Repetition. It’s often seen by those outside the faith as a real stumbling-block to understanding some key components of Catholicism—prayer, liturgy, even the calendar. “You say the same things over and over,” an acquaintance of mine complained one day, shaking his head. “I don’t get it. Do you really think that God didn’t hear you the first time?”
Au contraire, mon ami: I am very sure indeed that God heard me the first time. I’ll even go a step further: I am very sure that God knew what I was going to say before I said it. Before I even thought to say it. Far from being someone hard-of-hearing, God is someone who knows already and always what is in our hearts.
“Then what is the point?” I can imagine my acquaintance continuing. “If he already knows what you’re going to say, then why say it?”
This conversation touches on a number of theological points, but I just want to pull out two of them: the point of prayer, and the point of repetition in prayer.
We think that prayer is about talking to God. But as Fr. Jean Lafrance reminds us in his spiritual classic Pray to Your Father in Secret, prayer isn’t a recitation, it is a dialogue. A conversation. So in essence when we keep saying the same things, it’s because we haven’t been listening hard enough to hear the response.
Prayer is as much for us as it is for God. When a person moves “away” somewhere and feels homesick for the place they left, they write letters home. It’s a way of keeping contact with the place they love, of not forgetting, of expressing love and longing. And perhaps at some level we are all feeling homesick in advance—homesick for the home we will have one day in heaven with God. J.R.R. Tolkien who, before becoming known as the author of the Lord of the Rings books, was primarily known as an Anglican theologian, wrote this in a letter to his son Christopher: “But certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of exile.”
In the moments that we pray, we have transcended that exile. We have a glimpse of home again. We are with God. In that sense, as we sit in his presence, does it really matter what words we use? We could simply repeat his name and it would be a perfect prayer.
The other point around repetition is one made by a Jesuit in explaining why the prayers of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, about which we’ve been writing in this newsletter for some time, are repetitious:
The repetitions are efforts to engage mystery, to center on the depth of riches within revelation, and to discover how God specifically invites this particular man or woman to find the meaning of a gospel event for him or her.
In other words, the aim of Ignatian repetition is to personalize prayer. For example, a person hears Mary’s yes in Luke 1:38. In the initial encounter with this scene, the yes of Mary may have been admirable, challenging, and vaguely inviting. In the course of the prayers of repetition, the man or woman making the Exercises may begin to feel drawn to pronounce his or her own yes, to recognize a developing attraction to stand with Mary in personal solidarity with her kind of discipleship. Such a movement will lead in time to a willingness to stand with Mary beneath the cross of her son. (Howard Gray, SJ, in An Ignatian Spirituality Reader)
In other words, repetition is how we allow God to enter even deeper into our hearts. It is we who are hard of hearing, not God. In repeating an earlier prayer, what we’re doing is saying to God, “Say that again. What is it that you’re telling me here?”
The history of religion is the story of humanity reaching out to God. The history of Christianity is the story of God reaching out to humanity. We move that story to a new level when we make ourselves open to what God is saying, by praying always…over and over again.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir
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