To know by heart


To know by heart

I recall reading somewhere, I think it was in the introduction to a book on some of the Northern Saints, that David Adam, a former vicar of Lindisfarne, spoke of knowing the psalms by heart and that, though he didn’t spell it out as such, that it was different to memorising them.  I think that what he understood by that was that they spoke to him at a level that was transforming, and that each and every psalm had its place in his daily reading as a text that touched him within.

That is a startling thought, and not one to be put to one side without some further consideration.  What, in fact does it take to bring about such an approach to the psalms?  Familiarity is key, without a doubt.  So, the daily reading of the psalms was and is the constant practise of those whose aim is to allow them to mould one’s outlook and make sensitive one’s spiritual antennae.  

Any psalm may be taken as a good starting point in this endeavour and may lead to a memorising of the text in due course as well, but knowing how it goes as it ticks over on the tongue is quite enough to be getting on with.  Psalm 51, which we are reading this morning, is a good enough starting point if one is entering the practice through a penitential route.  Said on Ash Wednesday every year, its flow is without much doubt in my mind, one of the most compulsive in the whole psalter.  It drives on from one verse to another leaving the sober reflection to the end, after the slightly odd last two verses.  It feels as though it should end at verse 18: “The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

John Mann