Vain and Repetitious Prayer?

Posted: September 2, 2012 in Mary, Prayer, Rosary
Tags: , , ,

20120902-225304.jpgSo many non Catholics, especially fundamentalists and “Bible Christians,” point to Matthew 6:7, in which Jesus condemns vain and repetitious prayer, to show yet another area in which the Catholic Church violates what seems to be a crystal clear teaching.

Catholic practices and prayers are full of repetition. The Lord’s Prayer, the Glory Be, Grace Before Meals, all of these are memorized and repetitious. Of course, that’s just scratching the surface for us as Catholics. There’s the Divine Office, novenas, and of course the Rosary and Hail Marys. These can easily be seen by the outsider or the uninformed as vain and repetitious.

For Protestants who are contemplating Catholicism, and even for those who have chosen to take the leap, this can be a tremendous obstacle to overcome. Fundamentalist Christians have had it ingrained into their minds that Matthew 6:7 forbids repetitive prayers. This is yet again an unfortunate fallacy and a result of reading scripture out of context. Too often, we read the Bible on our own without an appreciation for the time and the culture in which they were written.

Context is Key

You will hear many Protestants tell you that, when you read the Bible, you must read it in context, not taking one verse and applying meaning to it on its own. This is, of course, very good advice. The problem is that “context” for fundamentalists is the few verses before and after the verse they are quoting. For Catholics, “context” means the culture and time in which the text was written, in relation to the entire history of God’s revelation to man and the Holy Scriptures as a whole. For Catholics, one verse of the Bible must be viewed through the lens of the Bible in its entirety.

This is especially important when we look at verses like Matthew 6:7, which states:

“And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words.” (Matthew 6:7 NASB)

Or as it says in the King James Version:

“But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.” (Matthew 6:7 KJV)

Vain Bad, Repetition Good…

Notice that Jesus uses an adjective before “repetitious.” This should not be overlooked. It is reasonable to believe that, Jesus’ intention was to forbid us from repetition, He would have forgone the descriptor and simply said “repetitious.” Instead, He qualified the term by adding the adjective to describe what kind of repetition He wanted us to avoid: meaningless or vain. One could conclude, then, that it is not the repetition that was forbidden, but the mindset of the person saying the prayer and the meaning behind the words. Remember, all prayers are meaningless if there is no feeling or intent behind them. Far more so if they are repeated robotically without meditation directed toward God.

Also, it must be noted that the verse specifically warns us not to pray like the Gentiles or the heathens, depending on the translation. What is a gentile or a heathen? At the time Jesus spoke the words, it meant a non-Jew, someone who did not worship the One True God. In our time, we would agree with this meaning, except to say that a gentile or heathen would be a non-Christian or non-Jew. If we are being charitable, we may even exclude Muslims from the definition of gentile as they claim to worship the same God.

What Jesus most certainly did not say is “do not pray repetitively like the Jews.” Instead, he warned us not to pray like the Gentiles. Why is this significant? Because the Jews used (and still use) repetition in their prayers. In fact, repetitive prayer is found all throughout the Bible.

The Book of Psalms is full of repetition. In the garden of Getheseme, Jesus repeated the same prayer three times. In the Book of Revelations, the Angles exclaim “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts” without ceasing, day and night.

The Gentiles had something of an adversarial relationship with their gods. They heaped repetitious prayers up to their non existent gods because they believed that the more they prayed, the better chance they had of being heard. Jesus tells us that this is not necessary because God knows what we need before we ask it. Nonetheless, we are still to go to Him in prayer.

The key is not the repetition of the words, but the emptiness with which they are said. When the devout catholic prays a Hail Mary or an Our Father, or when he gets down on his knees clutching a Rosary and offering his prayers to God, he focuses on the words of the prayers and what he is really asking of God. All words are empty if we place no meaning behind them. By the same token, what we say when we pray is far less important than what we think and feel. If there are words that have already been written that express our needs to God, than why not use them?

