Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Un-Vain Repetition

Growing up in the little Baptist Church that I did, Matthew 6:7 was etched into our brains at an early age:  "And in praying do not heap up empty phrases (“vain repetitions” in KJV) as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words."  Even a cursory google search can bring up hundreds of excellent thoughts and questions regarding these words of our Lord.

For example:  What did Jesus really mean by this?  As a Rabbi, didn't Jesus know all the Psalms and repeat them often?  Wasn't the most repetitive Psalm (136, the one with the refrain 'for His mercy endures forever') most likely the one that Jesus said together with the disciples at the last supper?  Didn't Jesus repeat the same prayer over and over again in the Garden of Gethsemane?  (Mark 14:39 - "using the same words" or "saying the same thing".)  Didn't Jesus commend repetitive persistence in two of his parables? (The woman and the unjust Judge, the neighbor trying to get loaves of bread for his out of town guests.)

Whatever Jesus meant in Matthew 6:7, it wasn't simply about repeating phrases or words, for he clearly taught that with the right spirit this is a good thing and he led by example, repeating often some of the most used prayers on planet earth: The Book of Psalms.

I grew up thinking ONLY fresh, new, freely flowing, original prayers were really spiritual.  Common prayers shared and prayed by all (like the Our Father) were not promoted in the Church of my youth.  Needless to say, people prayed the same little phrases (self composed) again and again when they lead us in prayer.  We had favorite hymns and spiritual songs that we repeated again and again.  That was ok, but not the "Our Father" or other such things.

Isn't it strange how difficult it has been to dislodge that teaching...  I mean, even ten years after I embraced using set prayers of all sorts, I still get nervous that I'm somehow going against Jesus' command in Matthew 6:7.  Powerful thing, what you're taught as a youngling.

But Jesus is striking at the heart of the matter here and that is the matter of the heart.  If my heart is truly calling out to God, using or not using repetition in my prayers is of no consequence.  In fact, repetition is an excellent tool for pondering a single thought.  In my experience, I cannot hold a thought in my mind if I don't repeat it several times a minute.  My mind wanders that quickly and there seems to be an ocean of other thoughts just clamoring for my attention when I try to focus on something Jesus did for example.  

So how does that look in a real life situation?  Let's say I'm trying to think of Jesus' being born in Bethlehem.  (Like I often do when I'm using the suggestions from the Meditations for All page.)  Here is a snippet of how it might go in my head:

Ok, I want to think about Jesus being born in a little village.  I want to think about it for at least a couple minutes, here I go...
Let us pause to think of Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem for our sake...
...I wonder how far the Tigers will get in the playoffs? What was that sound?  This house is so old, my daughters say they saw a little girl...  oh yeah,..
Let us pause to think of Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem for our sake...
I have to remember to buy eggs, my car's been making funny noises, I should make an appointment... will that dog ever stop barking?  ummm.. oh
Let us pause to think of Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem for our sake...
Ok, focus... yes, a tiny village, God was born there...
Let us pause to think of Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem for our sake...
Crazy when you think about it, it's like me being born as a paramecium in order to help all the other paramecia.. 
Let us pause to think of Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem for our sake...
Mind blowing really... I have to sneeze!  <achoo!>
Let us pause to think of Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem for our sake...
ok, where was I... yes, God becoming so tiny he could become human.  Wow.

This is kind of how it works for me anyway.  My mind is very active and that is ok, that's the way God made it.  But just because it lacks focus and sniffs and barks like a dog at everything doesn't mean that it cannot be trained.  So I repeat the phrase and refocus on the thought, again and again until I'm actually contemplating the idea in a more or less focused fashion.  I don't feel alone in this either.  It seems to be common enough experience even for non ADD people.

So repetition is one way to get our minds to contemplate important matters.  Can it become vain repetition?  Of course it can!  Anything I think or pray, if I withdraw my heart and loving attention from it can become useless.  But it isn't necessarily useless babbling if my heart is in it.  After all, I say "I love you" to my family members many times in a day and I really mean it, so it isn't useless or vain just because the same words are repeated, right?

So what can we do to ensure our repetitive prayers don't become useless babbling?

Well, those before us found that repetition can help us focus and they found other things as well.  Pictures help.  The one to the right is a good example of a picture that was made to help one focus on the Nativity of our Lord.  Many such pictures and icons exist as windows into the eternal.  They are meant to help us focus and ponder important events and people in our faith history.

Being very visual myself I was so ecstatic when I was allowed to have icons and pictures of Jesus and all the famous people from our faith tradition.  The church I grew up in did not allow such things.  What a relief to find out that it was not only ok, but encouraged to have pictures and icons around to help me remember to pray and reconnect with God throughout the day.  Of course the most holy icon of God is my neighbor, who is made in His image.  As my pastor has said, both/and not either/or is the best approach here.  I need all kinds of prayers and all kinds of prayer tools to train my mind and heart to truly trust in God moment by moment.

Hmmmm... so is there anything else that one can do to keep one's focus on an idea?

We have repeating a phrase, while looking at a picture and then...

Well, what about doing something with my hands to count my repetitions... I can count on my fingers,.. since I have ten I will repeat each prayer thought ten times.... yes that works for me.  That will be enough times to allow the thought to sink in a little bit.

Counting fingers works in a pinch, but I like the tactile feel of moving stones from one bowl to another as well.  It is more visceral and it actually helps me focus on the thought.  A cord with ten knots tied in it works good as well.  Beads on a string or a ring of beads is probably my favorite.  I can squeeze and kneed a bead and it is solid and real,... perhaps I like it because it makes the thought more solid and real in my mind.

Repetition, images, icons, beads, stones, fingers... all of these things have become popular tools of prayer in so many faith traditions down through the ages.  They can all be used for good or like any tool, they can become dull and useless if I don't take care.  I have favorite tools in my prayer kit, but one must find what works for them.

Coming to embrace all these tools has been a very uncomfortable journey for me as it simply wasn't how I grew up doing things.  Each step toward a more focused contemplation of whatever things are good, lovely, true, praiseworthy, etc.,  has been met with my own hang-ups, biases and misinformation.  

But it has been worth the trip. 

Selective bibliography:
Hermeneutics article
Fr. Jimmy Atkin (Very well done YouTube Video)
John Frye
Tim Staples

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