Learning by heart

Learning by heart


It was a beautiful autumnal morning as I walked across to chapel first thing.  A mist hung over the fields with a hazy sun shining through low on the horizon.  The apple trees stood in the orchard loaded with their fruit.  The wood pigeons cooed, some far away, some near, and after the extraordinarily busy day yesterday (the Launde Abbey “Fun Day”) when the world and his wife seemed to be visiting, the whole world seemed today to be wrapped in peace, softness and quietness.


As I walked the words of the first poem I ever had to learn in secondary school came into my head, John Keat’s, “To Autumn.”


Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;


And as I said the words over I was glad, as I always am to find in them a response to what I was seeing and feeling.  I thought of one or two other poems I had been made to learn at school or come to though my father (a great lover of poetry) and how through the years I had come appreciate the way that words, like music, come back to us and enrich us because we have learnt them “by heart.”


It is an interesting phrase, “learning by heart.”  We don’t, of course, really learn by heart.  We learn by rote, by repeating something over and over again until our memory stores it.  But in the process some words call out to us and delight us and become etched into our feelings.  The pulling of these words out of our store of memories at opportune moments enriches our experience and widens and deepens our hearts’ response.  We greet the words as old friends we have not seen for some time.


Faith is all about learning by heart.  What we first learn as story becomes carved into our very being – and if we do not learn “by heart” as well as “by head” ours will be an empty experience.  Faith, too, has words we learn by heart: words that bring strength and comfort to difficult times and express love and praise when our hearts are so full we want to sing out loud.  When I was fifteen and lost my mother I was greatly comforted by Christ’s promise in the last verse of Matthew’s gospel,


And remember I am with you always, even to the end of the age.


I would repeat it to myself often as I waited for sleep at night.


The special power of words engraved into the memory is that the heart and mind over time have time to ponder and meditate over them.  Particularly with words of scripture as the mind turns them over the heart leaps to understanding so that old, well known passages bring out of their store new, life-giving things.  Learnt by heart words long known continue to have power, not least to surprise us.