Learning by Rote: Creativity and Discipline in Life and Prayer

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One day, a home-schooled Anglo-Australian made a rather ill-informed statement on Asian education to his house mate, despite my presence: “Asians can’t be creative because they go through rote learning.”

Interiorly, I thought of all the great poems I was expected to memorise in primary school back in Singapore: immortal lines by Wordsworth, Shelley, Stevenson, Benet – poems which we copied out and illustrated. I can still recite them today, and I still own that cherished personalised poetry book. Then I thought of the poetry I have been composing since I was eight. (One poem garnered a college prize last year.)musicrose

I also thought of a primary school classmate, whom I have not seen for almost two decades. She was a virtuoso pianist, her nimble hands flying over the keys, producing marvellous, magnificent music. She could not have created those magical sounds without hours of persistent practice.

Incidentally, the ubiquitous USB thumb drive was invented by a Singaporean.1 It was also a Singaporean company which invented the mp3 player interface, way before Apple came along with its iPod.2

Recently I attended the annual Spirit in the City conference in Brisbane. Fr. James Grant SSC, the founder of Chaplains Without Borders, remarked upon the high attrition rate of Pentecostal communities. They run on emotion, and they can’t sustain it, he explained, whereas the rate of conversion to Catholicism is slower, but most converts remain for the long haul.

The transmission of the Catholic faith is a combination of rote learning and personal encounter which together bear fruit in true joy and creative love that lasts through the vicissitudes of life. We memorise the devotional prayers of the Holy Rosary, which sustains us in the contemplation of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, deepening our relationship with God by the recollection of salvation history. We memorise the liturgical prayers and actions of the Mass, which conforms us to the Person of Christ through the Holy Eucharist. Without these anchors of a shared prayer life steeped in scripture and tradition, the Church would fragment into individualistic, emotionally-driven sects. At the above-mentioned conference, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane declared, “The Church is not a sect.” We are Catholic, which is to say, universal.


From this rich deposit of faith, saints and musicians through the ages have been able to compose exquisite prayers and hymns which we continue to use today, such as Aquinas’ Adoro Te Devote (“Godhead Here in Hiding”) or Tantum Ergo (“Down in adoration falling”). Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Chopin, Palestrina and Vivaldi were inspired to compose sonorous Mass settings which are still being performed in secular concert halls.

Discipline is required for disciples to become truly creative – it is the paradox of saints, that they are at once fully themselves as unique unrepeatable individuals, and fully conformed to Christ, living life to the fullest (John 10:10) in the image and likeness of God the Supreme Creator. Love is creative, and love is the discipline of the Cross. Jesus took His time – 33 years – to grow and mature into a man strong enough to bear the Cross; we too take time to develop habits which mould our characters so that we may bear Christ to others, bringing a breath of Heaven into the most hellish situations. St. Damien of Molokai was thus able to minister to a colony of lepers, dressing ulcers, building a reservoir, homes, furniture and coffins, and digging graves. St. Maximilian Kolbe was thus able to lead condemned Auschwitz prisoners in singing hymns of praise while they starved to death. Love continues to create and renew life even in the face of destruction.

Returning to my original conceit, it is necessary for all students to memorise the alphabet, then master grammar, vocabulary and syntax, and remember phonemes, in order to communicate effectively. It is the discipline of rote learning that enables masterful creativity, whether in literature, music, science or prayer. Just as we may strengthen our bodies through a series of set exercises, so we strengthen our minds and spirits through habitual learning and spiritual exercises. The more we exercise, the easier it becomes to keep doing so; let us then rise to today’s challenges, and carry our crosses together on this narrow path to life eternal, remembering the example and teachings of those who have gone before us, not least God Himself. For it is things we learn by rote, that is, by heart, that we can draw on to fashion into a new expression of love. Only God can create ex nihilo, out of nothing.

Let us be who we are, and be that well, so as to honour the Master Worker, whose handiwork we are.
—St. Francis de Sales

How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints!
—C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Images: Pinterest; Allison Totus Tuus Family.


1 Bernice Tan, “ThumbDrive inventor out to prove he is no one-hit wonder”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 December 2010.

2 Arik Hesseldahl, “Apple Vs. Creative Tech”, Forbes; “Apple pays Creative $100 million in iPod-related lawsuit”, MacTech; Anton Shilov, “Creative Awarded with MP3 Player User Interface Patent”, Xbit Laboratories.

Jean Elizabeth Seah

Jean Elizabeth Seah

Jean Elizabeth Seah is a law and liberal arts graduate. She has had several adventures with Our Lord and Our Lady, including running away to join a convent after law school. The journey is tough and the path ahead is foggy, but she knows that as long as you hold firmly onto Our Lady’s hand, you’ll make it through! She also writes at https://aleteia.org/author/jean-elizabeth-seah/

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2 thoughts on “Learning by Rote: Creativity and Discipline in Life and Prayer”

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    Awesome! I have always thought that true greatness is most often the product of doing the same few things repetitively and with ever deepening insight until they change us into themselves. It is then that we can be creative, because we can forget about ourselves.

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