Because Catholicism includes a rich tradition of formal prayer, many accuse
Catholics of praying "in vain repetitions" in spite of the admonitions
against them in Matthew 6:7. In doing so, they intimate that repeated prayers,
because of repetition itself, are "vain" in the sense of being worthless
or ineffectual. First, let it be understood from the get-go:
Catholics pray in their own words in addition to formal
are taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2688) that "the memorization
of basic prayers offers an essential support to the life of prayer, but it
is important to help learners savor their meaning." In other words, formal
prayer isn't (or at least shouldn't be) mindless lip-moving but instead a
formal expression of clearly understood and heartfelt sentiments.
Now, the people
who make these accusations 1 against
Catholics don't understand, apparently:
That the verse
in question reads, in the King James version, "But when ye pray, use not
vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be
heard for their much speaking." The operative Greek word here for "vain
repetitions" is battalogeo, or babbling. That is, the heathens had
a magical perception of prayer and thought the more they babbled to their
gods, the more that that god would respond: I Kings 18:26: "And they took
the bullock which was given them, and they dressed it, and called on the
name of Baal from morning even until noon, saying, O Baal, hear us. But there
was no voice, nor any that answered."
That, two verses
after the warning in Matthew against "vain repetitions," Jesus gave us the
"Our Father" prayer which most Protestant Christians pray with no qualms
about praying "in vain."
The same command in
Luke 11:2 reads: "And he said unto them, When ye pray, say, Our Father..."
-- "when you pray, say..."
That Christ Himself
prayed in repetitions. Matthew 26:44: "And he left them, and went away again,
and prayed the third time, saying the same words". Mark 14:39 reads:
"And again he went away, and prayed, and spake the same words."
That the angels
pray repetitiously. Revelation 4:8: "...and they rest not day and night,
saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to
That God commanded
Moses to tell the Israelites: "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD:
And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy
soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this
day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto
thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and
when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest
up." (Deuteronomy 6:4-7)
That the Psalms
are nothing but a collection of prayers and litanies which were prayed formally
in the pre-Christian synagogues and early Christian churches, are still prayed
in synagogues and Catholic churches today -- and were even prayed by Christ
from the Cross.
That the liturgy
of the synagogue was (and is) filled with repetition and formalized prayer.
Christ said "use not vain repetitions, as the heathens do". Were the
Jews heathens? They prayed (and still pray) the sh'ma twice a day and, in
their liturgy, the Shemoneh Esrei, the Kaddish, the morning
blessings, the Aleinu, etc. Check out a Jewish siddur (missal) sometime;
does it look more typically Protestant or Catholic?
That hymns are
prayers. Is it "vain" to sing "Amazing Grace" or "The Old Rugged Cross" more
In addition, the
earliest Christians (being Catholics) understood Christ's words as do modern
Catholics. The 1st century Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles)
Do not pray like
the hypocrites, but rather as the Lord commanded in His Gospel, like this:
Our Father who
art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on
earth, as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us
our debt as we also forgive our debtors. And bring us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one; for Thine is the power and the glory for
Pray this three
times each day.
St. John Chrysostom
(A.D. 347 A.D.-407) writes in his Homily 19 on St. Matthew:
You see that when
He was discoursing of almsgiving, He removed only that mischief which comes
of vainglory, and added nothing more; neither did He say whence one should
give alms; as from honest labor, and not from rapine nor covetousness: this
being abundantly acknowledged among all. And also before that, He had thoroughly
cleared up this point, when He blessed them "that hunger after righteousness."
But touching prayer, He adds somewhat over and above; "not to use vain
repetitions." And as there He derides the hypocrites, so here the heathen;
shaming the hearer everywhere most of all by the vileness of the persons.
For since this, in most cases, is especially biting and stinging, I mean
our appearing to be likened to outcast persons; by this topic He dissuades
them; calling frivolousness, here, by the name of "vain repetition:" as when
we ask of God things unsuitable, kingdoms, and glory, and to get the better
of enemies, and abundance of wealth, and in general what does not at all
"For He knoweth," saith He, "what things ye have need of." [Matthew 6:8]
And herewith He seems to me to command in this place, that neither should
we make our prayers long; long, I mean, not in time, but in the number and
length of the things mentioned. For perseverance indeed in the same requests
is our duty: His word being, "continuing instant in prayer." [Romans 12:12]
And He Himself too, by that example of the widow, who prevailed with the
pitiless and cruel ruler, by the continuance of her intercession; and by
that of the friend, who came late at night time, and roused the sleeper from
his bed, not for his friendship's, but for his importunity's sake; what did
He, but lay down a law, that all should continually make supplication unto
Him? He doth not however bid us compose a prayer of ten thousand clauses,
and so come to Him and merely repeat it. For this He obscurely signified
when He said, "They think that they shall be heard for their much speaking."
