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Vain repetition

Jesus facepalmFollowing the recent discussion about praying by heart I ended up in a conversation which I think we often encounter in differing forms:

“Don’t forget what Jesus says about vain repetition” (ie. Matthew 6:7).

To which I reply, yes, in Matthew’s Gospel the Lord’s Prayer is an example of how to pray, like a model (Matthew 6:9). In Luke’s Gospel, however, the Lord’s Prayer is presented as what to actually say (Luke 11:2 “When you pray, say…”).

He soon reminds me that he follows the Reformation: “scripture is to be used to interpret scripture.” He reads the Lukan instruction in light of the Matthean one, and becomes confused at the thought of reading the Matthean instructions in the light of Luke’s directive.

This person, of course, is perfectly happy to sing worship songs others have composed – however bad the theology, but balks at singing (chanting) or reciting the Psalms (inspired though they be!) “I love reading the psalms,” he says, “as springboards for my own personal prayer.”

Speaking of the Reformers, the idea that Luther just took set prayers for granted seems a novel thought for him, and that the English Reformation had such a strong focus around fixed prayer that all were required to use, leaves him totally nonplussed. He is a follower of the Reformation, he claims vigorously, but it is a Reformation that he has invented, not the one that actually happened.

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18 Responses to Vain repetition

  1. Anyone who has studied Luther’s small catechism knows that Luther, of course, took set prayers for granted. Luther claimed that in his own prayer life he would meditate on the Lord’s Prayer and after many hours would not have moved past the first petition.

  2. “He is a follower of the Reformation, he claims vigorously, but it is a Reformation that he has invented, not the one that actually happened.”

    “That he invented” is pretty much the explanation of just about every utopian past that any brand of conservative/fundamentalist subscriber/promoter seeks or is attempting to restore.

  3. This person’s attitude to prayer seems very individualistic and unaware of/unconcerned about the great cloud of witnesses with whom we are always at prayer, whenever we pray, not to mention ignoring the words of our Lord himself because of some misdirected view that our prayers must be “original”. And since the greater part of prayer is listening, does the person not hear God speaking when joining in the prayers that millions of others have prayed before him and will pray after him?

    None of the extempore prayers I have heard have been any more sincere, original or beautiful than those I join in regularly as part of various liturgies.

  4. Another thought on “vain repetition” is that it is only vain if it is said without regard to the words, i.e. from memory but without truly meaning what is being said. No connection between heart, mind, and spirit. Does that make sense?

  5. I would consider the Rosary as a way, not unlike Buddhists, to focus a wild and untamed mind. It focuses the mind on the Godhead.(Consider Meister Eckhart as source.) Union with the Divine through all kinds of prayers seems acceptable, including meditation and prayer through chants eg Gregorian etc. So prayers said over and over again may serve an invaluable service to our religious lives. I don’t believe a million rosaries buys you heaven but it may indeed be of spritual service. (St Francis- St Albert the Great/ St Dominic) Just some thoughts

    Dr More

  6. As someone who grew up in an evangelical Protestant environment, I would also point out that the vast majority of extemporaneous prayers are highly formulaic. All those supposedly spontaneous outpourings begin to sound remarkably alike.

    • In seminary I was involved in a project where we visited church with no set liturgy and recorded off-the-top-of-the-head prayers and then analyzed them. We found that the vast majority of prayers were rearranged common phrases. A second unexpected revelation was how many of these phrases are word for word or paraphrases of phrases from the BCP.

  7. It often seems those quoting Matthew 6:7 about “vain repetitions” neglect the clause to which it leads: “for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.” More recent translations word it differently but the point is the same. The Lord speaks of a kind of prayer in which one assumes better results from more words.

    Important forms of prayer that have deepened the discipleship of millions include repetition. Whether it is repetition of the Liturgy of the Hours or of the Orthodox “Jesus Prayer” (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”) no serious practitioner thinks that more words will mean more likelihood that we are heard or answered the way we want.

    There are many purposes to such form of prayer, but I’ll just mention two.

    First, I pray these biblical prayers because they form my inner life according to the Gospel, making me able to pray for what is on my heart in better ways than I would likely ever find on my own — rather like a musician practicing scales and intervals to be equipped to play “music.”

    Second, though, these ways of praying are the “music” I need to play — they are the very things I need to pray, whether the mercy I need for forgiveness and my daily bread, or the full content of the Psalms woven into the Liturgy of the Hours. I may not need a particular Psalm today, but praying the divine office I’ll be taken through all the Psalms, and along the way will find each one when it is needed.

    All this is apart from the fact noted by others that repetition is “vain” only if you don’t mean what you are repeating. I do mean it.

  8. I like the quote on Facebook by N T Wright – that sometimes we need boots to help us in the walking. As a Roman Catholic I am surrounded by set prayers and have made it a ‘mission’ to listen to myself when I saying them, otherwise my brain easily settles into autopilot. On the other hand I started a prayer circle some years ago where the prayers were meant to be ‘top of the head’ and it really didn’t work. People were nervous or shy about putting their needs into words without a framework. Over a couple of session I wrote prayers that have now settled into a liturgy of sorts – and there is free prayer space included.
    I imagine that vanity of prayer is when it is for a sense of personal ‘achievement’ or for the benefit of those looking on rather than your heart speaking out.

  9. This question / conversation always makes me smile as I remember an argument I had as a teenager. When Matthew 6:7 was being discussed in the context of formal Christian prayer in traditional services as opposed to extempore prayer. I was considered inappropriate for asking if the repetition of the words ‘just’, ‘really’ and ‘lord’ would also count as vain.
    I didn’t last long in that group!

  10. I’ve said this to you before Bosco, but I have often been disillusioned at the praying of the Lord’s Prayer in church, run through at a romping pace ( often the same with the various creeds ) and when I’ve asked pastors why, they always cite time constraints for the service.

    The same pastors often have had time to deliver their own inane messages ( usually to do with fund-raising ) or talk about themselves or their families…

    The best explanation I got was from one woman pastor who told me ‘not everyone is as creative as you Tracy- they have to pray standard prayers.’ She was run off from her church a few years ago!

    I don’t really understand the need in America to have multiple services one after the other, mostly half-empty, but there does seem to be some kind of kudos amongst the churches to do so.

    The Lord’s prayer to me is something sacred, not a creed but a model for forming your religion. I look forward to praying it one day in a setting where church is more than an expensive social club…

    • Thanks, Tracy. I think in response to your previous mention of the racing through the Lord’s Prayer I may have mentioned that this is not my experience anywhere here. It is prayed, and often sung, at a pace at which one can think well along with the words prayerfully. And I am sorry to hear the way you experience it. Blessings.

      • In our parish church services, it is sometimes said so quickly (the pace set by the leader) that I am actually out of breath by the end. I make a point of slowing down when I lead it at our home group.

  11. I am going upstairs to my loft right now to find the best song setting of The Lord’s Prayer I have appreciated…

    It’s a local English piece so if I can’t find a link I’ll mail it to you Bosco. It’s beautiful.

    Bradley Ellingboe also has done a wonderful setting at the University of New Mexico.

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