Because my daughter Anah does not have the cognitive ability (yet) to figure things out by reason or logic, then the only way to teach her a new skill is to repeat it so often that she eventually memorizes it. And if it’s a physical skill like taking a bath or brushing her teeth, we have to put our hands over hers and make her actually do the movement that is required until her body just knows what to do. When a set of physical movements is so ingrained that she can do it almost automatically (without thinking about each step), we say it is in her “muscle memory.”
I ran across this quote in the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook the other day that used the term “soul memory” to speak of something similar to muscle memory:
Spiritual discipline, then, is developing soul reflexes so that we know how to live. We discipline ourselves to develop soul memory in normal times so that we’ll be equipped for the times of high demand or deep crisis. [pg 135]
Muscle memory is when my daughter’s hands are so trained in the steps of washing herself in a bath that she can do it on her own even if she doesn’t logically understand what she is doing or why she is doing it. In the same way, soul memory is when my heart is so trained in the ways of loving God and loving others that they just come out of my character without me thinking about it or trying really hard. To love God and love others in the ways that He commands me to in His Word is not just difficult–it’s impossible. But as I train my soul incrementally and repetitively over a long time, God’s Spirit transforms my character in such a way that obedience to those commands becomes almost automatic and easy because it is ingrained in soul memory through all that practice.
So reading my Bible and memorizing portions of it is not just something I’m supposed to do to be a good Christian. Rather, it is one way that I train my soul to know and trust in the God who has created me. Going on solitude retreats is not just getting away from it all so that I can rest, but it is another way of training my soul to be open to whatever God may be directing my attention toward. Eliminating TV is not just to free up more time for myself, but it is a way of training my soul to be more fully present to the people around me. As I practice these disciplines (and many others) over and over, I am gradually developing soul memory–habits of the heart that are bent toward loving and trusting God, and toward loving others the way Christ has loved me.