The Practice of Memorizing Poetry

I love thinking about the ways that writing and spirituality intersect in my life. Recently I’ve been reading about a unique practice that ties the two together — the memorization of poetry. I suppose that this practice isn’t exactly unique, but it seems so given the way memorization has fallen out of favor today.

First, let’s look at the writing angle. In a recent post, writing coach Ann Kroeker says that “poetry, if we let it, can seep into us and change us with its funny, surprising, and serious ways of processing life and ideas.” It might help us with our writing by introducing us to surprising imagery and new ways of thinking. Kroeker writes:

In poetry, you’ll find freedom from some of the mechanics expected in prose, such as proper comma placement. In poetry, you’ll find fresh phrasings that throw your brain off its expected track and into novel ways of thinking and imagining. This can happen when you read a poem, but it works best when you take it to heart.


Is this something you’ve ever tried? I believe poetry memorization can serve as a playful, creative activity that will add energy, ideas, and allusions to the rest of our writing.

That might be something I’m willing to try. Poetry may have additional benefits, too. According to some, memorizing and reciting poetry is akin to a spiritual practice. In an article in iNews, Allie Esiri, a noted poetry promoter, writes:

We talk a lot about ‘mindfulness’ these days. Well, reading a poem, and giving yourself over to the movements of rhythm and meter, is an excellent way to bring about peace of mind. But better still is reciting a poem. Forming each phrase for yourself, and focusing on the lines that follow, there is little room for unbidden thoughts, and you truly lose yourself in the words.


A study by University of Cambridge into memorising poetry found that most participants described the learning of a poem by heart as an ‘enriching, life-enhancing experience’. In times of need, the poems we learn are always ours to fall back on.

Poems help us feel less alone — teenagers discover in great verse that they are not the only ones who have felt hardship or pain. And there is evidence, too, that learning poetry keeps our minds sharp. Alzheimer’s patients often respond well to poems and pieces of music they learnt when young. They’re with us for life.


Both these articles have helpful suggestions for choosing a poem and tips for memorization. So how about it? Do you think, for the sake of your spiritual and creative life, that you’re up for the challenge of memorizing a poem?



Each Friday I share some of my favorite finds related to praying or writing. If I think it could help you pray or write better, or just “be” better, I’ll include it below.

Do you have someone else’s article or post to share? Join the Contemplative Writers Facebook group, comment on today’s post on my Facebook page, or follow me on Twitter (@LisaKDeam) to nominate your favorite articles, blog posts, and books by Thursday at noon each week.

Slow Down (An Invitation) via Kelly Chripczuk ( a lovely poem to help you be in the moment)

Memorise a poem – reciting one can be as calming as mindfulness via Allie Esiri (what a wonderful idea!)

Now, Courage Looks Like This via Shawn Smucker (for days when inspiration . . . waits)

A Responsibility to Light: An Illustrated Manifesto for Creative Resilience and the Artist’s Duty in Dark Times via Maria Popova (“Feel all the things. Feel the hard things ….”)

A Writer’s Worst Fear via William Kenower (on approval, solitude, and fearless writing)

So you want to be a writer? Essential tips for aspiring novelists via Colum McCann (some practical tips)


We’re often told, these days, to try to live in the present. We know we shouldn’t dwell on the past or fret about the future. In fact, so much of contemplative prayer is about being present in the moment, in the now.

But as people of faith, there is a way in which we should also be future-minded. We’re aware that our best self lies ahead, in the person God is creating us to be. To look to the future is to keep hope alive.

This applies to other areas of our life, too. Leadership coach Peter Bregman says that for the sake of the work and the projects we really care about, we need to practice being our future selves. We should move toward what we’re becoming, even if it doesn’t feel very productive right now.

So . . . what is it that you see in your future? Do you want to write? Keep writing, even if you don’t think you’re very good. Don’t put if off! Walk toward your future writerly self.


If you want to be productive, the first question you need to ask yourself is: Who do I want to be? Another question is: Where do I want to go? Chances are that the answers to these questions represent growth in some direction. And while you can’t spend all your time pursuing those objectives, you definitely won’t get there if you don’t spend any of your time pursuing them.


