Repeat the Sounding Joy
Learn to say the same thing.
Let us hold fast to saying the same thing.
--Cat Power, “Say”
Catholics spend a lot of time saying the same things. At every Mass we say the Lord’s Prayer; we cherish particular prayers like the Memorare or the Anima Christi; our fingers slide across the well-worn surface of our rosary beads as we recite, Hail Mary, full of grace….
Some Protestants see Catholic repeated prayers as the “vain repetitions” condemned by Jesus in Matthew 6:7. There are all kinds of reasons to dispute this interpretation—like Jesus’ own words in Matthew 6:9-13, in which He tells us to pray the Lord’s Prayer, or the angels’ repeated cry of “Holy, Holy, Holy!” in Revelation 4:8. But even Catholics who understand why the prayers aren’t bad may not always have a sense of what they’re for. What do these prayers do that other types of prayer might not do as often or as well?
Repetitive prayer is childlike.
“Why can’t you just talk to God in your own words?” Protestants sometimes ask. And in fact, one of the most poignant uses of repetitive prayer is when our own words fail us. When I’m really at the end of my rope, I feel like nothing I say is good enough. My words can seem empty, clumsy, total failures of communication.
I was re-reading Harriet the Spy, the way one does, and I came to the scene where a distraught and friendless Harriet awakens from a nightmare screaming the name of her nurse over and over: "Ole Golly, Ole Golly, Ole Golly!" I fall back on traditional prayers
when I really don't have the strength or self-confidence to shape my own sentences--when I just feel desperate, composed entirely of need. There have been a lot of times when the Hail Mary is my personal equivalent of "Ole Golly, Ole Golly, Ole Golly!"
At these times the Hail Mary comes to my lips like a cry. I know for sure that it’s something worth saying; the Hail Mary is never inadequate to the occasion! In “falling back on” other people’s words I can admit that I can’t express myself very well, and I need help even to understand what I might want to say. Helplessness and a sense of terrible distance from God lend themselves naturally, I think, to these shy borrowings of others’ speech. (Jesus on the Cross uses the Psalmist’s words when He cries, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”)
St. Josemaria Escriva touches on a similar theme in The Furrow, with added bite: “For those who use their intelligence and their study as a weapon, the Rosary is most effective, because this apparently monotonous way of beseeching Our Lady, as children do their mother, can destroy every seed of vainglory and pride.” So it isn’t only that the repeated prayers can help us when we already feel as weak and small as a child; it’s also that we need to put ourselves, voluntarily, in that state of spiritual littleness, overcoming our pride. It’s good to put aside our very own, special-snowflake words sometimes, and accept others’ words as an act of humility. The repetitions push us to recognize how much more there is in these humble words than we might initially realize. It’s good at times to pray patiently in a way we did not choose, and see what others’ practices can teach us.
Praying with others’ words means praying with the Church. Repetitive prayer, because it draws on traditional practices and set phrases, draws us into the Church stretching across time and space. When we pray the Angelus at noon we’re praying with medieval friars; when we say to Mary, “The Lord is with thee!” we’re praying with St. Elizabeth.
Repetitive prayer is musical.
It’s musical in at least two ways: its physicality and its cyclical nature.
As we repeat the Hail Mary or the Jesus Prayer—"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,"—the rhythm of our breathing changes. Our whole body is caught up in the cadence of the prayer, not only our lips but our lungs, our gait if we’re walking, the shift of our shoulders. The prayer is a tuning fork that makes the body vibratel on the same note. This is the flip side of the criticism that repeated prayers can sound “singsongy”: They sound singsong because they’re not far removed from singing.
And the prayer recurs, like a theme in music, as our minds meditate on it. If our thoughts wander, the prayer can “catch up to us,” recalling us to our purpose with the same thrill of recognition produced by the return of the theme in a symphony. If our thoughts turn to different aspects of our needs, the prayer can seem to change in its emphasis and resonance, the way a musical theme can shift from a major key to minor: If I’m praying the Jesus Prayer, at one moment my prayer can focus on my needs as a sinner, and then in the next repetition I may focus on the mercy flowing from Christ. The same basic tune, repeated in endless variations.
That brings me to the next point.
Repetitive prayer is always different.
“I pray the Shema every morning, and it often surprises,” a Jewish friend told me, referring to the morning prayer beginning, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is your God; the Lord is one.”
One of the things I never expected about repetitive prayer is how it can act like a prism, each seemingly identical facet casting light in a different place in my heart.
The rosary is the place where I’ve most obviously experienced this. By praying through it again and again I’m given so much time to meditate on the different mysteries that I begin to discover all kinds of aspects and resonances to them that I hadn’t heard before. When praying through the mystery of the Ascension, I can hear the echo of the Crucifixion and the Eucharist (Christ lifted up). In the Annunciation I can hear Pentecost—the Good News proclaimed, Christ come to us.
I’ve found that no matter what I need to pray about, the rosary can illuminate it and speak directly to my needs. The mystery of the Visitation can become a prayer for pregnancy center counselors, and for the women I’ve counseled, that I might be a friend to them as Elizabeth was to Our Lady. Or it can become a prayer for reconciliation between estranged friends or relatives. It can focus on John the Baptist leaping for joy in his mother’s womb, a prayer for the unborn, or a prayer that those who hear the Gospel may respond with joy rather than fear, mistrust, or despair.
The more I bring my own needs to God through the rosary, the more I meditate on the events of Christ’s life and the life of his mother. For someone like me, who finds most forms of contemplative prayer blank and unintelligible, the rosary is—if you’ll forgive the pun—a godsend.
The Catholic repeated prayers are surprising in part because tradition is always surprising. It’s made up of things which we didn’t—or, in many cases, wouldn’t—come up with on our own. Through the repeated prayers we take these unexpected elements and make them a part of our own lives, a response to our own needs.
Difficulties in repetitive prayer.
One of the most difficult things about repetitive prayer is that it can be easy to become distracted—and one of the best things about this form of prayer is that it gives us time to offer up these distractions, offering even our weakness in prayer to God, and thereby work through the distractions to return to a focus on him. (Mary, here, is a window through which we see her son, drawing us close to him, as in Salvador Dali’s famous painting, Madonna of Port Lligat.) When I find myself distracted during repetitive prayer, I’ll generally just keep praying, acknowledging my distraction, asking God to help me turn to him, and waiting either for the musical effect to catch me up in the rhythm of the prayer again or for the “facet” effect to show me some new element which can capture my attention.
And there are some often-repeated prayers that still haven’t really become illuminated for me in any way. The Glory be, for example, I often find opaque, and I don’t generally know much about why I’m saying it. But that of course is a perfect example of repetitive prayer pushing us to say what we might not come up with on our own: When I don’t “feel like” ending a mystery by giving glory to God, when I am (let’s say) more focused on asking for mercy, there it is nonetheless. It’s pretty amazing to pray the Glory be after meditating on one of the sorrowful mysteries, for example—the structure of the rosary itself pushes you to say, Despite all this, Glory to God. And more than that, to proclaim that God is with us now, not away off in some inaccessible heaven, but as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever lwill be. It’s hard to say. I don’t always want to say it.
Which might be why I need to.