Counting Prayer

A few years ago a friendly evangelical woman who had become a regular reader of my blog sent me an email.

She wrote that after several years of reading blogs and social media, she no longer thought of Catholics as idolaters. She was even becoming convinced that Mary, as the mother of the Christ, had a substantial and essential role to play in the salvation of the world, and is thus due appropriate homage. “I still can never approve of the Rosary, though,” she wrote, “because Jesus condemned it in Matthew 6:7, when he said, ‘… use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do.’”

She wondered how we Catholics can ignore that point of Scripture.

It’s a question that comes up repeatedly, particularly when Catholic bloggers write about devotional prayer, and so I was happy to respond. I believe our evangelical friends get tripped up on the word “repetition” without properly taking into account the descriptor, “vain” (some translations read as “meaningless” repetition, or even “babbling”).

As an observant Jew, I doubt very much that Jesus was indicting His fellows, or calling them heathens, when they participated in the repetitious prayers and psalmody of their minyan. Moreover, in Gethsemane, Jesus repeated His own prayer three times. Once surely was sufficient, but the distress of His own mind and the human part of Him needed more; His repeated prayer was neither babbling nor meaningless.

For that matter, consider the seraphim in heaven, who engage in repetitive prayer for eternity: “They do not stop exclaiming: ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God almighty” (Rv 4:8).

Earnest prayer made to God, through vocal or silent means — extemporaneous, liturgical or learned by rote — can never be vain, and St. Paul would have us “persevere in prayer” (Rom 12:12) and “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17).

He makes it sound so easy, but if you’ve ever tried to pray for five minutes without your mind wandering, you understand how difficult it is to “pray without ceasing.” Devotional prayers such as the Rosary help us with this by bringing us into contemplation of and appreciation for the depths of God’s love for us, outside of time or seasons.

How often do we think of Christmas in April? In praying a daily Rosary, one will ponder the Nativity of the Lord, and the whole great mystery of His incarnation, twice a week, throughout the year. The entirety of the Gospel is therefore alive for us at all times, and the insights and consolations that arise from our contemplation, or the intentions of those whose names enter into our awareness, render the prayer continually changed, bead by bead, prayer by prayer, within each fleeting moment.

Finally, those fleeting moments are the key to why there is nothing either vain nor truly repetitious to these prayers.

When monastics pray the Divine Office in all of its solemnity, they are praying seven times a day, and each time they begin by intoning the words, “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me.” The same might open each hour, but they are praying in a new moment; it is a new prayer. They may have prayed only two hours earlier, but everything is different than it was: the sun, the weather, even their energy. If you are praying a new prayer in a new moment, then, really, there is nothing repetitious about it!

We pray, and the mind, the intention, the awareness, all become rooted in that moment. Then the moment is gone; it will never return. Our fingers move to the next bead and we are literally in a “new” moment; our prayer in that moment becomes “new,” too. Another prayer, another moment slips by; it is gone, not to be relived. A new breath, a new thought, a new intention, a new prayer, a new bead, a new moment: we are “praying ceaselessly” before God. We are “in the moment,” and there we are utterly outside of “time” as we think of it.

We are, however briefly, within a space of eternity, and there are no vain repetitions amid the ever ancient, ever new.

Elizabeth Scalia is a Benedictine Oblate, and the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos.com, where she also blogs as The Anchoress. She is also a weekly columnist at First Things and a regular panelist on the the Brooklyn-diocese-produced current events program, In the Arena, seen at NETNY.net. Contact Elizabeth at theanchoress@gmail.com.