There’s a great, innate ability of the human brain to memorize visuals. When it comes to written words like prayers, however, it’s not so easy.
Revisit Your Childhood Home
In your mind, picture the home where you grew up. Can you mentally walk through each room, recalling how the furniture was laid out and where the windows were? As you close your eyes and revisit your old home, you might surprise yourself with how much you remember!
We can use this powerful ability our brains have of memorizing places as a tool to memorize prayers. I learned this technique from the book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer, a science journalist who participated in the U.S. Memory Championship.
“One trick, known as the journey method or ‘memory palace,’ is to conjure up a familiar space in the mind’s eye, and then populate it with images of whatever it is you want to remember.”—Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein
Why Memorize Prayers?
There’s nothing wrong at all with reading a prayer. But when you don’t have to rely on a book or stumble mentally through a partially memorized prayer, you are free to transfer mental focus (on the literal words themselves) over to spiritual focus (on the intention and meaning of the words). You may find it much easier to become meditative during prayer when you can freely close your eyes and be in the moment.
It will also make it easier to pray whenever and wherever you feel called to do so, since you don’t need to read a prayer stored in a book or mobile device.
Step 1: Choose a Prayer
First, decide what prayer you want to memorize. It could be a single prayer or a group of prayers such as those in a chaplet.
Step 2: Choose a Memory Palace
Your memory palace can be:
- a real place from your past (Ex: your childhood home or school)
- a fictional place someone else created (Ex: a place from a film, book, or video game)
- a fictional place you imagined
Personally, I find buildings—real or imagined—to be really effective since you have distinct rooms. We’ll use this technique in this post, but you could also expand beyond a single building to a park or town.
For me, I played a lot of video games growing up, so I recalled a temple from a popular video game called The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It’s called the Temple of Time. It also happens to look like a church so I thought it fitting.
Have a place in mind? You don’t have to fully imagine—or draw out—your memory palace in detail yet. Just pick a location.
Step 3: Chunk the Prayer into Rooms of Your Memory Palace
Look at the structure of the prayer you’re memorizing. As an example, we’ll use The Little Crown of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which is really a collection of prayers. It’s composed of five sections:
- Introductory Prayer
- Mary’s Crown of Excellence
- Mary’s Crown of Power
- Mary’s Crown of Goodness
- Concluding Prayer
Here’s what the Temple of Time looks like. You enter a room through the lower-left entrance, and can proceed up a few stairs through another door into a taller octagonal room.
A bird’s eye view looks like:
This prayer is large so I decided to have a room dedicated to each section; I started with the introductory prayer in the nave (the rectangular room), I added three rooms to the front of the building—one for each crown—and we’ll end in the octagonal room out back. It will look like this:
Step 4: Walk Through the First Room
Read the first sentence of the first section you need to memorize. The first line of the Little Crown’s Introductory Prayer is:
1A: Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle within them the fire of your love!
Close your eyes and visualize yourself in a specific part of your first room, looking specifically at something you’ve imagined in that room, perhaps a person, an event or a decoration.
For this line, I look down at my heart and I notice it’s an empty container. It then begins to fill with lava (to represent fire).
A couple tips when making events:
- As the strange humans we are, we tend to remember unusual things, so the more creative the better.
- You can imagine more than just visuals to strengthen the memory; incorporate other senses, like smells, tastes, sounds, or touch.
For my lava heart, it smells like a campfire and I can feel the heat warming my body.
I then proceed to the next lines:
1B: Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And you shall renew the face of the earth.
1C: Let us pray. O God, Who by the light of the Holy Spirit instructs the hearts of the faithful,
1D: grant us by this same Spirit to relish what is right and ever to rejoice in His consolation, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
I won’t belabor you with all the odd details of how I memorized this (there is a jar of relish involved). But check out the sketch below and notice how I had each line correspond to its own unique event or object in the room.
This causes me to move around—or at least focus my attention—four times in the room before leaving. If I just played with the globe for 4 lines, it would be hard for me to remember how many lines I need to say.
Step 5: Continue Through Each Room
Proceed to the next room. As you go, try to notice patterns in your prayer. In the Little Crown, for example, each of the three crowns is very similar: they each have 1 Our Father, 4 Hail Marys, and 1 Glory Be.
The tricky part is that each Hail Mary—there’s 12 of them—has a unique 1-line invocation following it. They aren’t long but the order can be a challenge to memorize without a detailed memory palace. For each invocation, I created 12 unique objects/events in a specific order.
I decided that each crown room will have a little pew right when you enter. That reminds me to kneel and say the Our Father there first. Each room also has a large statue of Mary at the far end. These similarities help cement the general room layout in my mind and there’s still enough unique stuff going on to make each room memorable.
A blend of repetition and originality works for me, and reminds me of a common song structure: a chorus that repeats combined with unique verses.
Step 6: Evolve Your Palace
As you continue through each room, you may need to make changes to your initial blueprint.
I had to do just that. Here’s a couple examples:
- In the Crown of Goodness room, I initially planned to have 4 paintings on the wall. Then I noticed that the invocation for 4C was very similar to the one for 3A, so I decided to make 4C a glass window where I can look at the statue from 3A.
- I realized that the concluding prayer had some subtle similarities to prayers said in the Crown of Goodness and Power rooms, so I decided to revisit those rooms in the concluding prayer instead of heading to the backroom.
What about the “each section in their own room” guideline? In this case, I felt it was more effective to reuse some landmarks from prior rooms. For example, the concluding prayer calls Mary “my treasure” so instead of creating another treasure chest, I revisit 3B where I said “treasure house of the Lord’s graces.”
If you keep having trouble with a particular pitstop, tweak it to make it more memorable.
Step 7: Have Patience
Depending on the depth of the prayer, memorizing it can take some time. It took me a few weeks to fully memorize The Little Crown, praying it once/day. Each time you visit your palace, keep the written prayer handy to double check your memory. If you aren’t completely sure you said a line right, double check. Otherwise you might commit the error to memory!
Last Step: Pray Deeper
After it’s committed to memory, you may find you rely less on every little detail that initially helped you memorize the prayer. That’s ok. This means the prayer has rooted itself into your long-term memory, independent of the visuals that helped get it there. The memorized prayer is now like a flowing river in your mind. The lines will just flow without you necessarily walking to each pitstop of your palace.
It’s a beautiful thing: the words are now stamped into your brain and on your heart. If you’d like, you can now pray with your eyes shut, meditatively saying the words as slowly or deeply as you’d like. You can linger at specific places in your palace, going at your own pace.
In your meditative flow, you may sometimes say “O Virgin Mary” instead of “O Virgin” or “O holy and immaculate Virgin”. Don’t sweat it: (1) I have complete confidence that Mary won’t take offense and (2) I feel the little spice of innocent human error creates an original and authentic experience between you and who you are praying to.
Lastly, these are just guidelines and suggestions from my experience. Your palace is a place completely between you and God. It’s up to you how you move through it, who’s in it, what you do, and how long you stay there with him. In your interior castle, you be you.