The Catholic monastic tradition incorporates and values repetitive prayers. The monks of the Egyptian desert used to pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer has come down to Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians, and they still say it today, often on prayer ropes worn around the wrist. The rosary serves as a similar aid to prayer in the West. In the case of the rosary, Catholics recite the Our Father and the Hail Mary, while meditating on the life of Christ. What is the purpose of this repetition? Because the Lord himself seems to criticize repetition: “And in praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, who think that they will be heard because of their many words” (Mt 6:7). Do these ancient traditions of Eastern and Western Christianity violate this precept of the Lord? The contention of the monastic tradition is: no, they do not. Rather, they calm the mind, prepare it for an encounter with Christ, and fix its attention on the truth he intends to communicate to us.
These prayers calm the mind. The constant repetition of anything has the effect of driving out distractions. Repetition is perhaps more famous in Eastern religious traditions, e.g. Buddhism. But the Catholic Christian tradition avails itself of this practice too. When the Our Father, the Hail Mary, or the Jesus Prayer are repeated over and over, they create an atmosphere of quiet and recollection in the soul. And it is in this quiet space we’ve created that the conversation with God begins. God does intend to visit us, and He has given the prayers by which we allow him into our hearts. The Hail Mary (the first half of it) and the Our Father are both scriptural, given by the angel Gabriel and Jesus Christ respectively.
Important, these repetitive prayers prepare the mind to encounter Christ. The mind, having been drawn away from created things, is able more easily to focus on God. The mysteries of the rosary serve very well for this purpose. We divide the rosary into decades (one Our Father bead and ten Hail Mary beads) which each focus on an event in the life of Christ. His birth, public ministry, death, and resurrection are all pondered. But Christian prayer is not primarily about admiring Jesus’s life, as edifying as that is all by itself. Christian prayer is an encounter with the living God: a conversation with him. His physical presence in the Blessed Sacrament during a holy hour can help a great deal with this. And we should avail ourselves of it whenever possible (at the Catholic Center when you’re out of quarantine!). But the corner of your room will have to do for now. These repetitive prayers, after having calmed the mind, fill it with the truth of Christ.
And God does intend to communicate truth to us. In the case of the Eastern Catholic “Jesus Prayer” mentioned in the first paragraph, the mind fixes on Christ’s divinity. Then it focuses on our status as people who have offended God by sin. And lastly it implores mercy (God’s chief characteristic toward us). This is a short creed of sorts. It contains the truth about God and ourselves in relation to God. The prayer acknowledges God as God, and confesses our own weakness and need for his help.
It was only vain repetition that the Lord condemns in the Gospel of Matthew. The Lord criticizes the pagan lack of trust in God’s concern for the human race. For us, God is a loving Father who is always listening to his children, even if it may not always seem so. We can use repetition wisely. St. Paul did say to “pray constantly” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). And the repetitive prayers serve to keep our minds attentive to God--as opposed to being attentive to all the chaos of the external world. With our minds centered on Christ, we will be able to engage the world, without letting its turmoil disturb us.