The Memory Castle – A Homecoming

Just over three weeks ago, I began the task of memorizing a key (Marian Psalter) verse for all 150 Psalms, using the concept of a Memory Castle – a symbolic route through (in this case) ten rooms of my house, in each of which I identified 15 objects or portals to which I could attach a different verse from the Marian Psalter.

I would first connect a different verse in a decade of verses with a portal in each of the ten rooms of my castle. Then I would make ten flashcards, with the portal on the front and the verse on the back. Then I would revisit the verses and expand the ways in which I needed to reinforce my ability to remember particular words and phrases of the verse.

These reinforcing ideas did not necessarily have anything to do with the portal itself, although sometimes they did. I had read that the practice of using a memory castle had more to do with placing elaborate, nonsensical visual connections at a particular portal (because the portal could be used to remember other lists or series).

A couple of examples might help to illustrate the concept.

The portal for Psalm 69 – “Insults have broken my heart, so that I am in despair.” is my bathroom sink. For some reason, the first phrase came easily to me, but not the second one. I was reading Huckleberry Finn at the time, so I imagined Jim saying the verse, and complaining at the end, “so dat I am in dis pear” (the fruit was a prison). The concept of a man imprisoned in a pear proved easy to remember.

None of this had anything to do with my bathroom sink, but for some reason, the sink became linked in my mind with Jim’s peculiar troubles in his pear prison. The Memory Castle worked.

One portal was a chair – and I imagined an artist named Karl Kohlhase sitting in the chair singing a version of the verse I was committing to memory. Another was a pair of masks hanging on our dining room wall, which I imagined saying “Why is it, O sea, that you flee; O Jordan, that you turn back?” Repetition helped, of course, but this additional memory practice of a Memory Castle broke down the work into more manageable segments.

It took me three weeks, working a couple of hours a day. I would typically review the ten verses I had just learned, along with the ten previous verses. It seemed important to allow a little time between repeats, so that I could identify where the trouble spots were (Lord, God, or You? – does the verse include the connector “and”?). I also like using the rosary beads to mark where I happen to be.

I am able to recite all 150 verses in just under an hour. At this point, I often take the time to review my flashcards or database to check the accuracy of my memory – and at times I still get stuck on a word or a phrase. I believe I could cut this recitation time in half with repetition.

So what now?

  1. Through repetition, these verses will become second nature to me. I have already been able to use them praying with others, individually and in worship. Eventually, I hope to be able to recite a verse, given the number of a Psalm, as well as bring to mind a blessing, praise or lament from this collection in my mind and heart.
  2. I have already experimented with singing some of these memory verses – some of which have ready-made tunes attached to them, and some of which I compose myself. I hope to be able to sing all of the memory verses.
  3. I hope to be able to expand this repertoire to include – as an initial step, the incipit (or first verse) of the Psalm, if this is not the memory verse. And then, as a second step, to memorize the entire Psalm, probably with a scripture song as a memory aid. For this undertaking, I must decide whether to use existing songs (in various translations), or to convert or compose songs using the NRSV.

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