In praise of repetitive prayers, In praise of repetitive prayers

With Lent now upon us and my Mardi Gras food coma subsiding, I thought it a good idea to reflect a bit about prayer.  A thoughtful undergraduate here at Loyola posed a question to me a few weeks ago which I found interesting and thought our readers might as well.  An evangelical friend of his had criticized him for using rote prayers.  In other words, for repeating the same prayers over and over again, for being needlessly redundant in prayer, for failing to be spontaneous enough, for just using the same words again and again in repetition without coming up with anything new—much like this sentence.

The previous poorly written sentence demonstrates, however, that one can be redundant even without repeating the same phrases.  In fact, it’s often when I pray “spontaneously” that I find myself repeating myself.

But in prayer, perhaps, redundancy isn’t any great fault.  God doesn’t disregard our prayers because they aren’t original enough, and when we pray we aren’t telling God anything he doesn’t already know.  Prayer isn’t primarily about exchanging information.

Prayer is, however, about communication.  One reason to communicate is, yes, to exchange information, but another is to build relationships.  And in relationships, some things are so important that they bear repeating.  A husband might tell his wife “I love you” every day before going to work, but the fact that the phrase has become in a sense ritualized doesn’t diminish its power or meaning.  Some things are so true they should be repeated.

To push the point a bit farther, think of another example:  the deeply philosophical conversations I have with my eight month old niece Chloe.  My conversations with the adorable Chloe tend to be more than a little repetitive.  I repeat phrases like “Oh, Chloe, you are the cutest baby” over and over again, and she blows spit bubbles in reply.  I could just as well be speaking Klingon, and it wouldn’t diminish the quality of the communication, because what’s important in these exchanges is not really verbal.  My baby talk is just an excuse to be together, a way of showing affection.  I would maintain that important communication is happening nonetheless, despite a lack of verbal content.  Chloe, after all, smiles and laughs, and I would rather listen to her spit bubbles than just about any other conversation.

When it comes to prayer, “baby talk” is not such a bad analogy because the gap between us and God is infinitely greater than the gap between Chloe and Uncle Tony (and this is not just because Chloe is an exceptionally bright eight month old).  In fact, we wouldn’t really know how to pray at all if God didn’t take the initiative first.  Think of Jesus introducing the Our Father in the Sermon on the Mount:  “This is how you are to pray” (Matt. 6:9).  Implied here, and throughout Scripture, is the fact that we need to learn how to pray.  And one of the ways we learn is through set prayers.  Learning these prayers is a way of allowing ourselves to be taught to pray by God.  It is no coincidence either that the language of these prayers—the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the language of the liturgy—is taken from Sacred Scripture.  As we make these prayers our own over a lifetime we appropriate the language of prayer that God has given us.

While these “formal” prayers are often learned in the most mundane settings—before going to bed as children, in catechism class—once they become a part of our spiritual language they often become the prayers we fall back on in the extreme moments of our lives, moments of fear and anxiety.  As I alluded to in my post about learning to pray in Haiti, there are times when we know we need to pray but we can’t think of what to say.  The important thing in such cases may not be the words themselves but our need for God.  I can remember an older volunteer who was with me in Haiti telling a story about her experiences when the country was undergoing civil unrest.  One night the shooting moved into the street just outside the compound where she was staying.  “I got down on the floor,” she said, “and started saying Acts of Contrition.”  I would argue that her “formal prayer” in this case was a real and sincere and deeply human expression of faith.

A final way in which formal, repetitive prayers can serve us particularly well is in creating silence.  We live in a world with so many “words, words, words” that it is hard to listen to God.  Learning to listen to God would be a challenge even in a less noisy age than our own, but it is also the most important thing we do in prayer, far more important than anything we say.  In fact, sometimes the greatest obstacle to listening to God can be our own internal monologue.  Slow repetitive prayer can serve as a kind of spiritual “white noise” that allows for meditation and ultimately listening to the Silence.  Think, for example, of the way the repetitive prayers of the Rosary allow for meditation on the mysteries of Christ’s life.  Or think of the “Jesus Prayer” especially beloved in Russian Orthodoxy.

Now I want to be clear before wrapping up that the above reflections should in no way diminish the importance of the sort of “conversational” or “spontaneous” prayer no doubt favored by my friend’s evangelical interlocutor.  I am no spiritual guru, but it certainly seems to me that a healthy prayer life should include at least some “spontaneous conversation” with our Lord; we should pray about how we are feeling in the present moment, about what’s going on in our day, about our mundane preoccupations; we should speak with the Lord as we do with our friends.  But the treasures of Christianity’s rich spiritual tradition include “formal” and “repetitive” prayers as well, and these prayers also help us deepen our relationship with God.  Indeed, there may be circumstances in which they are just what we need.  Such prayers touch upon a deeply human need, and God, of course, comes to us precisely in that place of need—and that, my friends, is a message worth repeating.

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10 Responses to In praise of repetitive prayers, In praise of repetitive prayers

  1. “When it comes to prayer, “baby talk” is not such a bad analogy”

    are you aware that John Calvin used this analogy for the bible, that it is God’s baby talk to us. It would be the genetic fallacy to say it’s wrong because a heretic said it, and I think perhaps this is a valid way of speaking.

