Protestants sometimes charge Catholics with “vain repetition” in praying the rosary. This is a reference to Matthew 6:7 where Jesus instructs, “When you pray to not babble with vain receptions as the pagans do.”
Sure, when we pray the rosary there is a lot of repetition. The problem is not repetition but vain repetition. If repetition were the problem Jesus would be have an “Errrm whadabout..” moment with Psalm 136 in which every verse ends with “for his mercy endures forever.” No there’s not a problem with repetition was such, but with vain repetition.
So what is “vain repetition”? Vain repetition is when the person praying is given a mantra to repeat over and over again in order to get his mind into a trance like state. In transcendental meditation, for instance, the devotee is given a seemingly meaningless word to repeat over and over again. That’s vain repetition.
Vain repetition is also repeated a set prayer without thinking about it, a set prayer in a language you can’t understand or a set prayer that you feel has some sort of magical power like an incantation or spell. Vain repetition can also be the repetition of a prayer formula that you feel has merit simply because it is repeated over and over again. The words could be any old mumbo jumbo, but the devotee thinks it is meritorious simply by being repeated. Vain repetition is repetition without any foundation in meaning or purpose.
That’s what Jesus means in the second half of Matthew 6:7 when he says, “They think they are heard because of their many words.”
The rosary might seem the same as a Hindu chanting his mantra, but it is radically different.The Eastern repetitious prayer has the intention and purpose of helping the devotee empty their mind and enter a state of self abnegation and forgetting this world. The object of the prayer of meditation is for the devotee to enter into a kind of nothingness in which all material things are forgotten or denied.
The rosary is not an emptying out but a filling up. It is not a forgetting but a remembering. In a similar way to the Mass, through which we bring into the present moment the events of our redemption, so through meditation on the mysteries of the rosary we bring into the present moment the mysteries of the gospel and allow the Holy Spirit to apply them to our lives.
I have written about this in my book Praying the Rosary for Inner Healing This book explains how the mysteries of the rosary take us step by step through the life of Christ, and as we meditate on the stages of life in Christ we access the perfect life of Christ with Mary. Where there are imperfections, sin and trauma in the stages of our lives and in the lives of our loved ones, the perfect life of Jesus and Mary are applied for the healing and reconciliation of our lives.
This is far from “vain repetition” instead, through the mystery of the rosary the dynamic life of Christ in the world is brought alive and applied to our needs and the needs of the whole world. Continue Reading