Memorization and formation

by Lisa Fischbeck

The year after I graduated from college, I worked for a marketing research firm in Dallas, Texas, where I befriended Pat, a woman who worked in the firm and whose husband was in the final stages of his life. By the time I knew him, Pat’s husband had already been ailing with emphysema for years, and he was fighting hard to stay alive. As the months passed, it became clear that his body was ready to die, but his spirit was not.

I don’t remember whose idea it was, but somebody had the idea of giving Pat a book that went through the 23rd Psalm – line by line, image by image – to share with her husband. And she did. She read each line, each phrase, and talked with him about it.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside still waters.

Pat said it was amazing to see her husband relax more and more as they went through that Psalm.

Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For thou art with me….

She said that reading this Psalm together gave them the opportunity to talk with each other about their faith and their fears in ways they had never talked with each other before. She said that she watched her husband come to a place of sweet acceptance, of comfort, of peace. He died that night. And was received in the arms of the loving shepherd. The Good Shepherd.

I’ve thought of this story through the years, especially on the fourth Sunday of Easter each year when we read the 23rd psalm as part of our Good Shepherd Sunday.

I’ve thought of this story as a priest, too, when I’ve had occasion to be with people as they prepare for death, or as they slip slowly into dementia. I have been repeatedly amazed how the poems and songs of childhood and young adulthood stay with us until the end.

Last year, I visited an elderly member of my congregation, now in a nursing home. For most of the visit, Jane just sat there, staring off into space. And when I offered prayers, her affect did not change. But when I started to say the Lord’s Prayer, she turned and looked straight at me, and started to say the words along with me. Not all of them, but some. Same thing when I sang the doxology.

I thought about these experiences as events unfolded during the week of the Boston Marathon bombing as well. If I, or someone I loved, were injured in a blast, If my house were evacuated while heavily armed police searched for a terrorist, a) would I remember to pray? and b) what would my prayer be?

What would your prayer be?

The prayers we learn in our youth stay with us in our old age. The prayers we learn in our time of comfort stay with us in our time of need. I wonder, then, what are we learning now that will be with us then?

And more…. We say that we are formed by our liturgy. The words we say in our Sunday liturgy are not offered willy nilly. They have been written and vetted and selected with great care, not just the care of our congregation’s liturgy brewers, but with the care of the Anglican Communion from whose prayer books and conventions gathered they come. Anglicans take the words of our prayers very seriously, because we deeply understand that these prayers form our faith and us.

Ideally, too, the words and the phrases and the prayers themselves get so deeply embedded in our memory and our soul, that they pop up in our time of need or celebration and make us mindful of God’s presence with us.

God is with us in our times of sorrow and in our times of joy, at our beginning and at our end. As the psalmist says, The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in. How do we prepare ourselves to remind ourselves of this?

One of the downsides of the move toward more contemporary language in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is that we lost some of the classic and what were then the more familiar translations of these psalms, canticles and prayers. Parents were left to wonder which version of the Lord’s Prayer to teach their children. The Psalter version of Psalm 23 doesn’t ring as poetically as the old King James. Add to that our commitment as a mission church to use different rites from one season of the year to another, which makes it harder to “inwardly digest” the words or phrases of any one rite. They don’t then get into our bones.

Beyond the Creed, the Sanctus and the Lord’s Prayer, probably what we repeat the most are the songs: Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing and What Wondrous Love. Good. We would benefit from more.

So the Advocate is trying something new in our life together. We are identifying some canticles of the church and verses of Scripture to commit to memory. Psalm 23 for starters, then the Phos Hilaron (O Gracious Light). Then maybe Psalm 121: I will lift up mine eyes to the hills… Or Psalms 139 (selected verses). We are going to make a list and focus on one each month. Then gather to recite them together at the end of each month. For our purposes, we are going to use the King James Version of each, finding those words that endeth in “th” to be a bit more poetic and soothing or inspiring, and therefore more suited to our purpose.

This commitment dovetailed nicely with something else we have decided to start.

The Angelus Revisited

It is not uncommon for Episcopal communities to provide a regular gathering for Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer during the week. These peaceful rites are an important and formative part of our Anglican tradition (some would even say central), They provide an anchor in the midst of weekday busyness, a comfort and blessing even for those church members who aren’t able to get there every day. Increasingly, though, especially in urban and suburban churches, membership is scattered far and wide during the week. As a mission without a building, my congregation is further hampered by not having a single identifiable public neighborhood location in which to gather through the week.

Still, we are finding a way to prayer together.

There is an old custom of the Roman Catholic Church of praying the Angelus. This custom is perhaps best known because of the painting of that name by 19th century French painter Jean-François Millet. People scattered hither and yon would hear the church bells toll at particular times of the day — morning, noon and evening. And they would stop what they were doing and offer a prayer of thanksgiving for the Incarnation and of petition for God’s grace. Very formative!

A modern-day Angelus is made possible by the gadgets we carry. Clocks of smart phones and computers can be set to give an alarm or reminder at different times of the day. The congregation, or at least a group of those willing to try it, are now setting our clocks at 5:30 PM each day. We have agreed that at that time, wherever we are, we will offer a prayer. Not necessarily the entirety of Evening Prayer, but at least a psalm or canticle agreed upon each month. We do so, knowing that others of the congregation are praying at the same time.

Our hope is that by learning these psalms and prayers by heart, by praying them together, we will be further formed in our faith, and further formed in our life together.

Together we pray. Together we are formed.

The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck is the Vicar of The Episcopal Church of the Advocate, a 21st century mission in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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