The Gospels are at the heart of all the Scriptures “because they are our principal source for the life and teaching of our Incarnate Word, our Savior.”Catechism of the Catholic Church, 125
The Catholic Art of Memory Meets the Gospels of Jesus Christ
This article was prompted by a reader of Memorize the Faith! asking for suggestions on memorizing parts of the Bible. I’ve used the rooms of a house and the parts of a church as memory location systems in my previous memory books. I was doing nothing new. St. Albert the Great wrote about “placing a church,” with this memory method more than 700 years ago. The use of a house was recommended in the ancient Latin work on rhetoric, the Ad Herennium, long attributed to Cicero, and written nearly 1300 years before even St. Albert’s time, in around 80 BC!
The location system we’ll be using in this article is certainly not new with me either, though I do adapt it a bit. The relatively youthful memory location system we will employ is “merely” 549 years old as I write — though I bet you have never heard of it – not as a memory system at least!
Now, you probably have heard of the images at the heart of this method, and if not, it may come as a bit of a revelation to you:
And round the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to sing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”Revelation 4:6-8
These four six-winged figures who circle God’s throne singing praises first appear in the book of Ezekiel, chapter one. Perhaps you have seen depictions of them, for they have been used within the Church for more than a millennium as symbols of our four evangelists. Tradition provides many reasons for each particular characterization. The winged man represents St. Matthew, for example, because his gospel starts with Christ’s human genealogy. The lion represents St. Mark because his gospel emphasizes Christ’s kingship, and the lion has long been called “the king” of the jungle. The ox represents St. Luke because the ox symbolized sacrifice and St. Luke emphasizes Christ’s sacrifice for us.
Finally, the eagle is used to symbolize St. John because the eagle flies so high, and according to legends, could look directly into the sun. John, of course, starts as high as the human mind can fly, looking into the Son as the very Word of God.
In 1470, a little “block book” made from woodcarvings, today known as the Ars memoranda, was fashioned, perhaps in a monastery, in the land of southern Bavaria. Within this ancient tome are multiple woodcut figures of our four familiar seraphim (the winged man, lion, ox, and eagle). These figures themselves serve as systems of mnemonic locations, just like the rooms of our mnemonic house and the façade, naves, and sanctuary of our mnemonic cathedrals. We can use this system even today to build a mental outline of any of the gospels, storing in the treasuries of our memories key teachings and events in the life of Jesus Christ.
I need to get down to business to briefly show you how it is done. I will provide complete instructions for the images for the first few chapters only, but will conclude with suggested images for all 21 chapters. Note too that if you desire, you can flesh out this outline with additional images of your choice capturing important themes and events from any chapter (as I’ve done, for an example, with a second image for chapter 21).
On Eagle’s Wings
We start at the top of our evangelical eagle’s head (location 1) and see balanced upon it a massive dictionary, of all things, the kind you might find in a reference library. Its pages are open to the definition of the very word, “Word.” Moving along to the back of the eagle’s head (2) we see stacked up right behind it, for some reason, six ancient stone jars brimming over with the finest of wine. Peering deep into the eagle’s right eye (3) we see (and hear the cries of) a new born-babe dressed in swaddling clothes. Next, you notice some water running down the eagle’s beak (4), for upon it sits Christ Himself beside an ancient well, speaking to a woman. Then, at the eagle’s neckline (5), you are surprised by the sight of other winged creatures, clearly angels, swirling the water inside a pool, while a lame man beside it stands up on his own. Let’s do a quick review:
|Location on |
|Image||Meaning/Location in |
|1. Top of head||Dictionary open to |
|“In the beginning was the Word…”(John 1:1-15)|
|2. Back of head||Six stone jars of wine||Jesus changes water to wine at Blessed Mary’s request at the wedding feast at Cana (John 2:1 – 11).|
|3. Right eye||New-born babe||“Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3).|
|4. Beak||Jesus talks to woman at well||Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:4-42)|
|5. Neckline||Angels stir pool, lame man stands||Jesus cures the lame man (John 5:1-9).|
So far, so good? Do you see what we’ve really remembered? Atop the eagle’s head (1) at the beginning of our memory tour, was a very straightforward reminder of this Gospel’s first line: “In the beginning was the Word…” (John 1:1). That “Word” of course refers to God the Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity Who “became flesh and dwelt among us,” (1:14) as Jesus Christ. The location’s number (1) will call to mind that we have memorized an image from chapter 1 of John’s gospel, as all the subsequent location numbers will also correspond to the gospel’s chapter numbers. So, even the location numbers have meaning.
To cut to the chase, you will see from our table at the end that each of our images represents an important event or teaching in the life of Christ. If you decide to take the time to try memorizing these key events form the Gospel of St. John, through your repeated practice, you will not only be training yourself in the Catholic art of memory, you will become able in spare, unoccupied moments to recall an image or two from this angel’s wings to help you contemplate Him around who’s throne all of the angels sing “Holy, holy, holy!”
Remaining Chapters Image Suggestions
|6. Upper |
|Angels stir pool, lame man stands||Jesus cures the lame man (John 5:1-9).|
|7. Middle left wing||Five loaves and two fish||Miracle of the loaves and fish (John 6: 1-14)|
|8. Peak left wing||Jesus in teaching chair at |
|Jesus speaks in Temple as with God’s authority (John 14:1-39).|
|9. Bottom |
tip left wing
|Writing on dirt, shamed |
|Jesus forgives the adulteress (John 8:3-11).|
|10. Base left wing||Clay, dark glasses, and |
|Jesus cures the blind man (John 9:1-41).|
|11. Right |
|Thief, window, shepherd |
|Christ’s teaching on Himself as good shepherd (John 10:1-21).|
|12. Left |
|Lazarus emerges from |
|Christ raises Lazarus from dead (John 11:1-44).|
|13. Heart||Mary Magdalene pours fragrant ointment on Jesus’ feet, Judas looks on in disdain||Jesus defends Mary Magdalene’s use of ointment on him (John 12:1-8).|
|14. Left hip||Feet in a bowl being washed||Jesus washes feet of his disciples (John 13:1-20).|
|15. Right hip||Scales, tooth, Life magazine||Christ proclaims he is the way, truth, and life. (John 14:1-7).|
|16. Upper |
|Vine growing over friend’s grave||Christ as vine will show greatest love by dying for friends (John 15:1-17).|
|17. Middle |
|Dove hovers high over Jesus’ head||Jesus will send the Holy Spirit to counsel and lead us to truth (John 16:7-15).|
|18. Peak |
|Six one dollar bills||Jesus prays six times that we may be one as He and the Father are one. (John 17:1-26).|
|19. Tip right wing||Sword slashes, ear falls||Peter slashes Malchus’s ear and Jesus tells him to stop (John 18:1-14).|
|20. Lower |
|Jesus, Blessed Mary, John, water turns to vinegar, finish line||Three of Jesus’ seven last words on the Cross (John 19:26-30).|
|21. Tail||Mary Magdalene sees empty tomb||The disciples learn Christ has risen! (John 20:1-31).|
|Jesus, fishermen, shepherd||Jesus works miracle for fishermen and tells Peter to feed his sheep (John 21:1-19).|