"For He knoweth," saith He, "what things ye have need of." And if He know,
one may say, what we have need of, wherefore must we pray? Not to instruct
Him, but to prevail with Him; to be made intimate with Him, by continuance
in supplication; to be humbled; to be reminded of thy sins.
So, is it "repetitions"
that are bad or was Our Lord speaking of "vain repetitions," vainglory, and
frivolousness? Was Our Lord wrong for praying the same prayer more than once,
using the same words, in the Garden of Gethsemani? Are the angels in Heaven
wrong for singing the Sanctus ("Holy, Holy, Holy") all day and night, without
ceasing? Was God making a big mistake when He told Israel to pray the sh'ma
all throughout the day? Are reading the Psalms a waste of time? Have Israelite,
early Christian (Catholic), and modern Jewish, Catholic and Orthodox
liturgists been praying "vainly" for all these millennia, only to be set
straight in the past hundred or so years by sola scriptura Protestants? Is
it wrong to sing hymns that have been sung, verbatim, before?
Or could some Protestants be simply wrong about what Catholics do when praying
formal prayers? What is the context of Matthew 6:7 as seen below?
Take heed that ye do not your
alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your
Father which is in heaven.
Therefore when thou doest
thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the
synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I
say unto you, They have their reward.
But when thou doest alms,
let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:
That thine alms may be in
secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.
And when thou prayest, thou
shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the
synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men.
Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
But thou, when thou prayest,
enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father
which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee
But when ye pray, use not
vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard
for their much speaking.
Be not ye therefore like unto
them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask
After this manner therefore
pray ye [Luke 11:2 reads: "And he said unto them, When ye pray, say, Our
Father..."]: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
|Thy kingdom come, Thy
will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
|Give us this day our daily
|And forgive us our debts,
as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the
glory, for ever. Amen.
For if ye forgive men their
trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:
But if ye forgive not men
their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Moreover when ye fast, be
not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces,
that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their
But thou, when thou fastest,
anoint thine head, and wash thy face;
That thou appear not unto
men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which
seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.
Good Sociological and Psychological Reasons for Formal Prayer
Aside from the
liturgical imperative of formalized prayer as rooted in Old Testament liturgy,
memorized prayers are a common language and heritage that help cement group
identity and allow us to worship God corporately. It must always be remembered
that Christianity is the Old Testament religion fulfilled, not some radical
departure that amounted to spiritual anarchy. As far away as modern Talmudism
is from the Old Testament religion, one need only look at modern religious
Jewish practice to get a sense of how formal prayer fit into the ancient
synagogues and daily Jewish life. And one need only look at the Jews Matthew,
Mark, John, Peter, Paul, etc., and the rest of the Church of the first few
centuries, to understand how it is to fit into our modern liturgy and daily
Christian life. We are to pray -- formally and spontaneously -- at
all times without ceasing. Our lives are to be a prayer.
Another benefit of formal prayer is its value in times of crisis. When your
world falls apart, when you find yourself otherwise speechless with pain
or shock or fear, words of prayer memorized in childhood come to the mind
and lips almost as if by instinct. I know a man who was on the USS Liberty
when she was torpedoed and strafed for almost two hours in 1967 off the coast
of Gaza. He told me that some of the the men of that ship gathered on deck
to pray the "Our Father." Charlotte Corday prayed the Rosary just before
she was guillotined during the French Revolution, and I can only imagine
how glad those on the Titanic were to have memorized the Act of Contrition
as Father Byles bravely heard last Confessions just before that ship went
down. What a calming thing for them to have had the Rosary to pray together!
The short prayers we call "ejaculations" -- e.g. "My Jesus, mercy!", "Blessed
be God!", "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner" --
are brief words that act as a "touchstone" in helping to re-focus one's attention
toward the Holy during life's darker moments.
