Imagine you are a spiritual director. You are meeting with a directee, Gene, who is a Christian, who is seeking God, who has gone so far as to seek out a spiritual director. You ask Gene to describe his prayer, and he responds thus:
I pray the rosary. I say ten Hail Marys and then an Our Father. Then I repeat. I count the number of Hail Marys and Our Fathers by moving rosary beads through my hand. There’s a big bead for the Our Fathers. Going through the whole rosary is 100 Hail Marys and 10 Our Fathers, and then there is a cross. When I get to the cross I say the Apostle’s Creed. I also say a “Glory Be” when I get to a section of string with no bead. I try to pray these hundred plus prayers several times in a day—whenever I’m not doing anything else these prayers are running through my head (and my fingers!). They help me get a positive response when I ask God for something.
Pause, consider. What is this person seeking in prayer?
How is this prayer likely to form the soul?
What advice would you give?
What strikes you about the prayer? What is it that Gene is seeking?
What separates passionate prayer from robotic repetition? Surely it is in the will. Is Gene seeking God, desiring God, longing to know him, in training himself to pray continuously, or is he robotically repeating phrases he doesn’t mean in order to get something? Discussion with him would make it clear, but in each of these case studies we are told to assume that the directee is seeking God. No doubt Gene’s level of engagement in the will varies from time to time, but his intent is to know God and to pray continuously. He is not praying in his own words, for his own particular needs, but it’s difficult or impossible to pray that kind of prayer continuously and still live life.
What about Gene’s statement that much repetition of this prayer helps him get a positive response from God? Does it imply a mercenary view of God, in which we can do things for God that will oblige him to give us things in return? Or is he saying that the more he prays, the more his will is united with God’s will, the more his/their will is done? Once again, discernment is necessary.
How is this prayer likely to form the soul?
We are told not to multiply words in prayer, like the pagans, thinking that mere repetition will make us heard, but we are also told to pray continuously. So which is it? Surely the difference is in the will—mindless repetition of words we don’t really mean is indeed pagan, and continuously loving and seeking God with our whole heart is indeed Christian perfection, even if it is spurred on by meaningless syllables.
Continuous repetition of a prayer, with the intent of training ourselves to continuously be in God’s presence, to love him, to do his will, can be an effective tool for the reforming of the mind. When unwanted thoughts assail, pray. When inappropriate desires surface, pray. When you have daydreams or fantasies or thoughts of pride or avarice or gluttony, turn from them to prayer. When this prayer becomes habitual and continuous, it can lead to continuously being in God’s presence. This has been a part of the spiritual life of many great saints.
Continuous repetition of a prayer gives us a tool to train the mind and heart. But we must attach an intent to the words—an intent to know God, to love him, to do his will. In fact, some recommend a short prayer that can be lined up with breathing. Others recommend a single word, even a one-syllable word such as “God”. If that word reminds us to love God and to be open to God and obey God, it is a holy prayer.
It’s interesting that frequent or continuous repetition of set words or phrases or prayers is an important technique for spiritual formation in all major religions and even some psychological self-help systems. Apparently it’s an effective method for training the mind.
Training yourself to pray continuously is a worthy endeavor. Don’t be too attached to a particular system, though—follow wherever the Spirit leads. Don’t have desires and expectations for what you would like to accomplish, how it should go, what the result should be.
Maybe change your prayer up once in a while with other prayers you find that are meaningful to you, or prayers you yourself have written, or that come to you in the moment—prayers that express your own hopes and desires. In all of this, your goal should be to keep your desire focused on seeking God.
Be at peace.