My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments…
write them on the tablet of your heart.
Prov 3:1 & 3
A thing is said metaphorically to be written in the mind of anyone when it is firmly held in memory.
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica
I’d like to start with words of thanks and congratulations to Deacon Marty McIndoe on the launch of his new website! What worthier goal for a site could there be than “to help Catholics grow in holiness and in their relationship to Jesus and His Church”? I also found it most fortuitous (well, providential, to be precise) that the grand opening of Deacon Marty’s site is almost to the day the release of my latest book that shares the same goal through that most intimate relationship Jesus provides us through the gift of His very self in the Eucharist at Holy Mass. As an ordained deacon, Marty has been graced with the capacity to participate in Mass assisting the priest and glorifying God in a very special way. Of course, each and every one of us in the laity as well is called to fully participate in Mass in our own role – in heart, mind, body, and soul!
Here, in this little article, I’ll provide a few excerpts from Memorize the Mass! How to Know and Love the Mass as if Your Life Depended On It (En Route Books and Media, 2016) tailored specifically to you, Deacon Marty’s readers, and I’ll begin by telling you how that book began.
When One’s Life Depends on the Mass
As in all other times of crisis, we relied on our religious backgrounds to give us strength and to help us accept the sacrifice of our monastic existence. I went through the Mass each day in English and Latin, took spiritual communion, and meditated deeply.
Admiral Jeremiah Denton
In early 2015 I was working on a book about the Stoic philosophers. While examining their ongoing modern-day influence, I told the story of James Stockdale, a U.S. Navy fighter pilot who was shot from the skies over North Vietnam on September 9, 1965, and would remain a prisoner of the North Vietnamese Communist army for more than seven years. He attributed his success in holding up mentally to repeated bouts of torture and isolation and in giving solace to his fellow American POWs to his previous immersion in the ancient Stoic wisdom of the philosopher Epictetus. Epictetus taught that to maintain emotional tranquility, grow in virtue, and conform our will to God’s, it is essential to distinguish between what we can and cannot control. Sometimes what we can control is little beyond our own mental judgments, attitudes, and moral purpose. We must focus our efforts on those things we can control and endure with dignity events that are not up to us. Stockdale strove to control his own moral purpose and state of mind, since so little else was left up to him. He survived the ordeal and later became an admiral and the vice presidential running mate with Ross Perot in the 1992 presidential elections.
In the midst of writing that book, I received an email from Major Valpiani, a U.S. Air Force officer and experimental test pilot. He had read one of my books on the memory techniques of Sts. Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, and he asked me if I could give him suggestions on how to memorize the parts of the Mass. You see, he had found through the Internet that I’d written an article called “Memorize the Mass!” on a now defunct Catholic social media site, and he wondered if I could share it with him. I remembered the article but found that my Word program didn’t!
I was unable to track down the article for him, but I told him that I remembered the basics and could share those with him. What intrigued me about his email, however, was the story behind his question.
Major Valpiani had heard a recording of a talk from a man who had mentally repeated the Mass every day to preserve his sanity and sanctity during nearly eight years of confinement, also as a POW in North Vietnam, like Stockdale. That man, Jeremiah Denton, had been Commanding Officer of Attack Squadron Seventy-Five aboard the USS Independence and was shot down on July 18, 1965, two months before James Stockdale. His ordeal as a POW lasted nearly eight years. He, like Stockdale, later became an admiral, and then he became a U.S. senator from Alabama. I responded to the major that I had not heard of Admiral Denton but had, coincidentally, just written about Admiral Stockdale. In his response he told me that in fact the two were friends! That was news to me. Stockdale had not mentioned Denton in the books I’d read. Admiral Denton’s story was clearly one that I had to investigate.
Sure enough, in his book Hell is in Session, Denton described how he and Stockdale cooperated in keeping the American POWs alive and in preserving their dignity. He described as well, in the quotation that started this preface, that throughout those years, many of which included solitary confinement and a variety of ongoing tortures, he did indeed go through the Mass each day in his head, both in English and in Latin!