Here’s the key: You need to spend time on the future even when there are more important things to do in the present and even when there is no immediately apparent return to your efforts. In other words — and this is the hard part — if you want to be productive, you need to spend time doing things that feel ridiculously unproductive.


Sometimes you need to be irresponsible with your current challenges in order to make real progress on your future self. You have to let the present just sit there, untended. It’s not going away and will never end.


Read more.

Featured Book: Finding Grace at the Center

Week Three: Prayer without Judgment or Evaluation

finding-grace-at-centerIn Finding Grace at the Center: the Beginning of Centering Prayer, a collection of essays by M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, and Thomas E. Clarke, Thomas Keating provides an extremely helpful introduction to centering prayer based on The Cloud of Unknowing, a Carthusian monk’s prayer guide for novices dated to around the 14th century.

Keating is especially careful to avoid overselling what “happens” during centering prayer. One may not expect incredible revelations or to even be fully in control of what happens during this prayer. Rather, intention becomes essential as we enter this form of prayer.

Keating writes:



“[Centering prayer] is not an end in itself, but a beginning. It is not to be done for the sake of an experience, but for the sake of its fruits in one’s life.”


“The presence of God is like the atmosphere we breathe. You can have all you want of it as long as you do not try to take possession of it and hang on to it.”


“Accept each period of centering prayer as it comes, without asking for anything, having no expectations. In that way its fruits will grow faster.”


“We always want to possess. That is why it is so hard to leg go–why we want to reflect on moments of deep peace or union in order to remember how we got there and thus how to get back. But charity is non-possessive. It gives all back to God as fast as it comes. It keeps nothing for itself.”


“Take everything that happens during the periods of centering prayer peacefully and gratefully, without putting a judgment on anything, and just let the thoughts go by. It does not matter where they come from, as long as you let them go by. Don’t worry about them.”


Read more…


Featured Article: A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind

We have many, many ways to avoid being present in the moment. We can interrupt ourselves as often as we like. And now it appears that a Harvard study of happiness and contentment has linked these constant interruptions as detrimental to our happiness.

A wandering mind that isn’t focused or fully present for an activity or task is often an unhappy mind.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to Christians who practice contemplation, as mindfulness and awareness of our thoughts saves us from their tyranny and enables us to trust our worries and concerns with God.

However, it’s still helpful to see how the wisdom of our faith has strong backing from science:


“A recent Harvard study reveals that stray thoughts and wandering minds are directly related to unhappiness. The study discovered that those with constantly wandering minds were less likely to be happy than those able to focus on the tasks at hand.”


“Csikszentmihalyi, often called the grandfather of positive psychology, found that our happiest moments are when we are in the state of flow. In this state, we are highly alert. We are totally focused with one-pointed attention. This focus–this mindfulness of being in the moment–is when true happiness spontaneously arises.”


“Flow allows you to truly and deeply live your life as it unfolds in the here and now. Perhaps this is why the latest research continues to confirm that mindfulness increases happiness–to be mindful is to truly experience life and make the most out of every moment.”


Read more.


Scripture Meditation: Don’t Think Too Hard about It…

“The Lord knows people’s thoughts; he knows they are worthless! Joyful are those you discipline, Lord, those you teach with your instructions.”
– Psalm 94:11-12, NLT

What better motivation to pursue the silence and rest of contemplative prayer than to read that God knows our thoughts are worthless!

While there is a great deal in scripture that praises meditating on scripture and remembering God’s laws, this Psalm offers a reality check for the times when we rely on our own wisdom. Most importantly, we find that even when God sees our inadequacies and failures, he responds with mercy and instruction.

Even when God knows that we will fall short over and over again, he desires to give us the joy of his instruction and discipline. May we find God’s loving direction, even as we discover the folly of our wisdom.

Contemplative Profile: Evelyn Underhill

Week Two: Contemplation and Action

Contemplative profiles are back with the help of author and historian Lisa Deam. This month we’re featuring Evelyn Underhill:

In Evelyn Underhill’s later works we see a theme that runs through the history of Christian contemplation: the dance of contemplation and action. Our private prayer life is important. In fact, Underhill says we must each be a “secret child of God.” Yet our prayers also open us to the larger purposes of God. We’re not merely fulfilled; we’re spilled out into the world.


