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The Repetition Method

I recommend Noah Millman’s post [1] about why ritual, liturgical prayer (versus spontaneous, extemporaneous prayer) is so powerful, and not, as those who don’t do it fear, boring. Excerpt:

I think there is something about the experience of moving one’s mind and body easily through a familiar pattern – so familiar that it almost requires no mind – that takes you out of the acute experience of the passage of time – the opposite of boredom, which is a painfully acute awareness of time passing without being filled. You have to go through boredom to get there only in the sense that you have to become sufficiently familiar with the pattern, and achieving that familiarity requires practice, and while you’re practicing you will likely find it boring. But the paradox is that you’re aware that it’s boring not because you’ve done it a thousand times before, but because you haven’t; not because it’s old hat, but because it’s still too new.

True. There is something so freeing about ritual prayer, and being liberated from having to think of something new and fresh to say to God, who already knows your heart. Mind you, I think that spontaneous prayer, silent or not, is also important, but I have found the familiar groove to be a path toward greater spiritual enlightenment. Just today, I was walking alone up the Boulevard Saint-Michel, and then through the back streets past the Odeon, heading to Saint-Germain, praying my prayer rope the whole time. Over and over again, I said the Jesus Prayer silently, and disengaged my mind. As I crested the hill just past the Senate building, it seemed to me that God was everywhere, and my heart was filled with thanksgiving for His presence, and the gift of this beautiful day in this most beautiful of all cities. Had I been trying to formulate a list of petitions in prayer, or my side of a dialogue, I would have been so caught up in the conversation, so to speak, that I wouldn’t have had this numinous experience — which is, if you think about it, the point of religion: to experience the presence of God, and to be changed by it.

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31 Comments To "The Repetition Method"

#1 Comment By Tikhon On October 9, 2012 @ 4:51 pm

Have you read Beginning to Pray by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom? Outstanding book on prayer…

#2 Comment By Mark On October 9, 2012 @ 6:11 pm

Amen! I have lived my life in an evangelical tradition that doesn’t value liturgy all that much, but I’ve grown older I find myself being drawn more and more to prayers straight from the Bible such as The Lord’s Prayer, which is a liturgy of sorts. Gradually I’ve developed a liturgy of my own consisting of meaningful passages and it’s enriched my prayer life tremendously.

#3 Comment By AndrewH On October 9, 2012 @ 6:30 pm

OT but touching on religion and Paris. When I visited earlier this year I went to the Cathedral St Alexander Nevsky on rue Daru. Despite being the largest Orthodox cathedral in the city it is a bit of a hidden gem that you wouldn’t know was there unless you walked right in front of it. If an agnostic Protestant like me found it interesting you probably would to.

#4 Comment By amk On October 9, 2012 @ 6:51 pm

Hey Rod,

What exactly is a prayer rope and how do you pray it? Is it similar to the Rosary (i.e., you meditate on one mystery of Jesus’s life while saying one Our Father, 10 Hail Mary’s and the Glory Be)?

Do you still pray the rosary? I’m sure you know this, but October is the Month of the Most Holy Rosary…

amk

[Note from Rod: It’s like a rosary, but made of tightly knotted beads. Look up “komboschini” or “chotki” online, and all will be made clear. Usually you pray the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” or some close variation) on the beads. I do pray the Holy Rosary sometimes. Thanks for asking! — R.]

#5 Comment By RealSheree On October 9, 2012 @ 7:03 pm

As I crested the hill just past the Senate building, it seemed to me that God was everywhere, and my heart was filled with thanksgiving for His presence, and the gift of this beautiful day in this most beautiful of all cities.

I’ve had that feeling many times. Usually in nature or beautiful surroundings, but sometimes even in the midst of despair.

#6 Comment By Edward Hamilton On October 9, 2012 @ 7:40 pm

For the last generation there’s been a strange symmetry in the worship criticism that each pole of the high-church-to-low-church axis brings against its opposite: Liturgicals accuse evangelicals of having mechanical, repetitive music; evangelicals accuse liturgicals of having mechanical, repetitive prayer. Repetition in worship is uniquely theologically divisive in part, I think, because it elevates the few words that are repeated to the level of exclusivity and ownership. The first “have mercy” can be (and often is) a reflexive figure of speech, and the fifth one can be out of politeness, but somewhere around the twelfth and you start to worry that the people saying these things might actually be in earnest about them.

