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.