Memorization Mechanics

“…time, patience, and perseverance accomplish all things”

By: Scott Jaquith
District Deputy Grand Lecturer
District 2
Scott Jaquith

It recently occurred to me that memorization, and the mental act of memorizing the written word, and then reciting Masonic ritual verbatim to our candidates is something that we speak about often as one of the more difficult exercises that we perform. The mechanics, however, are infrequently addressed. Therefore, I would like to explore my memorization habits with you in the hope that it might inspire a few more brethren to pick up the mantle and learn more of our ceremonies.

First, the place and time where you work on your memorization exercises (I’ll also be referring to ritual work as memorization exercises throughout this essay) are of paramount importance. Find a quiet place where you will be undisturbed for no less than 30 minutes per day until you have the ritual you propose to recite committed to memory. Solitude is the only way to free up your thoughts and allow your mind to quiet itself to fully absorb and comprehend the gravity of the words you’ll be speaking. You might find peace in the kitchen, with your first cup of coffee that day, out on a walk, in the shower, or any number of places that offer you the opportunity to separate yourself from the frenzy of daily life.

The time when you perform your memorization exercises is just as important as the setting. I like to work on my memorization exercises in the morning, before I go to work, while I’m getting ready for the day. I’ve found that once I commit to memorizing a particular set of our rituals I’ll get into a routine where the discipline of preparing for work goes hand-in-hand with reciting Masonic ritual. Mornings for me are when I experience the most profound quiet, before the emails begin, before the phone calls start, and when I can conduct my memorization with the utmost effectiveness. Springtime is my favorite time of year to memorize ritual because it signifies, to me, rebirth and renewal; it’s a time of new beginnings and boundless opportunities. You might be the opposite type of person and nighttime is your most peaceful and contemplative period of the day and fall is the best time of year for you to dedicate yourself to memorization. Whenever you find yourself most at peace, select that as your time to perform your memory work and stick with it. Consistency is key!

Now that you’ve found the time and place that you are most at peace you are ready to begin. You’re now probably asking yourself, “How do I do it, then? How do I begin memorizing the Entered Apprentice lecture or the Master Mason Degree conferral?” Just like climbing a mountain…you do it one step at a time.

My method is to dive right in and read the first paragraph of the ritual that I’ve committed to memorizing. Even if I’ve heard that ritual over and over again for many years I try to clear my thoughts and start the memorization exercises from scratch. I read only the first paragraph and stop. Then I return to the first sentence and re-read it.  I then focus on the first three to four words of that sentence; I’ll read and then re-read them twice. I’ll then set my cipher down, close my eyes, and then recite those three to four words from memory four to five times. Then I’ll pick my cipher back up and compare what I just recited to what’s actually written. Assuming that I’ve recited those three to four words correctly, I’ll read the next three to four words, recite them, commit them to memory, set down my cipher, close my eyes, then recite them from memory. Once I have an entire sentence memorized, I’ll stop for the day and that one sentence will become my mantra for the day; I’ll say it over and over and over again during my commute to work. My usual vocations require thorough concentration throughout the day and I generally don’t have any time to revisit the ritual memorization until after work. On my commute home from work I’ll test myself to see if I can recall the ritual passage that I memorized that morning. Assuming that I’ve committed that passage to memory, I’ll set aside my cipher until the following morning when the exercises begin again.

FreemasonryThis is how I commit Masonic ritual to memory, and I’ll do it day after day after day until I memorize half the ritual. Then I stop. I’ll put down my cipher for a week and deliberately forget the ritual so I can attempt to recall the words from the deep recesses of my immediate memory. If I need to touch up any of my memorization I’ll focus on the words, phrases, and sentences that require it and then recite the entire first half of the ritual work before I continue.

Once I’ve gotten the first half of the ritual work committed to memory, I’ll continue with this same method until I’ve memorized the entire conferral, lecture, presentation, charge, or funeral service. After a few weeks of having the ritual as my constant companion, I’ll stop reading and reciting it for a few days, return to it and recite it over again. I’ll then give myself a week or so between recitations and then attempt to recite it from memory. This goes on and on until I can set down the ritual work for six months or longer and recall the ritual work entirely from memory without a prompt. That’s when I know that I’ve gotten it memorized completely and thoroughly. The entire process may take a year to completely and thoroughly memorize a whole lecture.

The idea is to exercise your mind like a muscle. Once you’ve committed Masonic ritual to memory it’s nearly impossible to forget it. I’ve found that the most difficult ritual can easily be recited even a year or more after I last performed it.

To recap my memorization exercise method in outline form:

  • Place (find a quiet and peaceful setting in which to practice)
  • Time (allocate a solid block of time to work on your ritual, ideally 30 minutes per day)
  • Repetition (remember that small gains turn into large ones in short order)
  • Consistency! (continue with your routine until you have accomplished your goal)

So that’s the trick. It really boils down to commitment and discipline. It’s a lot like Freemasonry itself. It used to be a common practice for American students to memorize poems, Bible verses, and historical texts; learning and reciting Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to your classmates being one of the most common memorization exercises. I recall reciting the Gettysburg Address to my sixth-grade classmates after performing exercises just like the ones I’ve described above.

I’m not certain whether students are required to memorize in school any longer. Hopefully it’s not considered a dying art form. Certain jurisdictions don’t memorize their Masonic ritual, but in New Mexico we pride ourselves on reciting ritual from memory and as close to written text as possible. There’s no substitute for delivering a candidate his obligation, lecture, and charge from memory and I hope that it remains that way in perpetuity.

If you find it difficult to memorize anything I encourage you to look to your lodge’s ritualists for guidance and inspiration. I’m certain that they’ll tell you that there’s no hack for memorizing ritual. It’s a long, difficult, frustrating process. But at the end of your fight with your ritual cipher, when you’ve exhausted your mind and you’re certain that you can’t fit another syllable into your brain, just set it down and pick it up again in a few days when you’re fresh and well rested. You’ll find yourself amazed by your own capacity to recall the ritual, word for word. It really is an exhilarating feeling!

I wish you all the best of luck and success in your future memorization exercises. It’s the best (and only) way to fully understand what lessons our traditions convey. Oftentimes I’ve been reciting our ritual when a particular symbol or turn of phrase resonates with what I’m experiencing in my own life. It’s as though our Masonic ancestors are speaking to me across the span of time and the serendipity is thrilling. Once you experience the wonder of exercising your own mind it’ll prepare you for a journey of self-discovery that is truly incomparable.

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