There are plenty of other criticisms that should be taken seriously, like the bland content of praise chorus lyrics, or the substandard level of congregational participation in many Catholic/Orthodox parishes. But strenuous and participatory repetition, in itself, almost never means that the words that are being repeated have lost meaning to the people saying them. For better or for worse, a woman who wakes up at 7:30 in the morning to go wave her arms and sing that “Jesus is her king” for over a minute is, barring evidence to the contrary, quite likely to be someone who is deadly serious in her conviction that Jesus is her king.

#7 Comment By Cannoneo On October 9, 2012 @ 7:49 pm

Richard Rodriguez wrote on this theme in his memorable memoir, *Hunger of Memory,* emphasizing how the Latin Mass and liturgical prayer offered unusual degrees of dignity and privacy to his working-class Mexican immigrant family.

#8 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On October 9, 2012 @ 9:27 pm

I dunno… that last paragraph, reciting a ritual prayer while out for a walk… sound like Ritual Therapeutic Deism to me.

I don’t find anything wrong with it… sounds like a beautiful and inspiring experience. Morally inspiring too. But once we start putting neat little labels on observed patterns, and pinning them under glass in our little collections, where does one stop?

#9 Comment By AnotherBeliever On October 9, 2012 @ 10:04 pm

I discovered this during my first tour in Iraq. For me, it was really coming back full circle. I was raised Catholic. Due to doctrinal differences and the basic Bible Belt milieu, I converted to Evangelical Christianity as a teen. But at my camp in Iraq, the main Protestant Chaplain was Episcopalian, and so his service was fairly liturgical. I found it spiritually filling. On my return home, I could no longer stand the big noisy crowds and loud worship music typical for non-denominational Evangelical churches. On my next tour to Iraq, was again fortunate to find a liturgical service. Unfortunately, I’ve found it hard to get back into a worship community since my return home. (It’s not them, it’s me. Have some issues to work through still it seems.) But Anglican and Episcopalian services now feel more “home” to me than anywhere else.

#10 Comment By AnotherBeliever On October 9, 2012 @ 10:05 pm

I should spell out that loud noises and crowds are something many (though not all) Iraq and Afghanistan find disquieting. It’s nothing against those congregations.

#11 Comment By pinkjohn On October 9, 2012 @ 10:37 pm

This is utterly true. A defined ritual can free the mind. On a related note, I heard a sermon recently by a chaplain who works with people with Alzheimer’s. These particular people were Jewish and so the chaplain facilitated a Shabbat service with all the traditional ritual, prayers and songs, and these people with severe Alzheimer’s knew and recited every word, prayer and verse. The memory stayed with them in their bodies while so many others were lost. I’ll bet that never happens at Willow Creek or some other contemporary monstrosity.

#12 Comment By Lulu On October 10, 2012 @ 12:58 am

In Salinger’s “Franny,” Franny is obsessed with a book called “The Way of a Pilgrim,” which is about a Russian (peasant?) who goes about learning how to pray the Jesus prayer (“Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner”)ceaselessly until it becomes almost like a heart beat.

#13 Comment By VikingLS On October 10, 2012 @ 7:08 am

Lulu, the protagonist of The Way of the Pilgrim” is a peasant. (Although he had the distinction of not being bound to an estate.) It’s a very easy read if you haven’t read it.

#14 Comment By John T On October 10, 2012 @ 7:52 am

Intersting what Jesus what to say about prayer at Matt 6: 7-8

“But when praying, do not say the same things over and over again, just as the people of the nations do, for they imagine they will get a hearing for their use of many words. 8 So, do not make yourselves like them, for God YOUR Father knows what things YOU are needing before ever YOU ask him.”

#15 Comment By Frederica Mathewes-green On October 10, 2012 @ 9:20 am

The false distinction, usually, is btw liturgical prayer and spontaneous prayer. People who use liturgical worship and repetitive prayer also pray spontaneously; it’s not either-or. I would claim that a habit of continual prayer (like the Jesus Prayer) actually nourishes spontaneous prayer, in just the sort of circumstance you describe.

Also, i’m finding the Jesus Prayer helpful during the boring moments of life – brush, floss, Listerine is less tedious while praying, and it’s great to have that simple prayer that chugs along under its own steam–no need to think of something to say.

Lastly, the thing about the process of assimilation, reminds me of how a joke is funny the first time, then stale when repeated, but when it continues to be repeated it becomes funny again, possibly even funnier than at first. Remember “Laugh Lab”, the project some years ago to find the world’s funniest joke? As I recall they found that a joke became not funny at all, a lead balloon, on 4th repetition, but on 7th repetition it became hilarious, and remained funny ever after. Something similar happens when using the Jesus Prayer–at some point it gets past boring into transformative(a lot more than 7repetitions though).

