One of my students – a Protestant, like most of my students – told me that she just doesn’t understand Catholic worship and prayer practices. “Like at Mass, when you repeat the same things over and over again,” she remarked. “And like those ladies with the beads who say the same prayers a hundred times. It just doesn’t seem like prayer at all.”
She had a point.
But first things first. I tried to explain that the Rosary, though it seemed like rote recitation, is really a prayer tradition designed to be a biblical gateway to a deeper form of prayer – namely,meditation. By focusing the mind on various scenes from the life of Christ and the life of Mary, the repeated vocal prayers freed up the soul to rise to great spiritual heights. In other words, the object was what the repetitious prayer led to, not the repetitions themselves.
And the liturgy? Sure there’s repetition – just like there was repetition in how Jesus and the Apostles celebrated Passover, following the same rituals Jews had been observing for many generations, and as they still do today. Moreover, it’s not only Catholics who engage in repetition when they worship. For example, the Infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke play a prominent role at Christmas time in every Christian church, regardless of worship style or tradition. And of course the Lord’s Prayer is prayed every Sunday by Christians of all varieties the world over – hardly the stuff of extemporaneous exclamation.
So, repetition of that which is holy and good seems to be a feature common to all Christian spirituality. Oh, sure, there’s plenty room for spontaneity, but only when it is grounded in the solid foundations that liturgy and tradition provide.
Plus there’s this: It’s exhausting to have to make up new prayers all the time, and since liturgy and tradition are rooted in Sacred Scripture, and Sacred Scripture is God’s own Word, it seems sensible to lean heavily on His own source material. Besides, prayers made up on the fly can get pretty tiresome I imagine – very wordy, for example, and, well, repetitive. Jesus Himself seems to confirm this in His preface to the Our Father:
In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
For me, that last line always calls to mind the frugal prayer style of Grandpa Vanderhof in the Frank Capra classic, You Can’t Take It With You. Here’s Grandpa saying grace – a model of prayerful economy:
Well, Sir, here we are again. We’ve been getting along pretty good for quite a while now – we’re certainly much obliged. Remember all we ask is just to go along the way we are, keep our health; as far as anything else is concerned, we leave that up to you. Thank you.
No babbling; no rambling instructions to God regarding what to do, or how to do it; no to-do lists or action plans. Nothing like that. Merely an acknowledgement of Who He is, who we are in relation to Him, and expressions of trust and gratitude.
After all, God is our Father – what more could a father ask for?