Learning by heart

I just returned from spending a couple of days at the hermitage that I frequent for brief retreats into the solitary life.

Every time is different from the time before – but always beautiful – as God’s abundant love overflows into me. Even the terrain varies from one Memorial Day weekend to the next, as Nature extravagantly reinvents spring every year.

I do not enter the hermitage with a plan – or at least not a well-formed one. I pack enough for a week, though only staying for two days. Extra socks because of the unseen puddles that always seem to find me. Food enough to nourish this non-faster for a couple of days. A book or two for prayer and reflection; my Kindle Fire loaded with more books – just in case. Usually some art supplies come along or perhaps some sewing to do by hand.

And, of course, camera must come along – just in case there are butterflies.

With ever-changing nature surrounding me and raw materials at hand, things happen. God draws me to Him, near to His heart, that I might listen and learn. I never know how He is going to do it – only that He will.

A couple of weeks before I left, a half-remembered prayer from long ago kept coming to mind. I had had a copy of it back in college –  but where it was among my belongings I did not know. It wasn’t the sort of thing I would have thrown away…

“I’ll have to look that up one of these days,” I told myself. Yet, as is often the case, I kept forgetting to search for it when sitting at the computer. I remembered a phrase or two from the prayer – probably enough to turn it up. So much easier than digging through dusty boxes.

Forgetting as often as I did, one day shortly before I left, I finally remembered. And, without difficulty, I found the prayer online and printed it so that I could have it close at hand.

As I started packing my things, a little voice within instructed me to take the prayer with me to the hermitage.

And so I did.

Many things happen every time I go to the hermitage, some delightful and some not so easy or pleasant. But there is always growth in this holy place of God’s love.

Soon after I arrived, I became aware that I was to learn this prayer by heart. I do not often try to memorize things anymore. I am grateful not to be in school, with exams always around the corner. Looking up information when I need it works well these days.

And my aging brain is grateful – for it has become much more effortful to commit things to memory than it used to be.

(I discovered this a few months ago when it occurred to me that I didn’t know the names of the twelve apostles. I was a bit disturbed to realize that, as a lifelong Christian, I couldn’t list them. So I set out to memorize the twelve names. It’s a little embarrassing to say how long it took to get them all reliably into my long-term memory…)

In any event, I discovered a copy of the prayer at worldprayers.org and it was broken into stanzas. So I began my labor, one stanza at a time. At various intervals during the day, I would repeat the words of the stanza I was on, checking to make sure that I had the wording just right.

It’s funny how something so seemingly simple can be such a challenge. I might be in the middle of reciting it to myself when I would stop and wonder, was it “shall” or “will”? And so on, with each little turn of phrase, thinking I had it correct, only to discover that I was off by a word or two.

But this was good. Because I knew what God was up to.

Some sources say that the origin of the idiom, to “learn by heart”, stems from the ancients’ confusion about which body organ involves learning. Because the heart is such a vital and central organ, it was assumed to be the center of knowledge.

Of course, science now tells us that the brain, not the heart, is the organ that stores data for us. This is indisputable.

But God was using this exercise of my brain to teach my heart. Relentlessly, He was pressing me to learn this prayer, not only with my mind but with the depths of my being.

He is calling me to make this prayer part of who I am.

The prayer, “Radiating Christ”, was composed by John Henry Cardinal Newman but is probably best known for being a favorite of St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa).

I have transcribed the prayer for you below, from memory, correcting a few small errors. Every time I think I have it, I find that one or two little words were not recalled just right.

It is good to be so humbled. For as my heart continues its learning of the prayer, surely many, many more errors will need correcting.

May it be so, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.


Radiating Christ

(by John Henry Cardinal Newman)


Dear Jesus, help me to spread Your fragrance everywhere I go.

Flood my soul with Your spirit and life.

Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly,

That my life may only be a radiance of Yours.


Shine through me and be so in me

That every soul I come in contact with 

May feel Your presence in my soul.

Let them look up and see no longer me, but only Jesus!


Stay with me and then I shall begin to shine as You shine,

So to shine as to be a light to others;

The light, O Jesus, will be all from You; none of it will be mine.

It will be You, shining on others through me.


Let me thus praise You the way You love best, by shining on those around me.

Let me preach You without preaching, not by words but by my example,

By the catching force of the sympathetic influence of what I do,

The evident fullness of the love my heart bears to You.



6 thoughts on “Learning by heart

  1. albert

    “Learning by heart” — it never occurred to me what that phrase might really mean. Even now I have trouble understanding both the imagery(“Sacred Heart”) and the way “heart” is used in certain spiritual contexts. But I am glad that you told this story. What you wrote about memorizing that prayer-poem got me thinking about the general topic of language and prayer.