#16 Comment By Lulu On October 10, 2012 @ 10:07 am

VikingLS–I haven’t read it, and, until I looked it up today, I didn’t realize that it wasn’t something else that Salinger invented for his story. But now I want to; thank you–I’m off to Amazon to see if it’s available.

#17 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On October 10, 2012 @ 10:41 am

is this The American Conservative, or The American Mystic blog? just kidding; of course; but I would suggest readers to find a copy of a book called Christian Zen: A Way of Meditation by Williams Johnston. for some; repetition cleanses or “empties” the mind. as such, be it a Buddhist reciting a mantra or Catholic novena; or even a secular humanist repeating tai chi or karate forms; the “empty mind” (from the book Zen and the Martial Arts by Joseph Hyams) offers – for those who believe – the purest opportunity to communicate at a very personal/spiritual level. heck; I have been in the presence of god during a marathon or 100 mile bicycle ride; and I am agnostic.

#18 Comment By Kevin On October 10, 2012 @ 10:56 am

Rod, I admire your work a great deal, but I find this all a bit alarming. I’m all for repetitive prayer but this seems more like emergent-like contemplative mystical prayer.

One of the statement I find troubling is “Over and over again, I said the Jesus Prayer silently, and disengaged my mind.” This is not biblical prayer, this is mysticism.

Nowhere in the bible does it tell us to “disengage” our minds. On the contrary, we are to allow the Word of God to renew and transform our minds into the mind of Christ. We are to use our minds, not turn them off. To disengage your mind is to open yourself up to your own personal experiences and thoughts, which is very dangerous.

Also, this is another alarming statement: “which is, if you think about it, the point of religion: to experience the presence of God, and to be changed by it.”

The point of religion is to KNOW God and what he has done for us by his Son, Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. We KNOW God by his Word, not our experiences. Knowing his Word and trusting in his son, and by the strength of the Spirit is what “changes” us, not our experiences.”

Sorry, this sounds a whole lot like eastern mysticism and not biblical Christianity.

#19 Comment By J On October 10, 2012 @ 11:34 am

I dunno… that last paragraph, reciting a ritual prayer while out for a walk… sound like Ritual Therapeutic Deism to me.

[2]

“According to Coué, repeating words or images enough times causes the subconscious to absorb them. The cures were the result of using imagination or “positive autosuggestion” to the exclusion of one’s own willpower.

“Coué thus developed a method which relied on the principle that any idea exclusively occupying the mind turns into reality, although only to the extent that the idea is within the realm of possibility.”

“Coué received much criticism from exponents of psychoanalysis, with Otto Fenichel concluding that “A climax of dependence masked as independent power is achieved by the methods of autosuggestion where a weak and passive ego is controlled by an immense superego with magical powers. This power is, however, borrowed and even usurped”.”

#20 Comment By Franklin Evans On October 10, 2012 @ 12:19 pm

Not meaning to be glib at all — and not intending to be argumentative in any way — there are two “categories” exemplified by these phrases:

“Please turn to page 247 in the hymnal…”

“Please take this time to reflect…”

Prayer comes in many forms. I view it as a subset of “meditation”. We are social animals, but we are also rationally independent, and finding a balance point between them is an every-day, ongoing effort.

Liturgy can be ambiguous concerning the intent. Is this a communal, one-voice from many-mouths moment? Or, is it a place where each individual is called upon to assimilate and integrate what has transpired so far? Could it be as simple as asking the celebrants to just be explicit about what comes next?

I believe it can be. Modern paganisms that practice liturgy (we call it ritual, but I see them as equivalent) start with a roadmap, as it were. It makes sense from a practical POV, because pagan ritual invites everyone to move at times rather than have them sit and watch throughout the proceedings. They need to tell us what we are doing next, or gentle chaos can ensue.

With all due respect, moments of silence that start with “Let us pray” leave the door wide open for ennui and a strong desire to balance one’s checkbook, or so I see it vicariously from reports of my Christian friends. 🙂

#21 Comment By alcogito On October 10, 2012 @ 1:09 pm

“There is something so freeing about ritual prayer, and being liberated from having to think of something new and fresh to say to God, who already knows your heart.” That’s exactly how the value of the Rosary and other ritual prayers were explained to me as a child.

on another tack, there are times when I would relish a mass without all that “music”. Perhaps my sister and her husband have chosen well. Finding crowds and choirs distracting and annoying, they avoid Saturday evening/ Sunday morning masses and go regularly on Thursday mornings when the mass is stripped to its essentials.