Well, not long after this interchange, a Maryknoll missionary priest came to my parish and told the story of Bishop James Walsh, who was imprisoned in Communist China for nearly twelve years (1958-1970). Though he could not actually celebrate the Mass, the Mass and the Rosary gave him strength throughout his years of imprisonment. Indeed, so great was his love for the Mass that in the bishop’s book Zeal for Your House, one photo shows him just after his release, still in a hospital bed, joyfully celebrating the Holy Mass for the first time after so many years, whilst still in his pajamas!
To keep a short article from becoming long, these stories made it quite clear to me that providing a simple means of “memorizing the Mass,” coming to know all of its parts, both backward and forward, would well be worth not just another article, but an entire book. Thankfully, Dr. Sebastian Mahfood and Shaun McAfee at En Route Books and Media agreed.
As much as the lives of Admiral Denton and Bishop Walsh depended on the Mass under such extreme crises, in a way, all our lives depend upon it. After all, the Eucharist is the heart of the Mass, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (1324).
The goal then of the book Memorize the Mass! is to help the reader through a guided tutorial in the implementation of specialized memory methods recommended and employed by Sts. Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, to more fully and deeply experience that source and summit by writing the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on the tablet of your heart (both in the Novus Ordo or Ordinary Form and in the Extraordinary Form of the Traditional Latin Mass).
The Catholic Art of Memory Meets the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass
The Sacrifice (of the Mass) is celebrated with many solemn rites and ceremonies, none of which should be deemed useless or superfluous. On the contrary, all of them tend to display the majesty of this august Sacrifice, and to excite the faithful when beholding these saving mysteries, to contemplate the divine things which lie concealed in the Eucharistic Sacrifice.
Catechism of the Council of Trent
Nothing that you have seen or heard is useful, however, unless you deposit what you should see and hear in the treasury of your memory.
The Mass is the heart of Catholic life, and the Eucharist is that heart’s flesh and blood, the flesh and blood, soul and divinity of our Savior Jesus Christ. Christ initiated the Eucharist for us nearly two thousand years ago, and the Church has been greatly blessed by it and by the rites of the Holy Sacrifice that so quickly grew around it to perfect it as the Church’s ultimate act of worship.
Of course, the Church has given us so many great blessings throughout the millennia that it boggles the mind to even begin to catalog them.
One gift of the Church, perhaps little known, is the development and enhancement of ancient Greek and Latin memory improvement techniques by two great Catholic Doctors of the Church, St. Albert the Great (c. 1200-1280), the Universal Doctor and Patron Saint of Scientists, and his most illustrious student, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the Angelic Doctor and Patron Saint of Scholars. You see, they both considered the powers of memory essential to the exercise of the cardinal virtue of prudence or practical wisdom, for to achieve virtuous goals in the future, we must act in the present, guided by what we have learned in the past and stored in the treasure chests of our memory. They actually described and endorsed an ancient method of memory improvement based on visual images and an imagined system for ordering ideas one wants to remember.
Well, one thing we can apply these memory methods to is the parts and the rites of the Holy Mass itself. Indeed, what is more worth remembering? So here I’ll give just a taste of what the method entails. St. Thomas said that we can better remember even abstract concepts if we represent them in a simple, concrete way, because as human beings, our knowledge and memories start with the information brought in from our senses, particularly what we see and hear, and indeed, things that we see (or even just imagine seeing) are for most people the most readily remembered. Here then is a simple visual example that appears at the book’s location 23 for the Ordinary Form of the Mass.
Images like this one are mentally placed at specific different locations within an imagined house. This one appears at location 23 (which happens to be the head of a dining room table), because the Preface Acclamation that moves into the Eucharistic Prayer is the 23rd of the 32 parts of the Mass as they are numbered in the St. Joseph Sunday Missal that I use.
So now please imagine this: Your eyes zoom in on your own priest’s face as a visual pun reminding you of the “Preface” acclamation (the prayer that starts with “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts…”)
The dove ascending from above reminds us of the part of the Eucharistic Prayer called the “Epiclesis” in which the Holy Spirit is invoked.
The priest raises the host aloft to remind us of the Institution Narrative and Consecration, in which, invoking the words of Christ, the bread and wine become Christ in his real sacramental presence, Body and Blood, soul and divinity, retaining the “accidents” or appearances of bread and wine that remain to our senses, while becoming in substance Christ Himself as perceived through the eyes of faith.
