– Vol. IV, No. 9: February 1999
Is Ritual Prayer "Vain Repetition" ?
Reason for Prayer Reveals Real Reason for Ritual
by Michael Tkacz
In a recent conversation with a Baptist preacher I know, the subject of prayer came up. Our discussion began with the two of us agreeing on the importance of prayer in the Christian life. There the agreement ended; for he brought up the subject of ritual prayer. His example was the Rosary, about which he felt there was something funny, even weird and sinister.
I was struck by the strength of his objection and was curious about his reasons. "Surely you do not object to the words of the prayers. They are, after all, from the Holy Scriptures: The Lord’s Prayer, the words of the Annunciation, and so on." No, he had no objection to the words. "What, then?" I pressed him. "It’s all that repeating over and over again," he said. I countered with another example: the long petitionary litanies of the early Christians in which the people would pray over and over again the Kyrie Eleison. He did not like that example any better. I pointed out that the psalms and canticles of the Old Testament often have repeated refrains. He was somewhat more comfortable with that, but still uneasy, and again said: "There is something weird about all of that repetition."
We parted with the question unresolved between us. Because I respect the man, I was unwilling to put his objections down to prejudice. Yet I was still puzzled by his aversion to ritual. Having been brought up a Catholic, and a Byzantine Catholic at that, I find ritual completely natural. My Baptist friend did not have the benefit of such an upbringing. Yet this did not seem enough to explain his strong feelings. Every culture in human history has been ritualistic except modern Protestant culture, and even many Protestants practice some sort of ritual, albeit abbreviated. Might there something more behind his objections — something he considers a serious obstacle to salvation?
Giving my friend the benefit of the doubt, I considered one possible serious misunderstanding about prayer. Some pagans have always had the idea that, if you do something for God, then God owes you something in return. If you sacrifice your best animals to God or endow His temple with a portion of your wealth, then God will show you His favor and use His power on your behalf. This idea was based on a certain conception of God as a being who is like human beings in having feelings and appetities, only He is more powerful. Thus, praying to God is like bringing a petition before some powerful human being, a king or rich man. Perhaps, if you do it cleverly, you can manipulate the powerful one into giving you what you want. You can play on His feelings, satisfy His appetities, or appeal to His sense of guilt or justice.
Ritual prayer, in this view, was seen as a way of moving God in an effort to get something out of Him. If we pray over and over again, if we pray with the right words, then God will be moved by our dutifulness and provide for us. If he is not moved by our duty, then perhaps He will at least be pestered into giving us what we want.
This conception of God was shown to be false in the revelation to Moses. On Mount Sinai, God revealed to us His complete transcendence and otherness. God is not just more powerful than we are; He is totally unlike us. He has no feelings we can affect; He has no needs that we can fulfill. We have no power over God. We can never make Him do anything for us, nor can He ever owe us anything. God cannot be magically forced by our words or rituals into doing what we want. This was the sin of the Hebrews, who, after Moses told them of God’s true nature, erected the golden calf in an attempt to win God’s favor.
If God gives us anything good and the Christian certainly must believe that he does then God does this purely out of love. He owes us nothing. We owe Him everything. As Saint Paul reminds us, He has stooped down to become one of us and to suffer for us out of love for us. We cannot even understand such a great gift, let alone merit it. We certainly cannot win this benefit with our prayers, no matter how many or well-said. It must be, and is, freely given.
Whether this is the issue that worried my Baptist friend, I cannot say. If, however, we pray (ritually or otherwise) to make God benefit us, then surely this is cause for concern. This would be another golden calf incident.
But if we do not pray to win favors from God, then why do we pray? Saint Thomas Aquinas can be of some help here. He points out that prayer and religious duties are performed for our sake, not for God’s sake. God does not need our prayers or our praise. We, however, need to acknowledge God’s greatness and our total dependence on Him in order to dispose ourselves to receive the grace which He is constantly offering to us. Because we are rational creatures with free will we can knowingly reject God’s gifts from pride or despair. Prayer is a way of turning from sin and opening ourselves to receive those gifts so needful for our salvation.
Ritual prayer is an especially important way we have of doing this. While free-lance prayer is good, we need the discipline of ritual, because prayer is a need and a duty regardless of how we feel. Spontaneity in prayer is not nearly as important as steadfastness. (I know of no passages in Scripture which tell us to be spontaneous in prayer, but we are often urged to be steadfast.)
Also, we need the authority of ritual prayers that are properly formulated so that we are oriented to the truth of our need for God. We are not always the best judge of our needs, but God knows us better than we know ourselves. Thus, prayer should be in a proper form so that we open ourselves to what is truly good for us and not just to what we want. Indeed, Christ Himself gave us an example by participating in the ritual of the synagogue service. He also gave us proper ritual words when He taught us to call God "Our Father", to acknowledge His holiness, and to ask for what we need to live and to do good. Surely these are words worth repeating over and over again.
Michael Tkacz is a professor of philosophy at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.