#22 Comment By Rjak On October 10, 2012 @ 1:25 pm

Re: Kevin –

“Sorry, this sounds a whole lot like eastern mysticism and not biblical Christianity.”

Based on your vocabulary, I am assuming you are coming from a conservative Protestant background (if not, I apologize for my over-reach, and would be interested to know what background you do claim), and thus I am expecting that you do not have a lot of direct experience with Eastern Christian theology and spirituality. As a Roman Catholic who worships in a Ukrainian Catholic parish and studies the Church Fathers, this background is somewhat more familiar to me, and I can say with confidence that what Rod, as an Orthodox Christian, is talking about is well within the bounds of the Christian tradition, dating back to its earliest centuries.

I can certainly see, however, how it would appear worrying from a Protestant perspective with a heavily biblical piety. It would be difficult on a blog discussion thread to explain things fully, so I will instead recommend some reading that may clarify things to some degree. Kallistos Ware’s book “The Orthodox Way” is to my mind one of the finest introductions to Christianity period, and particularly to Eastern Orthodox theology and practice. Mentioned above, Metropolitan Bloom’s “Beginning to Pray” is also an excellent place to look. Finally, I cannot recommend highly enough “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers,” (available in several English translations), a collection of short stories and sayings from the Christian monks of the 4th century. If you don’t mind a bit of academic-ese, Douglas Burton-Christie’s book “The Word in the Desert” does a good job of illustrating the biblical foundations and hermeneutics of monastic spirituality (which is very closely tied to what Rod is describing).

There is, come to think of it, one point that may be worth mentioning here directly. Greek philosophy and early Christian theology both made a clear distinction between two different kinds of “mind” or “thought.” First, there is the “dianoia,” which is usually translated “discursive reason.” This is a vital part of who we are, and is the kind of reasoning involved in science, logic, mathematics, and so forth. The greatest things, however, are beyond the reach of the dianoia, and they must be approached by the “nous,” or “spiritual intellect.” The nous does not reason discursively from step to step, but apprehends directly. (A good, fuller introduction to this distinction can be found in Dr. Clark Carlton’s “Faith and Philosophy” podcast: [3] ) What Rod is talking about, then, is not a sinking into a mindless blur, but rather a rising from discursive reason into direct apprehension of God.

#23 Comment By Fran Macadam On October 10, 2012 @ 1:32 pm

Must be like that once-ubiquitous bumper sticker, “Visualize World Peace.”

#24 Comment By PA15017 On October 10, 2012 @ 1:40 pm

John T:

In the Bible I read, same chapter and verse, Jesus says:
“Do not multiply words”.

Could pertain to repeating words, but could also mean, don’t rattle off a list of what you need, because God already knows. Another example of how tiny differences in scripture lead to differences in practice.

#25 Comment By JonF On October 10, 2012 @ 6:52 pm

Re: To disengage your mind is to open yourself up to your own personal experiences and thoughts, which is very dangerous.

No, it’s the complete opposite. An engaged mind is necessarily engaged with the things of the here-and-now; such a mind in not so open to God. By emptying one’s mind of all the quotidian distractions of minute-by-minute life you allow God to come in.

Re: The point of religion is to KNOW God

Huh? Do you think one can know God without experiencing Him? With respect, you seem to be picking nits simply for the sake of disagreement.

#26 Comment By John T On October 10, 2012 @ 8:21 pm

Hi PA15017,

The word rendered “say the same things over and over again” (bat•ta•lo•ge′o) is used only once in the Bible.

According to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament it means “‘to babble’ in the sense of trying to achieve success in prayer by heaping up repetitions.”

In the Amplified Bible the verse reads:

“And when you pray, do not heap up phrases (multiply words, repeating the same ones over and over) as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard for their much speaking.

The cross reference is 1 Kings 18:25-29 where the priests of Baal prayed repeatedly over and over to Baal from morning till noon.

#27 Comment By AnotherBeliever On October 10, 2012 @ 9:31 pm

Kevin, what Rick says has merit. Mysticism is not alien to Christianity. The opening of the Gospel of John comes to mind as being especially “mystic.” And I don’t mean that in a magical way, but rather that the language is beautiful and symbolic and rich with layers of meaning, and also just a little repetitive. The early church fathers and Orthodox Christians kept more to mysticism than most of us do in the modern West. Thomas Merton is a good exception. It is true that there are plenty of non-orthodox Christians who accept very little of scripture as literally true, but still like to sit and have ritual experiences. But many a contemplative Christian fully embraces historic traditional belief.

