People flipping through my middle school yearbook would likely say that seventh grade was a rough year for me. There was a pair of pink, round glasses, a brief stint in the Ecology Club, and an unexplained commitment to following the voluntary school uniform. Fortunately for seventh-grade me, however, I was relatively clueless about my social standing. I knew I wasn’t in the cool kids’ club, but I was happy enough. I had friends to go to Ecology Club with.
Overall, my unpopularity was my own doing, but my parents did not help matters much. They took seriously Proverbs 22’s command to “train the young in the way they should go,” and in the 1990’s, that meant prayer before dinner, no short shorts, and regulated music intake. My parents allowed pop music, but only after a thorough inspection of the lyrics. At some point during seventh grade, I purchased Christina Aguilera’s first c.d., and I still recall my mom leaning against the kitchen sink, carefully reading over the timeless poetry of Genie in a Bottle. I watched on anxiously, and I think the words that ultimately did me in were “you gotta rub me the right way.”
Thus began the lecture I had heard a thousand times before: music sticks with you. Without your noticing, it slips into your skin, your bones, your mind, your heart. You don’t even have to listen to the lyrics consciously; the words can still shape the way you see yourself and the way you see the world. Unsurprisingly, then, my parents stuffed Christina Aguilera back into the bottle and hid the c.d. somewhere in their bedroom for the next few years.
We all have those moments later in life when we realize our mothers were right. This particular realization came to me during my graduate school class on Psalms. My mom’s anti-Christina argument, it turns out, drew on both ancient and current theologians. The old adage, lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi holds that what we pray is what we believe is what we live. The words we repeatedly hear and say eventually make their way past our ears and into our being. Or, as Holly Taylor Coolman writes, scripture “does not simply express the passions but works at the same time to mold them and change them.”
Given this formative power of words, scriptural memorization and recitation are beautiful and helpful forms of prayer. Even in this Golden Age of spontaneous prayer, there is still value in – and a place for – memorizing and reciting scripture. While it may seem monotonous or mindless, recitation, like music, reaches beyond the cognitive mind and touches the emotional and spiritual core.
I learned a lot in seventh grade, like the importance of reducing your ecological footprint. Some things took until my teen years to sink in, like the link between fashion and popularity. Even now, I’m still learning other things, like how and why to pray. With age, however, I also realize just how much I learned as a child from saying the Lord’s Prayer at church while wedged between my mother and my brother, from praying the Rosary at Religious Ed Class while kneeling in a circle with my friends, from whispering bits of the Psalms while staring sleepless at the ceiling. Looking back, I am wildly grateful that I spent my childhood soaking in the Word of God, rather than in the words of Christina Aguilera.
Just as my mom said, all those words were shaping my spirit. I did not create the faith I hold now; I inherited it. I memorized it until I learned it until I internalized it. To this day, then, I continue to memorize and recite and pray new passages, hoping to continue shaping my spirit and forming my faith. I recall, then, not the words of Christina but those of Proverbs 22:6: “train the young in the way they should go; even when old, they will not swerve from it.”