The answer to this is simple: Christ condemns vain repetitions, or heaping up empty phrases. Repetitive prayer, including the use of form prayer, is embraced by Scripture, and practiced by the early Church. Let’s look at repetitive prayer first, and then form prayer.
One of the most vivid examples of this comes from Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39-44):
Carl Bloch, Gethsemane (1805)
And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”
And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, thy will be done.” And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words.
So Jesus prayed the same prayer three times in a row. That’s certainly repetitive prayer. But it’s hardly vain repetition, or empty phrases. Jesus was begging the Father intensely. Likewise, we’re invited to beg God for things, and even to nag Him. This invitation comes from Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8):
And he told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor regarded man; and there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, `Vindicate me against my adversary.’
For a while he refused; but afterward he said to himself, `Though I neither fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continual coming.'”
And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
So the model for continual prayer that Jesus holds up is a woman who asks the exact same thing (`Vindicate me against my adversary’) over and over again, so much that it’s obnoxious.
|Psalm 1, from Florian’s Psalter (c. 1400)|
The idea that the Bible condemns form (or pre-written) prayers is silly. After all, the Book of Psalms is nothing but a set of 150 form prayers that can be prayed on a variety of occasions, and which Christ quotes extensively during His earthly life.
Plus, Jesus leaves us a form prayer of His own. Immediately after Matthew 6:7, in which He denounces vain repetitions, Christ gives us the Our Father (a.k.a. the Lord’s Prayer, Mt. 6:9-13), introducing it, “This, then, is how you should pray…” That’s a form prayer, and one which we’re to pray often.
Plus, the Lord’s Prayer was recognized as a form prayer to be prayed repeatedly by the early Church. The Didache is perhaps the oldest Christian document outside of the Bible, from sometime around the middle to late first century. The oldest portions of the Didache are probably older than the latest portions of the New Testament. It’s something of a Church handbook, explaining the beliefs and practices of Christianity to the newly initiated converts. In Chapter 8, Christians are instructed to pray the Our Father three times a day. In the next chapter, form prayers for the Eucharistic preface are given. Plus, the Didache is describing what’s already going on in church, meaning that we can safely date repetitive praying of the Lord’s Prayer back to the time of the Apostles.
Christ condemns thoughtlessness in prayer, of mindlessly repeating empty words. We shouldn’t do that. But the cure isn’t to throw out all form prayer, or to throw out all repetitive prayer. It’s to pray these prayers with sincerity. Sometimes this is hard, particularly when we’re tired or have a lot on our mind. But we should try our best to do it anyway. Go back to the example of the Garden of Gethsemane. The Apostles were clearly tired, and it’s an understatement to say that Jesus had a lot on His mind. But while the Apostles shunned prayer in favor of sleep, He went ahead and prayed anyway, repeating the same impassioned prayer three times. That makes all the difference.
Update: I’ll be talking about this post tomorrow morning at 8:50 on Son Rise Morning Show. You can listen to it live at that time online, or wait to hear if it gets re-aired on EWTN later in the week.