What Rjak says is also a good point. Neurology has rediscovered an ancient fact. We have two ways of processing thought. One is very linear and step-by-step. This way of thinking has brought us math, science, formal theology, engineering, and all matter of modern comforts. But the other way of thinking is less linear and ordered, more focused on connections and the big picture. It is uneven, it may process things quite slowly in the back of your consciousness only to leap out in sudden insight about a given problem days later. Often this only becomes possible when your purposely put something out your mind for a while. This way of thinking is intuitive, we sometimes call it a leap of logic. And it has given us many sudden advances and discoveries. We can’t very well do without the one or the other. As a culture we may emphasize linear logical thought slightly more than we should. There is plenty of room for contemplation, intuition, and insight.

#28 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On October 10, 2012 @ 9:43 pm

Visualize whirled peas.

#29 Comment By Kevin On October 11, 2012 @ 8:59 am

JonF: Respectively, you missed my point. Of course, we are to try and disengage from worldly distractions, etc., but that’s not the point. Christians are to “engage” their minds on Gods Word and through Prayer on Gods Word…not silent, emptying prayer..there’s nowhere in the Bible that says we are to empty our minds or disengage our minds so God can “come in” as you put it. God comes in by knowing his word and by engaging our minds on that word. Besides, if we empty our minds, how are we to know what’s coming in is God? It might be the pizza you ate last night? It might be the devil playing games….get my point…

Also, of course you are to experience the presence of God…but the KNOWING comes first and is the primary point. We cannot base our “religion” on our experiences because, let’s face it, most of the time we don’t experience the “presence” of God in our everyday life. But, we trust in what God’s Word says and what it says about Him and us. If the point of religion is to experience the presence of God then we would be greatly disappointed on a daily basis. But, if we base it on His Word and our Knowledge of him, then we are satisfied daily.

#30 Comment By JonF On October 11, 2012 @ 7:58 pm

Kevin,

In regards to disengaging the mind, I feel as if I am trying to explain color to a blind man. I do not say that to insult you, but simply because it’s obvious that you really do not grasp what I and others are telling you– it’s simply too alien, whether for cultural reasons, or because you really are lacking a faculty that you would allow you to understand. I will simply remind you of Christ’s exhortation that on needs to become as a little child to enter the kingdom of Heaven.

Which brings me to the question of knowledge. Your statement that “knowledge precedes experience” is exactly backwards, like saying “effect precedes cause.”
One problem may be the English language. French (and some other languages) have two verbs for our one “to know”. When one talks of “knowing God” one is (I would hope) talking about know in the sense of “connaître”– to be acquainted with– rather than of “savoir” – “to know about; have intellectual knowledge of”. The Pharisees of old prided themselves on their “savoir” knowledge– and came up short in Christ’s opinion. While children, whom we are to be like unto, have little “savior” but rather apprehend life through direct acquaintance with it. Hence my astonishment that you would say that experience follows knowledge– no, one must experience– become acquainted with– God– to know Him. Does this make better sense now?

#31 Comment By Andrew On October 31, 2012 @ 12:04 pm

Love this discussion. It’s another reminder to me about how I’m always swinging between the conflicting impulses of the prodigal son (who, no doubt, prayed as he felt led) and his older brother (who, no doubt, read his prayers carefully and always at the same time).

I’ve been thinking lately about how much contemporary Christianity follows the Enlightenment pattern of externalizing knowledge. Instead of knowledge of things, we are expected to gain knowledge about things, as though our minds are calculators and not perceivers.

One manifestation of that is the reduction of the Word of God (the second person of the Holy Trinity) to the written text of the Bible, grammatically and rationally interpreted.

The Bible is not, however, merely the word about God. It is the recorded recollection of people who experienced, often “mystically,” the Living Word of God, who, as evangelicals have said for many years, can be invited to live within our hearts.

It seems to me that the fear of an undefined mysticism can become a fear of the living and active God Himself, and that not in the Biblical sense of the “fear of God.” Not all mysticisms are the same.

According to what is written, “Christ in you” is “the hope of glory” and you can “become partakers of the Divine Nature.” Why sell all that for merely agreeing with your denomination on what is correct doctrine?

Karl Barth said it beautifully in his Evangelical Theology when he said something like: the denominations are not end points, they are pointers to the experience of God (Sorry I can’t remember the exact words).

As an aside, but one that has long challenged me, when the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, He said, “When you pray, say…”

Maybe the father, who goes out to both brothers, can reconcile all of this and all of us!