The Psalms formed the prayer book and hymnal of the ancient Jewish people. Psalm 136 has 26 lines, each one ending with the refrain: "God's love endures forever!" This and similar psalms, which were chanted responsively, are the forerunners of several popular forms of repetitive Catholic prayer.
In light of such biblical examples, it's puzzling how some Christians claim that repetitious prayers, such as the Rosary and litanies, are condemned by Jesus. They quote His words: "In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words" (Mt 6:7; the King James Version, still popular among many Protestants, refers to "vain repetitions.")
But Jesus was a faithful Jew who took part in weekly Sabbath worship at the synagogue (see Lk 4:16). So He himself would have prayed psalms with repetitious elements.
In both Jewish and Catholic worship and prayer, repetition simply indicates emphasis on the importance of a thought. Repetition, then, isn't a bad thing in itself. Rather, Jesus is condemning empty repetition, not all forms of repetition.
The Greek word battalogeo in the Gospel text here means "to repeat idly," or "meaningless and mechanically repeated phrases," as in pagan (not Jewish) modes of prayer. Our Lord is thus rejecting prayers uttered without the proper reverence for God.
As usual, Jesus is concerned with the inner dispositions of the worshipper (see Mt 7:20-23; 15:9), not with mere outward appearance. "The Lord looks into the heart" (1 Sm 16:7).
The same is true of formal prayers -- that is, prayers whose words have a set form. Again, some Christians think that Jesus' words quoted above condemn such prayers, and that we should pray only spontaneously, making up our words as we go along. As one old preacher put it, "If you have to use somebody else's words to pray, you ain't really praying!"
But the truth is that Jesus himself would have used formal prayers in the synagogue. In fact, after warning against babbling, Our Lord goes on to provide us one of the most famous formal prayers of all: the Our Father (see Mt 6:9-13; also, Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 2625, 2701).
Actually, all Christians probably make use of hymns and other spiritual songs whose words have a set form. Since many of these songs are prayers addressed to God, then all these Christians in fact use formal prayers, just as Catholics do, even if they don't realize it.
Though spontaneous prayer is certainly valid and even desirable in many situations, formal prayer has several important benefits. First, it allows groups of believers to pray in unison, not just in a particular gathering but all over the world and even across generations -- an important expression of the unity of our faith.
At the same time, formal prayers, especially taken from sacred Scripture and Tradition, shape our thoughts and desires as we pray, making them more in keeping with God's revelation and with His will.
A Well-Formed Prayer Life
Finally, we should keep in mind that all too often we spend most of our time in prayer asking God for things for ourselves.
Instead, we should remember that a well-formed prayer life should include adoration, confession, thanksgiving and intercession as well. Formal prayer helps us include aspects of prayer that we might neglect if we were to depend only on spontaneous prayer for talking to God. TCA
Dave Armstrong and Paul Thigpen are contributors to "The New Catholic Answer Bible" (Our Sunday Visitor, 2005).