I recently used a 2,500-year-old memorization technique to memorize an even more ancient piece of poetry. The results were surprisingly terrifying. They made me rethink how well God knows me and whether or not that’s a good thing.
The ancient memorization technique is called the Memory Palace. It turns out we humans are wired to be spatially oriented and visually attentive. Perhaps a hang-on from our hunter-and-gatherer days, we are genuinely baller at noticing and memorizing images and noticing and memorizing where we are in the world. The Memory Palace is a technique that takes advantage of these two strengths.
Stories of the advent of this technique vary (check out Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein if you’re interested), but the technique is unquestionably effective: whatever you want to memorize, you assign pieces of it (ideally with an accompanying image) to different locations in a place you are familiar with.
So, if you have a 5-item shopping list, you could walk through your house stopping at 5 different locations and picturing one item at each location. Then, when you are at the store, you can “walk through” your house in your mind, stopping at each location and recalling the image you “placed” there.
The Advent of Memory
For Advent last year (the weeks leading up to Christmas), I decided I would try to memorize Psalm 139 (ESV). This ancient Psalm of David is 24 verses long, and Advent is about that many days long. So I decided I would memorize one verse a day using this ancient technique.
The Memory Palace I chose was my house. I happen to live in a 135-year-old Victorian that provides a wide variety of locations. Creating a path that would encounter 24 unique spaces was not a challenge at all. And using the technique turned out to not be too challenging either.
On December 1st I stood on my paint-pealed veranda and read verse 1: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me!” I did this staring up into the varied branches of the huge tree in my front yard. I pictured someone climbing through the branches, searching them. And just like that, wherever I was, I would remember starting on the veranda and looking up into the branches and the words just came: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me!”
Bracing for Impact
On December 2nd I came inside from the veranda to a small landing area crowded with books and a comfy reading chair. I sat on the chair and read verse 2: “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar.” I pictured myself sitting there (not hard, because I literally was) and then pictured God hovering above me, watching every time I sat in that chair or got up and discerning every single thought I had while sitting in that chair.
Sure, the verse was now stuck in my memory, but so were the implications: God is watching me all the time?!
Things got even scarier on Day 3: “You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.” The third location: my bedroom which is right next to the landing. I sat on my bed, read the verse through a few times, and while the verse clicked into place, the implications did, too: God searches out my lying down and is acquainted with all my ways?! I was starting to get nervous.
Don’t get me wrong: I had read this psalm before, lots of times. I had been comforted by David’s declaration toward the end that he realizes he is “fearfully and wonderfully made”—there aresome amazingly comforting verses in this psalm. But with this new technique, I was only allowing myself to take one verse at a time—a whole day to soak in each, somewhat bracing, verse.
December 4: I’m standing in front of my bathroom mirror (location #4) sticking out my tongue as I read verse 4: “Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.” Really?
December 5: I step out a rickety doorway that leads from my upstairs bathroom to a small patch of flat roof (the house is 135 years old, remember—who knows why this door was originally put in). And as the door slams shut behind me, I read out verse 5: “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.”
Riding the Roller Coaster
By the time I got to the verses where David starts trying to figure out how he can hide from God (“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?”), I completely understood where he was coming from. Memorizing this Psalm one verse at a time, having it stick in my head with strong images and locations (not vague jumbles of words as my previous attempts at scripture memorization have always been) somehow made the content of the verses sink deeper than ever before. And the results were even more impactful.
Does God really know all my thoughts? He sees every time I sit down and stand up? He knows all my words? All my ways?
And thus it went. I rode Psalm 139 as you would ride a roller coaster: white knuckled, not sure what turn was coming up next, kind of wishing I hadn’t gotten on the ride. It was incredible. And surprising. And terrifying.
The message of the psalm is simple enough: God knows my heart. And yours. And everyone’s.
The implications of that idea are profound, though, when you take the time to slowly walk around in them. I found it to be sobering and a bit claustrophobic to stare at the reality that God knows my heart. I found it realistic to want to hide from God, at least some of the time. I found it deeply vulnerable to turn the corner at verse 13 and consider that God knows me so well because He actually made me – carefully and masterfully.
God’s thoughts about me did indeed become “precious,” as David put it. And I did find myself inviting God, with a sense of peace, to “search me and know my heart.” He already knows what he’s going to find there anyway – because He’s the one who made it.
What a ride. I highly recommend it. Just remember to hold on.