    Regarding Cardinal Newman’s approach in this case, here’s what I came up with:

    Stanza #4 is where I would start if I were to say it as a prayer, then #2. I don’t think I could say stanza #1 without feeling . . . well, a bit artificial (but that’s my problem, the connections I make because of background differences; e.g., spreading “fragrance” is just not something I would think of). As for stanza #3, it seems repetitive–the shining part, I mean. Of course repetition is common in prayers as well as in poems, but it’s often an indicator of emotion, or simply to reinforce the meaning through sound effects. As an image, “shine” works very well the first time it is used, but it loses something, I think, when repeated three more times (as in stanza #3).

    Oh my, what have I done here? So sorry for slipping into my critical mode. I probably wouldn’t even have written this comment if Newman’s prayer hadnt been printed that way; i.e., looking like a poem. What does that say about my preoccupations and biases? (Don’t answer. I already know. I’m working on it) Actually, Mary, I think you might do well to delete everything after my first paragraph. I didn’t delete because I wanted you to know that I respect your reflections enough to tell you my reactions–which are most likely not of interest to other readers.

  2. mary Post author

    Don’t worry about your post, Al. It’s your reaction and that is fine. I think I had set aside the prayer after my college years (rather than keeping it in active practice) because of some of the same concerns. “Fragrance”? Too many “shines”, etc. But I guess it was given me to experience it differently now.

    I don’t believe it was ever composed to be read as a poem. I simply found it broken into stanzas which helped with my goal of learning it by heart. So it is understandable that you might react to it as a poem, though that is not really what it is.

    Also noteworthy is that some sources quote only part of the prayer. It is rather long and some of the language is a bit obscure to our palate. For some reason, that made it more interesting (and difficult) for me to learn. Which is perhaps why I needed to learn it – to feel that challenge and not simply read it over a few times and then lose interest.

    Interestingly, no matter how many times I have recited the prayer from memory in the last week, I am always left pausing as I struggle to pull up at least one line or a phrase. That has given me a new feel for each phrase and the repetition. My memory pause leads me to ponder what I am saying – e.g. if I need to pause (this time through) after the phrase, “stay with me”, it sinks in while my memory seeks and finds what comes next. I cannot simply “rattle it off”, as with something easily memorized.

    Regarding the “heart” in spiritual terms…I think it is something we can only understand with the heart – our rational thinking gets lost when it tries to move into that realm. (I know that is circular – only the heart can understand things of the heart…) But the struggles of my mind with memory have, in this case, helped the prayer to find its way into that deeper place.

    BTW, I feel a new appreciation for the term “fragrance” now as well, having read of so many experiences of sweet fragrance (e.g. flowers) emanating from the holy – icons, holy people or their incorrupt remains, etc. And we seem to intuitively use fragrance in worship, e.g. incense. Perhaps holiness has a fragrance. Just a thought.

  3. albert

    Good point about fragrance, especially with regard to incense. I dont get the icon thing, or even vases overflowing with flowers, though i respect those who do. Happily I’ve become more aware, during the recent years, of the role of the senses, the whole body in fact, in prayer. Scholastic philosophy took root early on, and I just went with it most of my life, except for investigations here and there in later Western thinking. Fortunately it’s not too late to learn from other spiritual centers. I’m trying.

  4. mary Post author

    I’m trying too. 🙂 One of the beauties of our faith is that there are quite literally endless possibilities for growth in Christ.

  5. Christina Chase

    This is my father’s favorite prayer! And I can certainly say, in the patient and generous way in which he cares for me, his disabled daughter, he is a shining example of selfless, Christian love.

    Oh, and by the way, I was smiling widely when reading your difficulty with memorizing the prayer – “was it shall or will?” – those little words will get me every time I try to memorize.

    Glad to have found your blog (thank you, Albert, for the introduction!)
    Pax Christi

  6. mary Post author


    I am so honored that you have visited my blog! Albert had linked me to yours awhile back and it is truly awesome (as in “inspiring awe”). I had clicked to “follow” your blog and never received email notifications. I thought perhaps your health had prevented you from writing. To my regret, I did not follow-up – for I now see that I am way behind on my reading. But that also means there is much for me to look forward to. (I did click “follow” again tonight but not sure if it went through.)

    It is so sweet to learn of your father. My father fell asleep in the Lord 3 years ago and he was that same sort of man – patient and generous. Thank you for sharing (and thanks, Al, for the introduction).

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