Keeping Focused Through Prayer

There’s a deeper purpose and efficacy in prayerful repetition. Memorizing and repeating prayers focuses our minds on God more than we can on our own volition. Repetitive prayer fills the void in those quiet times, those pauses in between our other thoughts and actions. In the dark of night, when we wake up at 4:00 in the morning for no reason and find ourselves having trouble getting to sleep, saying the Our Father or the Hail Mary over and over again gently relaxes our worried mind while at the same time keeping it from wondering on more worrisome and perhaps sinful thoughts. Repetitive prayer keeps our minds full of God when it may otherwise wish to fill itself. In one sense, it is like counting sheep with prayer.

Filling the Void

In a very real sense, repetitive prayers keep us from sinning because we choose to fill the void with words that are focused on God rather than on our own earthly desires. Of course we can make up our own prayers and use our own words, and we should do so on a regular basis. However, when we are at a loss for words, we are tired or our minds are otherwise disposed to other tasks, repetitive prayers are a wonderful way to maintain an active prayer life.

For example, when I go out for a run, I have to pay attention to my surroundings or I could trip and fall or get hit by a car. I listen to music to keep me motivated, but my mind needs to remain alert and aware of potential hazards. I don’t have the cognitive capacity during times like those to come up with my own payer. I can, however, offer up my pain and suffering on the run to God and keep my inner thoughts focused on Him by repeating a well known prayer. Because of repetitive prayer, we can take repetitive activities such as exercise or even walking from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’, offering them up and devoting them to God.

Continuing the Conversation

The vast majority of the time, I do not have specific requests of God. I’d like to think that’s a good problem to have; God has blessed me and my family in so many ways that I don’t always have something in mind when I go to Him in prayer. A memorized prayer keeps me in conversation with God, without the distraction of fumbling for words to say to Him. I don’t have to struggle to find words to say, because there are already words sufficient for my needs.

Routine Comforts

There’s more to it than that, though. Monotony dominates our lives as humans. We are engulfed in routine in everything we do. We wake up at the same time, go to work at the same time, often doing essentially the same thing every day. There is a comfort in familiarity in routine, and in many ways, whether we like to admit it or not, it’s something we cherish.

Think of small children, who are so happy to read the same bedtime story every night, or the watch the same movie day after day. Think of the infant who keeps dropping her fork on the floor, laughing every time you bend down to pick it back up and put it on the high chair, or the endless games of peek-a-boo. Think of all the times you’ve heard a child squeal, “Again! Again, again again! Do it again!”

Muscle Memory

We are monotonous, repetitive creatures. God made us to be this way. Memorizing and repeating prayers works for us because it is comforting. It also becomes instinctual. When police officers train, they practice the same moves over and over again, repeating the same phrases: “stop resisting!” or “get down.” They repeat their actions and words and repeat them some more. The reason? Because there may come a time when they really need it, when there is no time think. We revert to our training when our backs are against the wall. In the same way, when life has us up against a wall, we may revert to our memorized prayers, perhaps saying them before we even realize we are doing it, and in that way we turn our minds back to God.

Praying the Rosary

Of course, we can’t discuss the issue of repetitive prayer and ignore the most recognizable example of it, the rosary. The rosary is a source of multiple doctrinal concerns for so many fundamentalists because it contains not only repetitious prayers, but the vast majority of the repetition is devoted to Mary rather than God. How on earth can a fundamentalist convert to the Catholic faith and be okay with a prayer like the rosary?

First of all, it must be understood that the rosary is a meditation. It is an act of focusing our minds, most often in preparation for prayer. We say the rosary to put our minds in a position to focus on a prayerful communion with God. You can liken it to kneading the dough. We use the rosary to ready our requests of God to be placed in the oven of our heart and prepare our soul to send the pleasing aromas of our prayers and praise to Heaven.

Something About Mary

All of this begs the question, though: if God is our focus, why the fixation on Mary in the rosary? Why are we praying to Mary at all if we should be fixated on God? To understand this, we must understand a few things about prayer and how the Catholic understanding differs from the Protestant.

