A Catholic Response To Fundamentalist Allegations Of ‘Vain Repetition’

A Catholic Response To Fundamentalist Allegations Of ‘Vain Repetition’ July 31, 2019

After so many years of being in a relationship, the words ‘I love you’ can eventually lose its effect. What used to make a heart quiver in the early stages of a romantic relationship eventually fades into mere words that routinely drop upon passing through the front door.

When it comes to Christianity, a typical talking point of fundamentalist Protestantism is the use of ‘vain repetition’ regarding ritualistic prayer or worship. This is taken from the biblical passage,

“But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.”
— Matthew 6:7 King James Version

Often when this passage is referenced, the use of the rosary, seemingly ‘scripted’ prayers and the liturgy of the Catholic Mass is usually the subject of critique. The rosary especially receives much heated criticism for its repetitive prayers to the Virgin Mary — to which I’ve written a separate article about whether or not prayer and worship are synonymous.

To be fair, I think the Protestant criticism against vain repetition actually has merit. Over time, the repetitiveness of traditional Catholic ritual can become more of a chore than a labor of love (depending where the person’s heart is at). One of the things I had grown to appreciate about how Evangelicals pray is their willingness to do it from the heart as for what the Holy Spirit is leading them to say.

When I converted to Evangelicalism as a teenager, praying before meals in thanksgiving was a habit I instilled in myself. Sometimes I would try to think of blessings in my life at the moment to be thankful about, or even pray special intentions for myself or someone in my life whom I felt was in need. Over the years, I actually found myself slipping into a complacent state in which I would end up saying the exact same words in every prayer of thanksgiving before meals. There were times when I felt scrupulous over my lack of spirit-led improvisation which led me to default to ‘scripted’ prayer.

But it led me to realize that it’s okay to not have much to say. This led me to become more comfortable with embracing repetitive, traditional, ‘scripted’ forms of prayer.

Additionally, I think prayer isn’t the only thing that can be repetitively done in vain. Even everyday tasks can become monotonous such as going to work or school, exercising at the gym, singing the national anthem, spending time with the kids, changing diapers, calling your parents or going to church. The list goes on.

When we look at other parts of Scripture, we notice there are examples of repetition throughout. Ironically enough, The Lord’s Prayer is the most widely known and recited prayer among Christians which was instituted by none other than Lord Jesus himself:

And it came to pass, that, as he was praying in a certain place, when he ceased, one of his disciples said unto him, Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples.
And he said unto them, “When ye pray, say, Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth.
Give us day by day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.”

— Luke 11:1-4 KJV

Another example of prayerful repetition in Scripture is the angels and heavenly hosts in praising and singing to God in eternity:

Praise ye him, all his angels: praise ye him, all his hosts. — Psalm 148:2 KJV

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. — Luke 2:13-14 KJV

And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. — Isaiah 6:3 KJV

In these last passages, the repetition by the angels signifies to us that rejoicing in God should be something we continually reflect throughout our lives. The celestial beings that repetitively praise God is akin to someone who continually tells their spouse, ‘I love you!’

Some would argue that it isn’t necessary to repeat such a dull phrase if someone already knows their significant other loves them. Others would argue that they need to hearing words of reassurance, such as the centurion whose servant Jesus healed:

“Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” — Matthew 8:8 RSV

In ancient Jewish tradition, there were rituals of reciting or repeating the same prayers depending on the time of day or if it was a holy feast day. Granted that Christianity is a continuation of the Jewish covenant, it baffles me that fundamentalists would believe repeating prayers akin to those performed in Jewish ritual are wrong. As previously mentioned in Matthew 6:7, Christ says not have vain repetitive prayers like the heathens, not the Jews. This flippantly careless exegesis of Scripture would render Jewish heritage as though it were inherently pagan. As far as I can tell, the Jewish people were always known for their nonconformity to the world’s expectations.

I think the difference between robotically going through the motions while having a superficial ‘faith’ in God is having the grace of genuine love behind the words being spoken. Anyone can say they love and believe in God while feeling the complete opposite internally. Thus making repetitive prayers or praises empty and void of meaning, rendering this passage of Scripture all the more true:

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’

— Matthew 15:8-9 RSV

Words truly have meaning, and all the more powerful if they are driven by the heart — even if their repetition echoes into eternity.

“And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” — 1 Corinthians 13:2 RSV

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