith.

I am not talking here about a method for verbatim, word-for-word memorization of scriptural passages (though the method can be adapted to that noble purpose.) The ancient Greek and Roman developers of the “art of memory” distinguished between “memory for words” and “memory for things.” This Catholic art of memory is primarily the latter a memory for things. But what kind of things?

St. Augustine once noted that if he were to explain the faith to a non-Christian, even if he had memorized all of Scripture, he would not proceed to recite them verbatim but would summarize and present the fundamental tenets of the faith, then guide the person to his or her own reading. The kinds of “things” to be remembered in a Catholic art of memory, then, are those fundamentals of the faith.

Four rules of memory

In the book Memorize the Faith!, I showed how this Catholic art of memory can be used for the memorization of things like the Ten Commandments, the capital sins, the virtues, the beatitudes, the sacraments, the mysteries of the rosary, the exact order of all the 73 books in the Old and New Testaments, and more. It worked pretty well. (Indeed, one special reward for my wife and me was to observe 11-year-old John Paul Fitzmaurice use the method to recite the names of all 265 popes from memory, in order, at a homeschooling talent show!) I also suggested that these methods could be applied specifically to apologetics—though perhaps that was more easily written about than done!

Well, it’s time now to get down to business and provide a glimpse at how these methods can be used for apologetics, so that you may be “always prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15). Aquinas, with characteristically sublime simplicity, boiled the perfection of memory down to four simple rules:

  • “First, when a man wishes to remember a thing, he should take some suitable yet unwonted illustration of it, since the unwonted strikes us more, and so makes a greater and stronger impression on the mind.
  • “Secondly, whatever a man wishes to retain in his memory he must carefully consider to put in order, so that he may pass easily from one memory to another.
  • “Thirdly, we must be anxious and earnest about the things we wish to remember, because the more a thing is impressed on the mind, the less it is liable to slip out of it.
  • “Fourthly, we should often reflect on the things we wish to remember . . . wherefore when we reflect on a thing frequently, we quickly call it to mind, through passing from one thing to another by a kind of natural order” (Memorize the Faith!, p. 26, citing ST,II-II, 49,1, number and emphasis added).

To perfect our memories then, we need to form mental images, place them in a certain order, concentrate on them intently, and rehearse or repeat them often. Okay, let’s try it.

A memory primer on Petrine primacy

Welcome to St. Peter’s. Can you see in your mind’s eye the façade of a magnificent cathedral? Imagine, too, that the sign in front tells you this is “St. Peter’s.” We’ll imagine it looks something along the lines of the Notre Dame de Reims Cathedral in France.

Now, imagine that you are walking along a sidewalk approaching this towering monument to God. At the first location of our memory cathedral, at the end of the sidewalk (location one), right before the base of the steps, you look up at the great cathedral and notice it sits upon a massive and indestructible rock. Can you see this in your imagination? Please take a few seconds and picture it vividly in your mind’s eye.

Next, at the top of the steps (location two), you find resting on the top step a giant golden key, like the symbolic “key to the city” a mayor might give to a visiting celebrity or dignitary.

You look up and spy the massive central front door (location three). You notice it is locked, and as you turn to head back for that key, the door opens from the inside. You are greeted by a fully uniformed naval captain, with a hat on his head and a coat bedecked with flashing war medals.

Right above that central door your eyes are drawn to a large round stained glass window (location four), and depicted upon it in glorious colors is a hugely muscular man. Straining at chains upon crumbling pillars, you can tell by the long hair and the Herculean physique that this is none other than Samson.

Looking up to the left over the doorway you spy the inset statue of a rugged-looking older man. Bedecked in white and black, he’s wearing a medieval Dominican tunic and hooded cape. With book and quill in hand, determined look on his face, and “the shoulders of a giant,” it’s neither bird nor plane—no, it’s—St. Albert the Great! And there (location five), you realize that this great medieval memory master is conversing with an ancient, bearded shepherd—robe , sandals, staff, and all.

Got them? If not, repeat them a time or two, in order. In the words of Aquinas, “Repititio est mater memoria” (“repetition is the mother of memory”).

What the images stand for

Now, let’s give our minds a breather, as we review what we’ve learned.

Location Image
1. End of sidewalk Giant rock
2. Top of steps Golden key
3. Front central door Naval captain
4. Stained glass window Samson
5. St. Albert statue Shepherd

Got them? So what exactly have we memorized? Well, let’s suppose you are asked why you believe that Christ gave Peter a special place of leadership among the twelve apostles. If you can remember those locations and images, this is what you know:

You walk up to St. Peter’s, and the rock visible from the walk at location one reminds you that Peter was the rock upon which Christ built his Church, as we learn from Matthew 16:18.

The golden key on the steps at location two reminds us that in the verse next verse Jesus handed Peter the keys to his kingdom (16:19).

The naval captain, who opens the front door at location three, reminds us that in the fifth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus chose to preach from Peter’s boat and declared Peter would become a fisher of men, which is why the Catholic Church is called the Barque (i.e., boat) of Peter.

The depiction of the mighty Samson in the window at location four reminds us that Christ prayed that Peter would strengthen his brethren with his unfailing strength (Luke 22:32). Peter would become, as it were, Christ’s strongman. His strength would not only be used to pull down pagan pillars but would strengthen that pillar and bulwark of the truth, the Church (1 Timothy 3:15).

At location five, the site of the statue of St. Albert the Great, the shepherd reminds us of that Peter was called to become Christ’s shepherd on earth when Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:18).

So do you see then how this simple exercise in memory locations and images can give you a start on an organized defense of the primacy of Peter? You can easily recall now that Christ made Peter the rock upon which he built his Church, gave him the keys to the kingdom, made him the captain of the barque of the Church. The image of Samson will remind you that Christ prayed that Peter would strengthen us, and the image of the shepherd will remind you that Christ called Peter to feed his sheep.

Of course, there are many other reasons why we acknowledge the primacy of Peter. A complete “memory cathedral,” inside and out, could easily be erected to hold forty or more locations, images, and reasons from Scripture and Tradition for our beliefs about the papacy. You might care to remember exactly from where in Scripture or Tradition these reasons come. Well, additional images can be associated with our images to show from just where they derive. Our third and fourth reasons, for example, come from Luke’s Gospel. Simply imagine the captain and Samson sitting on a winged bull, (a traditional image for Luke), and now you have it. (And, yes, there are special methods, too, if you’d care to cite the chapters and verses.)

Maybe you would like to memorize the reasons for all kinds of Catholic beliefs. Once learned, the locations of the memory cathedral become like a mental notebook that you can write upon with all kinds of new mental images. In other words, once you learn the ordered places of a memory cathedral with forty locations, you could use the same locations to organize your memory for the reasons for our beliefs about Mary, the saints, the Bible and Tradition, the Sacraments—you name it.

Only a beginning

This is but the smallest taste of how the Catholic art of memory can help you memorize the reasons for your faith. And once you have memorized the basics, the easier it will be to remember their deeper meanings and the arguments behind them (for example, how to counter those who might argue the “rock” that was Peter was really but a pebble).

If you’re hungry for more on the Catholic art of memory, chew on the cited works of Albert and Aquinas, or try a serving of my Memorize the Faith! or St. Albert the Great. If you are still not satisfied, know that Memorize the Reasons! is coming soon.  Its menu will include complete, fully-furnished forty-location memory cathedrals—St. Peter’s, Notre Dame, and even “The First Catholic Bible Church.” We’ll use them memorize the reasons for our beliefs about the papacy, Marian dogma, and the roles of Scripture and Tradition.

Good reasoning, good memorizing, and bon appétit!

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