Repetitive Prayer: Vain or Meaning-full?

Several years ago, during a worship service, I heard a retired man stand to tell his congregation how God had healed him from cancer. The man’s prognosis for recovery had been dismal. Alone in his hospital bed one night, he felt completely overwhelmed. In response, he spent the entire night repeating the name “Jesus.” From that point on, the man reported, he was healed. Years had now past, and he was delighted to tell the congregation this story about God’s goodness to him.

I’ve had questions about this man’s story ever since I heard it. Did the act of repeating Jesus’ name 100s or 1000s of times have something to do with the man’s healing? That man was certain that there was a connection. If so, what was the nature of that connection? Had he stumbled onto a method of prayer that brings about healing? Or, was there something else to be gleaned from his experience?

When I teach my students various forms of Christian prayer, we spend time talking about repetitive prayers. Jesus warned the crowds: “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words” (Matthew 6:7 NRSV)—or to use the older language of the King James Version, “use not vain [futile] repetitions.” What was Jesus criticizing? What are vain repetitions, or empty phrases? Did the hospitalized man fill each and every use of the word “Jesus” with meaning as he prayed through the night?

I’ve met people who take Jesus’ warning to heart by only praying in such a way that their minds and thoughts are completely engaged with the words they’re saying. An acquaintance of mine once insisted that certain repetitive prayers are out of place for Christians because those prayers are too much like eastern forms of meditation based on reciting a mantra. Another friend says  that he doesn’t sing along with songs in worship services unless he’s sure that he can mean the words he is uttering. Are these two people heeding Jesus’ warning?

On the other hand, repetitive prayer has long been practiced by Jews and Christians. The first Christians, for instance, repeated the Hebrew Psalms as their prayers in synagogues and in the temple in Jerusalem, for these people were faithful Jews of their time. Read Acts 2:42 and 3:1 for examples of Christians participating in scheduled prayers. (And I dare you to sing Psalm 136 aloud sometime: not only might the refrain become an earworm, but at verses 10, 15, and 17-22 there are dissonances that may compel you to extended pondering.) In our time, I learned from William Willimon not to sing hymns only when we feel that we mean them; instead, we need to sing them and keep singing them until we mean them (cf. chapter 3 of With Glad and Generous Hearts: A Personal Look at Sunday Worship). 

And therein lies an answer to my questions about repetitive prayers. I’ve come to two interlocking convictions about repetitive prayers. First, they are useless (vain) for attracting God’s attention or for bending God’s arm until he answers. But second, these prayers are meaning-full for the good effect they have on those praying. (I expect that the same pertains to all spiritual disciplines.) Jesus points in this direction in Matthew 6:7-8. Empty repetitive piles of words are of no use in getting God to hear us because God’s generosity is based on his intimate loving knowledge of our needs. God’s grace is not dependent on our capacity for eloquence, long-windedness, or any other kind of magical or technological prowess.

On the other hand, as Jewish and Christian pray-ers recognized, repetitive prayer can have a significant effect on those praying. Repetitive prayer can help us become calm, at rest, and receptive to God. (The goal of prayer is to be filled with God’s Spirit—not to be empty, or to attain an altered state of consciousness.) Repetitive prayer can be pedagogical; it can teach us what we find hard to learn (that’s one reason why the repetitive songs from the Taizé Christian Community are so wonderful). Repetitive prayer can prepare us for conversations with God. Repetitive prayer (e.g. memorized prayers from scripture) can help us pray when we have no words of our own. Repetitive prayer can help us notice God and be present to God. And so on.

The Jesus Prayer is one easily memorized prayer that bears repetition: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” (some people add “a sinner”). It’s use as a repeated prayer dates back to the desert fathers and mothers of the 6th century (or earlier). But its origins are in the gospels: for example, the blind man’s call to Jesus and the tax collector’s humble prayer in Jerusalem’s temple (Luke 18:13, 38). It is Orthodox believers who have particularly recommended this prayer a way of praying without ceasing—both by repeating this prayer for blocks of time, and praying it throughout one’s days and nights.

I dare say that my friend’s hospital prayer was an abbreviated version of The Jesus Prayer.


A RESOURCE:take our

For those looking for a prayer guide that combines repetitive prayer and extemporaneous prayer, I recommend Take Our Moments and Our Days: An Anabaptist Prayer Book (Volume 1 Ordinary Time). Built on a four-week rotation, it provides scripture prayers, more recent prayers, and space for the readers’ own prayers. Readers will recognize prayer patterns drawn from the Divine Office (which Benedict of Nursia called the Work of God). The four weeks follow the themes of The Lord’s Prayer, The Beatitudes, Parables, and Signs and Wonders. I often use this book during my half hour walk to and from work. Last summer I augmented it with my own scripture reading guide in place of the recommended scripture readings for reflection. I’ve particularly benefited from the book’s pattern of intercessory prayer for those near and dear, for neighbours, for the church, and for the world.

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