In Matthew 6:7, Jesus said:
And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words.
Some Protestants point to this verse as proof that Catholic prayers like the rosary, which involves repetition of the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary, are anti-biblical.
But Jesus never said we cannot pray in repetition at all. He said, “Do not heap up ’empty phrases’ [Greek – battalagesete, which means to stammer, babble, prate, or to repeat the same things over and over mindlessly] as the Gentiles do.”
Historically, the central purpose behind prayer and sacrifice among the pagans was to appease or “take care of” the gods by naming all of their proper titles and saying all of the right words in order to “move” the gods to act. And there was little real connection to the moral life.
This becomes evident when in the very next verses of Matthew 6, Jesus says:
Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this: Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done…
Jesus gave us a prayer to recite, and yes, in “repetitious” fashion, but it has nothing to do with “moving God.” It has everything to do with God moving us! It is “thy will be done,” not “my will be done.”
There are other instances of repetitious prayer in Scripture. Consider Revelation 4:8:
And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all round and within, and day and night they never cease to sing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”
Someone needs to inform these angels, who say the same prayer all day and all night, about “vain repetition!” Both Jews and Christians have prayed the Psalms for thousands of years. Psalm 136 repeats the words “for his steadfast love endures forever” twenty-six times in twenty-six verses!
Perhaps most importantly, we have Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane:
And they went to a place which was called Gethsemane. …And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you; remove this chalice from me; yet not what I will, but what you will.”
And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray…” And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words.
And again, he came and found them sleeping. …And he came a third time, and said to them, “Are you still sleeping?”
(Mk 14: 32-39).
Our Lord was here praying for hours and saying the same words. Is this “vain repetition?”
Surely not. And neither is the rosary about mindless repetition to ensure God will hear us and give us what we want. That would be “vain repetition.” We Catholics repeat the prayers and the rosary in order to keep our focus while we meditate upon the most important mysteries of the Faith. Each decade has at its end meditation on a different and central mystery in the life of Jesus Christ for our salvation.
Ironically, when I was a Protestant it was far easier to drift into “vain repetition” when all I prayed were “spontaneous” prayers. My prayers often devolved into petition after petition, and through the years I tended to pray the same way, in the same words, over and over.
I gave found payers such as the rosary to have tremendous spiritual benefit. First, all of the prayers and meditations represented are either from Scripture or from the greatest minds and souls who have ever walked earth before us. They are theologically correct as well as spiritually rich.
They free me from having to think about what I am going to say next, and they allow me to really enter into my prayer, and into God. These prayers challenge me at times because of their spiritual depth while they keep me from reducing God to a cosmic bubble-gum machine. “Give me, give me, give me…”
Is there a danger of reducing the rosary to mindless recitation? Yes. But this happens in spite of the prayer, not because of it. In the end, I have found the rosary, and other prayers, devotions, and meditations of the Catholic tradition actually save me from the “vain repetition” that Jesus warns about in the Gospel.
This blog is extracted from a Catholic Answers series previously printed by CTS. Find out more about Tim Staples here. Other books from this series are available from CTS here.