    • Qualis Rex says:

      While the structure and verbiage of some of the OT stories (the discourse between Lot and God come to mind) do seem almost childish and immature, the bible itself is anything but “baby talk”. His rationale for saying this was “Look, ANYONE can understand the bible. We don’t need priests or clergy to tell us what it means!” The fact that there is a phenomenon called “Calvinism” in conjunction with “Lutheranism”, “Zwingliism”, “Knoxism” etc negates this point, since it demonstrates that clearly this “baby talk” is interpreted differently by different people. So, in reality it is much more complex than “baby talk”.

      Calvin was a moron. A heretic and a moron.

  2. Qualis Rex says:

    Anthony, well said. And of course, you nailed it with the “Our Father”. It is the most obvious and straight-forward commands/descriptions on how to pray- and of course it is Structured. Structured (and subsequently repetitive) prayer teaches us the tone, formula, culture and continuity of communicating with God as Christians. I don’t think anyone can possibly argue which type of prayer is more EFFECTIVE when communicating with God (i.e. spontaneous or structured); they both serve their purpose.

    The painful irony with fundies (and Mormons say this too) is that while they bemoan and scoff at structured/repetitive prayer (they think the “our father” was a flukish one-off and all others not mentioned in the bible are bad). they themselves are some of the worst offenders. They are taught to first give thanks, then ask for whatever they want and close that they are asking all of this in “His” name. So, it invariably ends up as “Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for “X”. Please do “Y”. I ask this in your name.”

    There’s just not anything “new” theologically speaking. It’s all been around and around for millenia.

  3. Giovanni says:

    Calvin was not a moron he was a liar, Swingli was a moron.

    I just wanted to clarify that.

  4. Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

    For the first time in my life I almost felt an impulse to come to John Calvin’s defense… don’t worry, though, Giovanni and Qualis I won’t do that exactly. But I would suggest that perhaps this post is not the best place to evaluate the theology, let alone the putative intellectual capacity, of Calvin, Swingli, & Co.

    So before anyone chimes in about Luther, let’s save this thread of discussion for another date…

    Thanks, nonetheless, to Andrew for pointing out that Calvin used the same analogy; I didn’t know that, not being very familiar with his works. And I do think your point is fair enough, that even if we judge a thinker’s overall project to be misguided and wrong, he or she may still have had a few useful insights which can enhance our thinking.

    And, since I know this blog is read not just by Catholics but by other Christians too, I do want it to be clear that I’m not criticizing the way evangelicals, Mormons, or fundamentalists pray. If I were to put Qualis’ observation in other words, I would say that without necessarily realizing it, these Christians end up praying in very similar ways to the way we Catholics do, with a very particular kind of structure and formality. There’s nothing wrong with that. There is something wrong, however, with criticizing Catholics for praying the way Christians have for centuries — and I think it fair and necessary to defend our Catholic beliefs and practices. I might even suggest that Christians of another stripe might be surprised to find something in them both wise and useful…

  5. Justin from Ohio says:

    Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Scott Hahn’s new book, Signs of Life (40 Catholic customs and their biblical roots), and he has a few sections that respond to some Protestant objections to repetitive prayer.

    Specifically, Hahn talk about the Rosary and first points out that we’re supposed to be focusing, meditating and contemplating each Mystery while we say all those Hail Mary’s. Almost all the Mysteries are taken verbatim from the biblical account.

    Second, Hahn states:

    “The Rosay works, on a human level, because is engages the whole person. It involves our speech and our hearing. It occupies our mind and incites our emotions. It assigns a task to our fingertips, those sensitive organs of touch.”

    I think that’s a a very good way of putting it. I also think we need to continue to point out to our Protestant brethern that the Catholic (and Orthodox) manner of liturgy, prayer and worship often involves all 5 senses, while most Protestant worship and prayer may only involve 2 or 3 senses (taste and smell are often left out). Deeply engaging all 5 senses God gave to us really affects prayer and worship…in a good way.

  6. Giovanni says:

    Father Anthony if you have read Calvin’s Institutes. I think that book alone is proof of his outright propaganda that simply raises straw-man after straw-man against a system that could hardly be called Catholic.

    Anybody that has read Swingli’s bio can tell you he was not the sharpest tool in the shed, but it is important to point that he was indeed a tool.

  7. Qualis Rex says:

    Giovanni LOL! Well, as Anthony points out, this isn’t the right forum to play “name that heretic”, but I’d definitely make a case for Calvin being a moron (theologically and politically). His being a lawyer by profession doesn’t negate this. He was definitely no St Thomas More (pray for us!)

    Anthony, once again, I thank you so much for this post, your insight and your Defensio Fidei Catholicae. It really is refreshing. From the little I have read about and from you, it would seem you will be a wonderful priest. I’m still very much looking forward to your stories about your work in Haiti, Africa, Kazakhistan etc.

  8. Denise Fath says:

    Great post. I used to dislike “rote”, formal prayers until I was challenged to pray the Rosary every day for a month. Wow did that change my perspective!

    It’s so true we need to learn how to pray! And now I have no problem reciting prayers written by brilliant Church fathers (St. Francis and St. Thomas Aquinas spring to mind). Such treasures are lost when we ignore set prayers!

  9. [...] first came at the first birthday party of my niece, the adorable Chloe, who I’ve mentioned before.  Chloe has idiosyncratic tastes; she’s as often interested in gnawing on someone’s shoe or a [...]

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