The artwork on the walls of my mind

I’ll always remember the first day I stepped into Dr. Condict’s classroom. Honey-colored wooden desks were set out in a “U” shape with the teacher’s desk in the center. In the corner stood a large model of the medieval Rota Fortuna, or Wheel of Fortune. But the first thing I noticed was the walls. Almost every inch of available space was crowded with quotes from famous philosophers, theologians, writers, poets, and other thinkers. “The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness,” says one, attributed to Pope Benedict XVI. The quotes were set in different fonts: print, cursive, all caps. If you were quiet it was easy to think, for a moment, that the walls were talking. From the side wall, Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” gazed down serenely on the class. 

For Dr. Condict, the words and paintings on the walls of her classroom represented a deeper truth she often shared with students. One of her favorite expressions was “the artwork on the walls of our minds.” You live in your mind all your life, after all; why not be deliberate with what you choose to place there permanently? Dr. Condict requires students in all of her classes to memorize selections of the world’s great poetry. In her Gerard Manley Hopkins class, I began memorizing Hopkins’ “Wreck of the Deutschland,” a 280-line poem about a man struggling to understand God’s goodness in a world that seems chaotic and dark. One of my good friends had memorized it in its entirety, and it became my goal to do the same.

That fall, I roamed the sidewalks of my college town, phone in hand, scrolling and memorizing. I probably looked like a crazy person to anyone walking by. The “Wreck” is admittedly a tongue-twister: “How a lush-kept plush-capped sloe / Will, mouthed to flesh-burst, / Gush!” But the more I memorized, the more the meaning of the words became clearer to me. Sections that originally seemed like rhymed gibberish suddenly offered their treasures. The story of the 1875 shipwreck, and the Franciscan nun who shone as a beacon of Christ’s love even as she faced her impending death, became real. This was the artwork I wanted on the walls of my mind. 

I didn’t know, then, that I’d one day turn to this poem at one of the darkest points of my life. I didn’t know I’d sit up late at night in a city far from home, reciting it aloud when I was unable to sleep. The familiar lines made me feel safe, grounded. I grasped deep comfort in the lines that said of God, “Thou art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm; / Father and fondler of heart thou hast wrung: / Hast thy dark descending and most art merciful then.” I knew then what it was to find it for myself. There were 280 lines of beauty, truth, and goodness fixed forever in my mind, and their rhythm soothed me when my world was falling apart. 

Lately I’ve been busy at my job, and I have less time to stroll at my leisure and memorize poetry. I do, however, remain very conscious of what I put into my mind. If my mind is a museum, what should go in the permanent exhibit? What are the words and images and ideas that I want to shape my life? Some things in my life I’ll remember whether I like it or not, but if I have some say over the rest, I want to use the space well. 

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