Senior Saints Keep Learning

Patricia E. Clawson

Memorizing the 107 questions of the Shorter Catechism is daunting for someone of any age, let alone a 91-year-old man who has been in and out of the hospital with heart problems. Yet that didn’t stop Roy Reid, a former trustee of Westminster OPC in Hamden, Connecticut, who learned the catechism during his last two years on earth.

With a fluctuating memory, it was an arduous task, but Mr. Reid wanted to learn more about his Lord and the Scriptures, said his pastor, Jonathan Holst. Although Mr. Reid knew many Scripture passages, he wanted more structured material. After observing the adults and children recite the catechism during opening exercises of Sunday school, he developed his own system to learn the catechism. “It was a struggle for him to maintain the answers,” said Pastor Holst. “He said, ‘This is what I’m going to try to do for better or for worse. Whether I make it or not remains to be seen.’ ”

Only the session knew of his efforts as he focused on two or three questions weekly and repeated and repeated what he had learned. “Roy was an example to all the men of the church and the ladies, in spite of several brutal challenges in his life,” said Pastor Holst. “It required more discipline and more perseverance than someone half his age. I didn’t think he’d get to the end, but I was wrong. Roy’s perseverance, faithfulness, and humility were precious jewels of our congregation.”

His success, which was noted in New Horizons three weeks after he died, showed Pastor Holst “the evidence of the truth of Christ’s promise in John 14:26: ‘The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.’ ”

Mr. Reid is among several OP senior saints who have shown that it’s never too late to learn. While Mr. Reid memorized the catechism, others have learned Scripture passages or hymns.

When Bill Stephens was in his sixties, he memorized the Shorter Catechism, but lost it without continual review. When the former elder from Emmanuel OPC in Whippany, New Jersey, was 75, he memorized all 176 verses of Psalm 119 in a year. He knew the verses so well that he recited the entire psalm backwards to his wife, verse by verse, but he let that go too. At age 82, he rememorized it in eight months, but without continual review he forgot much of it. Now at 92, he sometimes thinks about the verses and tries to apply them.

“It’s good to have the Scriptures right in your mind so that you can readily recall them when you have a problem or when you want to praise the Lord,” said Mr. Stephens. “Different people have different abilities to memorize, but anybody can memorize Scripture. Just keep trying until you master it.”

When Robert Ream first discovered the Shorter Catechism, he was so deeply impressed that he memorized it. “I said to myself, where has this been all my life?” said the former elder at Calvary OPC in Glenside, Pennsylvania. He found the catechisms extremely helpful when he taught at a Christian academy, as well as in his own spiritual life. At 84, Dr. Ream advocates learning it at any age. “The sooner that young people get it memorized, the better it is,” said Dr. Ream. “Even if they don’t understand it now, they will grow into it.”

Yet Dr. Ream admits that his “forgetter” is very active. Now he memorizes hymns, which he finds very difficult and which need constant repeating. “As you get older, your afflictions increase,” said Dr. Ream. “I’m choosing hymns dealing with trials and suffering.” After learning “Whate’er My God Ordains Is Right,” he shared it with others. “It enables you to persevere,” he explained.

Copies of the Shorter Catechism and the Heidelberg Catechism sit on the table next to Arlena Mahaffy, so that our former missionary to Eritrea can review them from time to time. With the use of magnifying aids, the 96-year-old also reads books on Reformed doctrine, even though she is legally blind with severe macular degeneration. Her computer enlarges Bible verses to make them readable. When her eyes tire, she uses audio devices to listen to sermons on tape and often falls asleep listening to the Bible.

“The older I get, the more aware I am of how little I know,” said Mrs. Mahaffy. “I need to study the Scriptures deeply and study these doctrines. I have more time to think about them and meditate on them now.”

When she was on the mission field raising and homeschooling seven children, she didn’t have the time to study as she does now. She tries to keep up with what she has memorized. Once she went to bed and couldn’t remember Psalm 23, so she searched and searched her memory until she recalled it, and now she says it perfectly.

“As you get older, it gets harder and harder to remember things,” said Mrs. Mahaffy, who reviews what she has memorized. “You need to keep working mentally. Stay in the Scriptures and memorize what you can.”

Despite their years and health concerns, these seniors keep putting on their memory caps to learn and relearn the catechisms, Scripture, and hymns while they inch closer to glory.


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