“For it is the self-oblivious gaze, the patient and disciplined attention to God, which deepens understanding, nourishes humility and love; and, by gentle processes of growth, gradually brings the creature into that perfect dedication to His purposes.” (Worship)


“A real man or woman of prayer, then, should be a live wire, a link between God’s grace and the world that needs it . . .” (“Life as Prayer”)


“We are transmitters as well as receivers. Our contemplation and our action, our humble self-opening to God, keeping ourselves sensitive to His music and light, and our generous self-opening to our fellow creatures, keeping ourselves sensitive to their needs, ought to form one life; mediating between God and His world, and bringing the saving power of the Eternal into time.” (Spiritual Life)



How can I be both a receiver and a transmitter of God’s love this week?


About Lisa Deam

Lisa Deam writes and speaks about Christian spiritual formation from a historical perspective. She’s the author of A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps. Visit her on Twitter @LisaKDeam and at

Scripture Meditation: Servants Don’t Need to Be in Charge

“Mary responded, ‘I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.’ And then the angel left her.” Luke 1:38, NLT

How do we live by faith today? Mary faced one of the greatest stretches of faith that anyone could face, and she remained able to fully trust in God’s provision and plan because she knew her place.

As God’s servant, Mary only had to trust what God showed her.

It wasn’t up to Mary to figure out the plan or to provide the means. She didn’t imagine that she was in charge in any way, and with herself entrusted to God’s care, she didn’t have to be worry about what happens next.

Living by faith as the servants of God makes it possible to approach the challenges of each day with a peaceful confidence in God’s provision.

Book of the Month: Finding Grace at the Center

Week One: We Are Made to Love and to Be Loved

finding-grace-at-centerIn Finding Grace at the Center: the Beginning of Centering Prayer, a collection of essays by M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, and Thomas E. Clarke, we find a brief and generally accessible (2 out of 3 essays at least) introduction to centering prayer and contemplation. The most important step at the outset is to reorient ourselves around God’s reality rather than our own.

We simply won’t proceed into centering prayer without accepting God’s love for us, learning to stop expending effort in order to pray, and stepping away from our many priorities and activities.

This opening essay by M. Basil Pennington offers several grounding statements that can provide the foundation we need to move forward into prayer:


“We have been baptized into Christ. We are in some very real, though mysterious way, Christ, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. ‘I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me’ (Gal. 2:20). As we go to the depths we realize in faith our identity with Christ the Son.”


“In a movement of faith that includes hope and love, we go to the center and turn ourselves over to God in a simple ‘being there,’ in a presence that is perfect and complete adoration, response, love, and ‘Amen’ to that movement that we are in the Son to the Father.”


“In practice most of us work as though God could not possibly get things done if we did not do them for Him. The fact is there is nothing that we are doing that God could not raise up a stone in the field to do for Him.”


“No one else can give God our personal love. It is uniquely for this that He created us.”


“If we expend great effort, then when it is done we can pat ourselves on the back and salute ourselves for our great accomplishment. This prayer leaves no room for pride. We have but to let go and let it be done unto us according to His revealed Word.”


Read more…


For Reflection

Featured Book November 7.jpg

Featured Article: Learn to Meditate While Walking

Taking my oldest son on a daily walk helped introduce me to contemplative prayer practices as I finally faced my thoughts, let them run their course, and could finally let my mind settle into a place of rest. If you struggle to get started with contemplative prayer by sitting in a quiet room by yourself, these tips for meditating while walking may prove helpful.

Of course I also recommend learning to approach prayer from a sitting position since that can prove restful once you get the hang of it. However, if you need a starting point, this article could help:


“Unlike guided meditation, which asks you to clear your head of all thoughts (often producing the opposite effect), walking naturally allows your mind to go quiet. While you might start your walk thinking of everything that you need to do today, or this week, after a while, the rhythm of your footfall and movement acts as a focus, allowing you to just focus on the road ahead of you.”


“Studies have shown that connecting to nature on a regular basis, whether that is through walking, gardening, or animal care, can improve your mood and decrease stress, anxiety, and depression.”


“Once you’ve given your mind a chance to clear, and not think for a while, it allows you to approach the issue from a fresh perspective.”


Read more here.