Mother Mary is next to Christ to remind us the after the consecration of and remembrance of all the Church, we pray to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, to Joseph, to the apostles and all the saints for their intercessions in leading us to eternal life.
Oh, and why the dachshund? He is simply a verbal and visual pun to remind us of the “Concluding Doxology” that ends each Eucharistic prayer, starting with “Though him, and with him, and in him…”
Perhaps few Catholics, even those who’ve attended hundreds or thousands of Masses realize the amazingly rich and deep wealth of Scripture and Tradition that underlie and gave rise to every single rite, every word, indeed to every gesture of the Holy Mass. So, besides memorizing the names and the order of the parts of the Mass, we are called to dig deeply into their spiritual meanings. Behold just a sample, for a ceremony as seemingly simple as the Greeting, the second part of the New Order Mass, right after the Entrance Chant. (At this point in the book the guided memory tour has already been provided and sections like the one below begin to flesh out the meanings of each rite one by one.)
A doormat (location 2) is a pretty straightforward reminder for a greeting, and this particular greeting from the presiding priest in the sanctuary at the front of the church begins with a sign of the cross. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” he says, and we, of course, answer, “Amen.” The priest’s sign of the cross proclaims the Trinity and reminds us of the cross of Christ’s Passion and the great commission he gave his disciples to go and “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19).
Our “Amen” harks back to the worship of the ancient Hebrews, for it is the Hebrew word for “truth” or “certainty” and has been used by Christians for millennia in Mass as a powerful affirmation, meaning “truly,” “verily,” or “so be it!” We should say it not as two mindless syllables we’ve utter countless times, but mindfully, joyfully, and with gusto and conviction. This is the first of many “Amens” we will utter in Mass, and for centuries it has been among the most notable hallmarks of Christian worship. Indeed, in one of the ancient lives of St. Patrick, apostle to the Irish, a fifth century Druid priest forewarns the pagan King Laeghaire Mac Neill of a prophetic vision he’s had of a new faith that would arrive and live forever in Erin (i.e., Ireland), describing it like this:
A Tailecend (i.e., Patrick) shall come across the stormy sea.
His garment head-pierced, his staff head-bent,
His mias (i.e., altar) in the east of his house;
His people all shall answer, Amen, amen.
When we utter our own “Amens,” perhaps we can reflect from time to time that we are joining the chorus of the countless “Amens” across time and across nations, recited in every accent imaginable to affirm that great new faith in the Holy Trinity that St. Patrick and multitudes of great saints like him have gone to such great costs to spread unto the ends of the earth—indeed, all the way to our very own parish!
The priest then welcomes us to Mass using one of these three forms of greeting: (a) “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all,” (b) “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” or simply (c) “The Lord be with you” (or “Peace be with you,” if the celebrant is a bishop). And we answer, “And with your spirit.”
So then, we have all gathered together; sung a hymn of praise to God; honored the Trinity; remembered Christ’s cross and our call to evangelize; been welcomed by the priest; and prayed that God’s grace, love, and peace be with the spirits of the priest and all those gathered for Mass. That’s quite a bit in just the first couple of minutes, but we need to move along to see what may (or may not) happen next…
Out From the Mass and Into the World
“Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.”
Well, that does it for a brief introduction to my attempt to apply the Catholic Art of Memory to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. I pray that whether you come to try to memorize its parts or not, you will continue to grow in your own love and knowledge of the Holy Mass and of all things Christ-centered and Catholic. I hope as well that as you go out from the Mass and into the world, you will remember that Christ is truly then within you, indeed, “cleaving” to your “innermost parts,” in the translated words of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, inspiring you to share Him most lovingly with others.
Further, when you move from the Mass to the virtual world of the Internet, I’ll hope and pray that as you seek trusted guides to the truth, beauty, and goodness of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, you will not forget the wonderful new resource of this very website. Thank you again, Deacon Marty!
Finally I’ll conclude, echoing St. Patrick and billions of Catholics across all lands and ages by loudly proclaiming – “Amen!”
Kevin Vost, Psy.D., his wife and two sons live in Springfield, Illinois an attend St. Agnes Parish. He is author of more than a dozen books from The One-Minute Aquinas to Memorize the Mass!