Formal prayers can be thought of, too, as the "phonics" of prayer life. Just
as one learns to read by memorizing the sounds of letters, diphthongs, and
digraphs, one learns to pray by learning the great prayers of those who've
gone before us. They are templates which also act to catechize; the child
who learns the Glory Be 2 learns something
about the nature of the Trinity. The child whose parents teach him the Prayer
to Guardian Angel not only learns of God's protecting angelic emissaries,
but of God's goodness itself -- and he falls asleep safe in that knowledge
Some final thoughts on this topic, gotten off from an Evangelical-Lutheran
Could it be that
such scorn [for formalized prayer] is actually an aversion to the very idea
that one must direct his attention to words other than his own? One who puffs,
Why say this again? is in essence complaining that his mind wants something
new to receive, something else. Is this the creative part of the mind, then?
For to create something is to experience something new, something completely
else. Without disparaging creativity altogetherfor there is surely
a season for everything it can hardly be denied that creating one's
own words or thoughts is necessarily opposed to receiving someone else's
words or thoughts. Therefore when the matter at hand is the Word of God and
the importance and command of Christ to meditate thereon (Search the Scriptures,
John 5:39), creativity is quite out of place. We might even suggest that
it was this mischievous desire for creativity that led to consumption of
the forbidden fruit in Eden (as if to say, "We want something new!" )...
...It is, in short, disobedience to the Sabbath commandment, with its attendant
implication that we gladly hear and learn the Word of God. Now we can get
at the reason the employment of rote ritual in worship is a point in its
favor, even in connection with the wandering of minds. In addition to the
dominical command, rote repetition is a great divider: it helps to separate
the sheep from the goats. The fact that rote ritual is the bane of some and
the blessing of others is not unrelated to the fact that rote ritual results
in the wandering of minds. For in the first place, when the mind of the
contemptuous wanders, it will produce the closing of his mind; conversely,
when the mind of the diligent wanders, this will produce a self-chiding,
and hence a greater desire to concentrate. In fact, such a one who puts forth
the consequent effort to concentrate will quickly find that he has no difficulty
doing so, by virtue of the fact that much rote repetition is going on, and
he already knows what to expect.
This whole process is not unlike the reason Jesus gave for preaching in parables:
Because they seeing
see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand . . . For
this people's heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and
their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their
eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and
should be converted, and I should heal them. (Matthew 13:14-15)
Why did Jesus preach
in parables, if He knew that some people were already dull of hearing? His
approach contains both grace and judgment: grace for those who do hear, and
implicit judgment against others who refuse, as if He would say, This message
is not for you, then. So His parables served as a beginning of the separation
of the faithful from the hypocrites. For it was only those who asked, What
does this mean? who were told.
So also does rote repetition serve to separate the faithful from the hypocrites,
and in a way to expose the hypocrisy of the latter:
1 Some anti-liturgical types who accuse Catholics
of praying in "vain repetitions" are also those likely to pray like this:
"Father God, we just ask You, Father God, to bless this food to our bodies
[whatever that means], Father God. And, Father God, please watch over Susie,
Father God. She's experiencing bad health right now, Father God, and we just
ask, Father God, that you send Your Spirit to heal and guide her through
these hard times, Father God. We lift her up [to where?], Father God, and
claim, in Jesus' name, Your healing power, Father God. And, Father God, we
just thank You, Father God, for all You've given us, Father God, and..."
well, you get the idea. Some tend to pray "spontaneously" and "in their own
words" by using King James style English, calling God "Thee" and using words
like "unto" and such. And some, instead of wrapping up a prayer in the usual
way, are likely to end with "Amen and Amen," repeating (gasp!) that
concluding "so be it." And how many millions of copies of the book, "The
Prayer of Jabez," were sold to Protestant Christians -- the book containing
a prayer that is to be prayed every day for 30 days to force the vending-machine
god to hand out the material goods? The Jabez prayer reads, "Oh that thou
wouldest bless me indeed, and enlarge my coast, and that thine hand might
be with me, and that thou wouldest keep me from evil, that it may not grieve
me!" While the Bible states that Jabez was "more honorable" than his brethren,
the prayer itself, barring the context of Jabez's life and personality
(about which very little is said) and as it's presented to Protestants
as a "good luck charm" to acquire material wealth/health/etc., shows
a distinct lack of humilty and a "my will be done" attitude. For this prayer
to be singled out as "the most spiritual prayer of the Bible" is disconcerting,
to say the very least.
The Glory Be Prayer:
"Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was
in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen."
Prayer to Guardian
Angel: "Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom His love commits me here,
ever this night be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide.