by heart

Dec 5, 2018

Like me, many of you will have learnt things by heart as a child, perhaps a prayer or a poem or multiplication tables. This rote-learning method went out of fashion for a while but today I’m pleased to know that 4×12=48 without picking up a pencil or using my fingers.

Our ancestors in faith who lived 50 or 2000 years ago carried prayers, psalms and even large passages of scriptures learnt by rote in their heads – or we could better say they carried what they learnt by heart in their hearts.

There may be prayers you learnt as a child that you remember at least in part and it wouldn’t take too many recitations to bring back the complete text. Some favourites for me include the prayers: “Soul of Christ, Sanctify Me…”  and  “Remember O most gracious Virgin Mary…”  and the hymns “Lead Kindly Light” and “O Love that Will not let me go.”

Children learn by heart easily and naturally and pick up the words of every secular song lyric or tv and computer jingle or catch-phrase without even trying. We help children when we match the secular (and often unhelpful) stuff they pick up by teaching them words that are sacred giving them a readily available life-long resource of hope and connection with God for future moments of struggle.

Today’s psalm is without a doubt the best known passage of scripture, well known word for word by people who would be surprised to realise that they know some scripture by heart. Try this little test yourself and you will easily complete this verse: “The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want…”

There have been times when the words of this psalm have helped me a lot. Sometimes when I feel a bit needy I find myself repeating as a mantra “The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want.” Most days my soul needs restoring, and when I sense the valley of death approaching this psalm which I know by heart reminds me that “I need fear no ill” because when I live with Jesus “goodness and mercy will follow me.”

Whenever this psalm is sung at a funeral I often glance around at the congregation and notice that most people are singing without reference to the hymn sheets. It is evident that they know this ancient prayer by heart.

The LORD’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want.
He makes me down to lie
in pastures green; He leadeth me
the quiet waters by.

My soul He doth restore again;
and me to walk doth make
within the paths of righteousness,
e’en for His own name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through death’s dark vale,
yet will I fear no ill;
for Thou art with me, and Thy rod
and staff me comfort still.

My table Thou hast furnished
in presence of my foes;
my head Thou dost with oil anoint,
and my cup overflows.

Goodness and mercy all my life
shall surely follow me;
and in God’s house for evermore
my dwelling place shall be.

Eugene Peterson who died last month was the master of translating the scriptures into everyday language. You can find his text from “The Message”  below.

If you would like to listen to as you drive or work today you might appreciate this link to the psalm sung to the well-known melody “Crimond.”

An Invitation

You might like to make this psalm your prayer today, using even just a line or two. You might also like to remember a prayer that you learnt as a child but might not have prayed for many decades. Recall the prayer and see if you can still pray it searching online if you need help to remember the full text. Take a moment to share the prayer or hymn you recall at the comment link below.



  1. Many if our images of God are majestic, powerful and remote but this psalm of a tender God is as close as the beating of our hearts. We notice that in the movement of God-with-us through all the phases of life, this tender care is constant nd close.
    Where is the God of Judgement and condemnation? Perhaps we made that up.

    • I heard at an Anglican funeral the lovely idea that judgement is real, it will happen, but it will be within the context of the greatest loving kindness.

  2. I was reminded of the prayer to the Holy Family by someone in their late 80s who had learned this at school as I had and it was wonderful to say it together.

  3. The last prayer I say before my head touches the pillow is the Memorare. Even when going through desert and doubtful times this
    beautiful prayer to Mary has always been my steadfast companion.

  4. A little prayer I say and love to remember is : Oh Jesus through the most pure heart of Mary I offer you all my thoughts, words, sorrows and actions of this day for all the intentions of thy Devine Heart. It brings a smile to my face each morning.

  5. The wisdom of young children has often been a wake-up call for me, epitomised by this story – A Sunday school teacher decided that her 6 year old pupils should learn Psalm 23 to recite to the congregation at the end of term. James was one of this class, but for him the learning by heart presented him with a problem ! When the day came and it was James’ turn, he nervously stood before the people and said, “The Lord is my shepherd, that is all I need “.

  6. Another prayer I learnt years ago was “Lord help me realise that nothing will happen to me today that you and I can’t handle.

  7. Lord help me realise that nothing will happen to me today that you and I can’t handle.

  8. Beautiful John, He is My Shepherd.
    Thank you.

  9. Brought up in the Presbyterian Church we didn’t have a lot of Prayers which were rote learned, but the prayer my Father taught me said at bedtime was Gentle Jesus meek and mild….. ending with a litany of family members committed to His care. I taught this to my children and they in turn have taught it to my Grandchildren. . Maybe I should start saying it again, at 63 I am still a child of God :)

  10. When I was about 7 years old, and my brother six, (about 1977). Parishioners were given a large black folding card (like a stand- up desk calander),with the Angelus prayer on it, at Mass one Sunday. I think the Homily that day must have motivated my parents to pray it at home as a family. So when the advertisements came on TV during the six o’clock news, Dad got up and turned the TV off, and away we went.
    ‘The angel of the Lord declared to Mary…. etc.’ I remember my brother knowing it off by heart before me. (I learnt those times-table off by heart before him though) I think this was a Lenten thing, I’m not sure if we lasted the six weeks. But the memory has lasted 40 years.

  11. Thanks john. I have made learning a selection of psalms songs and scripture passages part of my devotional life for many years. I find that they centre my thoughts as I call them up and that in doing so I focus on what is actually being said. I often use one that seems appropriate to my own feelings or to the challenges I expect in the day. We used to call rote learning as “learning things of by heart”. Committing scripture to heart for me is a small gift back to God

  12. Thank you Fr John for a beautiful quiet, time, a stunning reflection/chat/ homily and the Benediction at St Mary’s tonight

  13. One of the prayers that has ‘stuck’ the most (from one of my teachers at primary school), comes into my head most mornings when I wake… “Good morning dear Jesus this day is for you, so I ask you to bless all I think, say and do, be with me Lord throughout this day, make me kind in all I say, may I in all my work & fun, do all those things you would have done. Dear Jesus, teach me your holy will, to know it & to love it, to give without counting the cost, to fight without heeding the wounds, and to seek no other return than the knowledge that I do your holy will. Amen.”


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