Embodying the Word

How is it that the word becomes flesh?  We may find some help toward an answer in a post at the New Yorker in which Brad Leithauser reflects on the importance of memorizing poetry, even in an age of smart phones and instant Google access.  We should memorize poetry, he concludes, because doing so is a way of making the words of poetry a part of the body.

The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen. Robson puts the point succinctly: “If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.”

The same could be said of the memorization of scripture. It is not some tool for a “sword drill,” a go to proof text.  The reason we should memorize passages of scripture isn’t so that we will have them at the ready when we need them.  To memorize is to make scripture deeply a part of us, embedded in the physical stuff of our bodies.  If I want to embody the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, a good way toward this is to make those teachings a part of myself, to change the patterns of my brain around those ancient words.  It is a thought that makes me want to spend more time memorizing scripture and poetry, and everywhere they meet.

About Ragan Sutterfield

Ragan Sutterfield is a writer and Episcopal seminarian sojourning from his native Arkansas in Alexandria, Virginia. He is the author of Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us, Farming as a Spiritual Discipline and a contributor to the book Sacred Acts: How churches are working to protect the Earth’s climate. Ragan’s articles and essays have appeared in a variety of magazines including Triathlete, The Oxford American, and Books & Culture. He works to live the good life with his wife Emily and daughter Lillian.

  • http://snarkthebold.blogspot.com/ Edo

    Yes, yes, yes. I started memorizing Scripture last year, to offset the nagging feeling that I couldn’t find my way around the Good News I was supposed to proclaim. What I discovered was that it memorization was transformative; that by the time I stalled committing passages to memory, I was a subtly different person for the experience of knowing them.

    Well said.