Repetitious prayer is one of those “Catholic things” for which we receive criticism from other sectors of the Christian community. The scripture verse concerning “vain repetition” is often quoted as evidence of a biblical incongruity with Catholic practice. It is however not a conclusive argument, as Catholics point out that the vice is the vanity, not necessarily the repetition.
Nevertheless, despite the weakness of this objection to Catholic prayers such as the Rosary, Catholics are not always able to respond with positive support for their Catholic practices. I must admit that for a long time, though I was unconvinced by arguments for why repetitious Catholic prayer was wrong, I was nevertheless not wholly convinced of its usefulness or value.
I think at times, as I struggled with the Rosary and daily prayer from the Divine Office, I concluded that perhaps I was “doing it wrong” because I didn’t feel anything. Often I would lose my place in the Rosary or realize that I had gone through a whole set of prayers and not once consciously focused on what I was saying or to whom I was saying it. I figured that something needed fixing in me before these prayers would feel right or mean anything.
My relationship with Teresa Grodi – my significant other of three years, and my wife of one – has yielded many spiritual and personal insights. One of these has been to draw a connection between my experience of the natural progression of a human relationship and my experience of progress in prayer, particularly in regular, routine, and often repetitious prayer.
Concerning my human relationship, my experience followed what common sense (and our parents, priests, and any sensible contributor of relationship advice) tells us about the progression of committed relationships: Infatuation doesn’t last and must inevitably give way to something better, though only as a result of work and perseverance. With perseverance, what develops in its place is a stable, peaceful, mature, long-term relationship that can continually increase in passion, richness, and depth.
Now, I am well aware of my youth and of the relative brevity of my marriage, and thus do not purport to be able to effectively report on this progression in a very long-term sense. Nevertheless, already I have observed this natural arc in many aspects of my relationship.
A concrete example I offer is of my experience of saying the words “I love you”.
The first time I told my then-girlfriend/now-wife Teresa that I loved her, the words had tremendous force to them. They brought her to tears as I said them and rocked my world as I heard them returned. With the simple utterance of these three words, our worlds could never be the same.
The second and third time I told her I loved her were almost as tremendous. The fifth and sixth were less so, but still powerful, and as the phrase began to be a normal part of our relationship, the emotional impact that accompanied them lessened.
I remember pondering this at one point and becoming discouraged. Were these words going to simply become more and more mundane? Were they going to lose their meaning and passion entirely? Should I even say “I love you” during the times that I didn’t particularly feel “in love”?
I didn’t know the answer. But I continued to tell her “I love you” and to express those words through my actions as best as I could, even and especially during the times when I didn’t feel it. I am happy to report that common sense, parents, priests, and other sensible contributors of relationship advice are correct: While infatuation may fade, with perseverance, what takes its place is something stronger, richer, and deeper than the infatuation stages of a dating relationship.
Looking back at those dry times, I am glad I didn’t stop saying “I love you” just because I was experiencing an absence of happy feelings. Far from losing their meaning, the words have become a source of comfort, intimacy, and joy – invaluable during times of trial and a treasure during times of peace.
What does all of this rambling about relationships have to do with repetitious prayer? The “arc” that I have experienced in aspects of my human relationship I have also encountered in aspects of my heavenly one: regular, routine, daily prayer to my Father in heaven, which is much like the regular, routine, daily “I love you” to my spouse on earth.
When I experienced my adult conversion and began to take my daily walk with God seriously, even the most mundane daily prayer was easy. In particular, I started out very enthusiastically praying the Rosary and my Breviary, but both quickly became very regular and routine. For those not familiar, the rosary is a long sequence of The Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be all prayed in meditation on the mysteries of Christ’s earthly life. The Divine office is a specific set of daily prayers, readings, and responses, that are recited at various times of the day. The Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours is the epitome of routine in its repetition of similar readings, responses, as well as the order and form of the daily devotion. As I struggled to continue praying these prayers, I became discouraged at the absence of the passion I had felt during my initial undertaking of these devotions.
My thoughts echoed those I experienced in my human relationship and those that I suspect occur to many people in regards to routine or repetitious prayer: Is this it? Are these beautiful words going to simply continue to sound more dull and mundane? Is it even worth praying if I don’t “feel” anything?
After a couple years of staying more or less faithful to praying my breviary soon after waking, one morning in the silence of the chapel something “clicked”. After struggling for months to remain attentive and sincere about the words I was praying, suddenly I began to hear the words as if for the first time and found them being spoken with a new voice. After struggling long through the mundanity of daily prayer, my soul now seemed quiet enough to finally listen. Though I no longer have access to a physical chapel in the mornings, the Divine Office – in all its routine and repetition – brings me back to that quiet, inner-chapel every day.
I experienced the same “arc” with the rosary. I started out with enthusiasm, eventually became discouraged by my waning passion and attentiveness, but in the end – after many rosaries – began to notice a new quiet peacefulness in my soul. Suddenly each individual prayer seemed to have new power and each mystery of Christ’s life – which we meditate on while saying the rosary – began to come alive.
In these experiences, I have found great joy and intimacy in my relationship with God through prayer that for a long time seemed mundane and even tiresome. While I think it would certainly be a mistake for me to claim that quiet, routine, and repetitive prayer is inherently better than, say, spontaneous prayer, I think it is also a mistake for people to assume that prayer is more authentic, sincere, or powerful simply because it is articulate, loud, impassioned, or spontaneous. If this were the case, the less creative pray-ers, like myself, would be naturally worse pray-ers (and to draw the correlation regarding relationships, the non-romantic types – unlike myself – would be naturally bad lovers). I think in either case, the quality of prayer has little to do with us beyond our sincere attempt at praying – God can take it from there.
Simply by the nature of our relationships, whether human or divine, there will always be some aspect of repetition, or routine, or mundanity. Why? Because whether the object of our love is another human being or God almighty, our hearts are fickle and will continually be susceptible to distraction. Our hearts will at times be bored by things that should inflame them with passion or indifferent to things that should bring them to tears – this is just human nature.
When we experience dry times, it is easy to get caught in the trap of thinking that our actions proceed from our feelings or drives rather than from our wills. The result is that we become convinced that we can only say and do loving things IF we still have the loving feelings. But our actions are not dependent on our feelings. In fact, the opposite is true: our hearts will inevitably follow where our wills lead.
We must keep on praying, even and especially when the passion is lacking, for our hearts will eventually come around and follow our wills. Just like always saying “I love you” to our spouse no matter what mood we are in, perseverance in repetitious prayers like the Rosary can get us through the dry times in our spiritual life. But even more than that, I think we will find these prayers becoming the brick and mortar of beautiful inner chapels where we learn to walk and talk with God intimately, and at all times. Eventually, these little, mundane, repetitious, routine, faithful…. acts of love, will become unmatched sources of joy and grace in our lives.
Never stop praying, and never stop saying “I love you”.
How to pray the Rosary: http://www.newadvent.org/images/rosary.pdf
More information about the Liturgy of the Hours: http://www.ewtn.com/expert/answers/breviary.htm
Great website to help you get started praying the Divine Office/Liturgy of the Hours: http://divineoffice.org/