Repetitive Prayers


From Thirsting for Prayer by Father Jacques Philippe

Besides all that has just been said, one means used to foster continual prayer, especially by religious, is to repeat short phrases, often taken from or inspired by Scripture. This is done either during the time devoted to prayer or outside it, during other activities, to keep God always in mind.

According to John Cassian, certain monks in Egypt in the fourth century used to repeat the following invocation ceaselessly: “O God, make haste to my rescue, Lord, come to my aid!” (Ps 70:1).

The beautiful book The Way of a Pilgrim spread the knowledge and practice of the “Jesus Prayer” or “prayer of the heart” in the Western world. It tells of a humble Russian peasant who was moved by the exhortation in the Letter to the Thessalonians “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17), and wondered how he could put this command into practice.

He traveled through Russia in search of a spiritual father who could teach him. A monk initiated him into the tradition of prayer that consists of ceaselessly repeating, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!,” using a simple rosary of knotted woolen thread and coordinating the recital of the prayer with the rhythm of one’s breathing, while looking into one’s heart.

Little by little, the peasant experienced the benefits: his heart was filled with peace and purified, he felt the joy of God’s presence, he received inner enlightenment about God’s love, developed compassion toward everyone, and saw the world and nature with new eyes.

This tradition goes back to the Egyptian monasticism of the first centuries and spread throughout Orthodox Christianity; in our days it is also spreading through the Western world.

More familiar to Western Catholics is the devotion of the Rosary, with its constant repetition of the Our Father and Hail Mary.

Today, simple repetition does not always get good press. Ours is a world that, having lost its sense of the most fundamental things in life, is permanently in search of novelty.

Now, it is true that repetition can become merely mechanical and routine, but it can also mean that love is being inscribed on the soul for as long as it continues.

It an intrinsic part of life: we are lucky our hearts don’t get tired of constantly beating and our breathing does not get tired of its rhythm!

Rhythm, as I said earlier, plays a fundamental role in human life. It has a calming effect; it allows energy to be used for a considerable length of time without wastage or exhaustion.

The rhythm of repetitive prayer enables a desire, an intention, to be expressed externally through the body and at the same time to take root in the heart. It is an acceptance of reality, of the fact of having bodies, and that our human condition is part of the rhythms of nature and life.

It is openness to a deep meaning that surpasses us, going beyond the perceptions of the rational mind. It gives us access to a sort of wisdom, an intelligence of life, in a dependence on our Creator to which we consent.

Our prayer is called to become not just one activity among others but the fundamental activity of our lives, the very rhythm of our deepest existence, the breathing of our heart, so to speak.

Repetitive prayers help us achieve this, since they are our human effort, our persevering quest, in the hope that God’s grace will grant that for which we ask through our humble, untiring repetition of the same words.

In a talk on the Rosary given at Lourdes in October 1998, Father Timothy Radcliffe, OP, said: If we love someone, we know that it is not enough to tell them “I love you” just once. We will want to say it again and again, and we may hope that they wish to hear it again and again.

  1. K. Chesterton argued that repetition is a characteristic of the vitality of children, who like the same stories, with the same words, time and time again, not because they are bored and unimaginative but because they delight in life.

Chesterton wrote: “Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again!’ and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead, for grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.

But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again!’ to the sun; and every evening ‘Do it again!’ to the moon.

It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes each daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old and our Father is younger than we.

The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore. Heaven may encore the bird who laid an egg .

There is nothing in the least wrong with spending our time of prayer on these repetitive prayers, especially at moments of tiredness, difficulty in mobilizing our intellectual faculties, or else when we feel impelled by the Holy Spirit toward a prayer that, in comparison with meditation, is poorer, simpler, brought back to essentials, not relying too much on intellectual discourse or the work of imagination, but favoring the work of the heart.

This repetition should be done gently, peacefully, without its becoming forced or requiring an effort (which would be counterproductive). We should be attentive to God’s presence in us, while gently merging body and spirit with the form of prayer used.

The rhythm of the repetition can favor our entering into a state of recollection. Being faithful to the humble but sincere search for God expressed in this prayer can give us, little by little, the grace to enter into a state of true contemplation and loving union with God.

The advantage of these repetitive prayers, besides their simplicity, is that they can progressively become a sort of habit (in the good sense of the word); that makes them a valuable resource for praying at many other moments of the day besides the time devoted to prayer properly so called.

It may be when we are in the car, walking, during times of insomnia, while engaged in activities or jobs that do not take up the whole of our mind, etc.

How many opportunities do we, as wives and mothers, have each day to do God’s will, not our own?? Many….many. We do not need a retreat to figure this out. A wife and a mother’s journey is laying down her life for those she loves. And we prove it each time we tend to the needs around us. We learn that most important life-lesson that the hermit in the desert is learning…..to lay down our lives for Christ.-Finer Femininity, Painting by Trent Gudmundsen

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