Protestants, and especially fundamentalists, tend to view prayer as something reserved for God, equating prayers with worship and praise. While it is entirely correct that all worship and praise is a form of prayer, and that such prayers are rightly reserved for God alone, it is not true that all prayer is worship or praise. The word “prayer” has several meanings in the English language, one of which is simply a petition or entreaty; a request, if you will. A prayer to Mary is not an act of worship, but of request. We ask, in the Hail Mary, that Jesus’ mother pray to her Son for us and with us.

We devote a special prayer to Mary because we believe her to be the one human most worthy of honor. Mary is a person, just like us, but God favored her above all other human beings for all time when he allowed her to bare His Son. Through Mary, by the Grace of God, Jesus came into the world.

We also know that Jesus listens to Mary, as we see at the wedding feast in Canna when He tells her that the host running out of wine is no concern of His as it is not yet His time. Nonetheless, He performs His first public miracle at her behest. The other side of the coin, as we see in the very same example, is that Mary helps us to hone our focus on God and Jesus. “Do whatever He tells you,” she says. Why the focus and attention on Mary? Because she is the human example of what we can become: purely, truly faithful and obedient to God, loving Jesus as only she can. The mediation on the rosary is based on Mary because while Jesus taught us how to love one another and bridged the chasm between God and man, Mary is our earthly example of how to love Jesus.

The Freedom to Pray as You Please

A well said rosary centers our mind and focuses our thoughts like a laser on Jesus and, through Him, our Father in Heaven. A catholic may go his or her entire life without ever being required to say a Hail Mary or so much as look at a rosary.

There’s no real way to get past that feeling of weirdness that fundamentalist converts may have toward the rosary, other than to pray about it and ask God to either help them be okay with it or to let it go and not worry about the need to pray it.

There is no requirement that Catholics pray the rosary, ever. Should they choose it, though, it can be a powerful tool and a way to a deeper prayer life. After praying the rosary, our hearts are left bare and open, ready to give ourselves more fully and honestly to God.

Meaningful Meditation

Now, with regards to the rosary or any other prayer, if there is no meaning behind your words, there is no reason to pray them. God knows your heart and your soul. He knows if your prayers are in fact vain or meaningless. Every word we utter to Him should be said with reverence and fervor, and if that is not done, we are certainly guilty of the very thing Jesus warned us against in our prayers.

Even if there’s no prohibition against memorized prayers, is it pleasing to God? Logic would tell us yes. We need to remember, first and foremost, that God does not require our prayers in order for Him to exist. He doesn’t need them. In fact, there is nothing we can give Him, offer Him, or say to Him that can add anything to His being or His glory. He is, plain and simple, whether we acknowledge Him or not.

The Lord’s Prayer

Jesus tells us that our Father in heaven knows what we need before we say it; in fact, He knows it before we do. So why even bother to pray at all? The answer is, because it’s good for us. Our prayers, repetitive or not, are pleasing to God because they keep us focused on Him. Our prayers are pleasing to God because He knows we need them.

Consider the words of the Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father, who art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

The Lord’s Prayer is the model prayer, the words Jesus Himself taught us to use when we call upon Him. Consider its structure: we identify that God is in Heaven and that He is holy. We acknowledge His Kingdom has come, and we recall that it is His will, not ours, that we hope for. We ask Him to feed us and forgive us, and we remind ourselves that we must forgive others. Finally, we ask for strength to be free of evil and temptation. These are not words that God needs, but instead they’re words that we need.

Searching Our Hearts, Freeing Our Minds

Ever generous, ever loving, our prayers please God in much the same way that watching our own children pray makes us happy: we know they need it, and we know that as long as they are focused on God, they will overcome any obstacles. Moreover, we know, just as God does, that as long as they stay focused on Him they will one day join Him in heaven. Prayers, memorized or not, repetitive or not, are not vain if they are offered to the one true God, Creator of Heaven and Earth and all the universe.


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