A Sunday Rumination
Bill Long 11/12/06
The Irrepressible Desire for Freedom--To Learn
As far back as I can remember, I waited for the end of school with a longing so great that I expected and experienced a qualitatively different life the moment I finished my last examination. By the time I got to college, however, this longing to be finished with my formal studies was replaced by another, much stronger, inclination to develop my own private curriculum, my own secret mastery of obscure but life-giving truths. This and the next essay tell you about this process in my life, which began when I was 19 years-old and continues to this day.
When I finished my freshman year at Brown Univ. (RI) about May 20, 1971, my dad picked me up, and together we visited his sisters and mother in upstate New York. Then, I returned to CA, and began working at a simple desk job at a financial services company that a friend of my dad had secured for me. But my greatest longing for Summer 1971 was to master as much of the Bible as I could. I decided to do it during my lunch hours and in the evenings/weekends. Ignoring the inviting CA sun and the still-more-inviting CA girls, I plunged into lunchtime memorization and evening biblical study. I wanted to make the very words of the text become part of me, and I wanted to master all the details of the broader sweep of the Biblical story. Since I was convinced that the words that I read were the very Word of God, I concluded that there was no other task more important in life than mastering every nuance of this Word of God. That is, if God was speaking, why not put every ounce of my emotional and intellectual energy into trying to absorb everything that God was saying?
And so I did. I still recall my first lunchtime of memorization. I sat under a tree, probably looking a little Buddhistic, opened my pocket New Testament which I had cleverly concealed in my jacket pocket, and turned to I Peter. I don't know why I started there, but I would resolutely memorize the epistle. I opened to the first verse: "Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.." (I Pet. 1:1; RSV). I wasn't memorizing for understanding; I had no atlas at the time, nor did I have a word dictionary to tell me what an "apostle" was or where the "Dispersion" was. All this knowledge would come later. My task, as I sat cherubically under the tree, was simply to memorize. And so I began.
I still recall the shudder of excitement I felt as I said the first six words: "Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ..." I said them out loud, but not loud enough to be heard by anyone. I closed my eyes and repeated the words. I looked aside and repeated them. I spoke them with stresses on the different words. I said them once more for good measure. Then, when I was sure that I "had" these words etched on my memory, I went to the next six words: "To the exiles of the Dispersion." Again, the words were easy to learn. Then, I put them together with the first six words, and repeated them time after time after time. I had twelve words, twelve precious words, twelve words that came from the very mouth of God speaking right to me. I didn't know what, if anything, the words meant to me, but I knew that they held the promise of such rich meaning that I didn't worry if the words "spoke" immediately to me on that occasion. All I knew is that I was beginning to build, as it were, an immensely huge vault in my brain where the most precious things in the universe could be stored. Here were words that, once lodged there, could never be taken away. Words which, once lodged there, could then begin to permeate my mind and my speech patterns, give me words for other occasions and provide endless joy as I called on them in times easy and hard.
But then, before I finished my lunch, I had to face the final seven words of the verse (often I would divide a verse into various sections of a certain number of words). They were places I hadn't heard of, but I knew that if I could memorize the words, I could certainly learn where these places actually were. And so I plunged ahead: Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, Bithynia. "PGCAB," I thought. Well, I then eschewed that simple mnemonic, wanting to have nothing other than the pure and unadulterated Word of God in my mind. No crutches. No games. No gimmicks. Just give me Methuselah or Maher Shalal Hash Baz and I will just learn it. If God could speak it, I could learn it. It was really as simple as that.
And so I finished my first verse just as the lunch hour was coming to a conclusion. I cannot tell you how great a surge of energy I felt upon completing the verse (which I recited to myself several times on the elevator back to my desk). It was almost as if I had touched the very heart of God and that I had found a key to the most special and meaningful knowledge in the universe. Once I was convinced that this was the basic source of my learning, I knew that I could get straight "A's" in my academic work but that it would pale in comparison to what I could teach myself just through the simple act of text mastery.
But I am really only getting started; I want to tell you what else I did in the summer of 1971, and then Christmas of 1972, and then the summer of 1973--but this must await the next essay.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long