Catherine Gregg, Prayer and the Spiritual Discipline of Repetition

Catherine Gregg, Christian Formation and Direction Ministries, 1999

Prayer and the Spiritual Discipline of Repetition

Jesus says, “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.” (Mt. 6:7 KJV) Due to a misunderstanding of the phrase “vain repetitions,” many Christians have thought that to frequently repeat any particular words would place them in danger of missing the mark, practicing a useless form of prayer that avails nothing.

What Jesus is warning people about in this verse is a magical or superstitious use of words that are multiplied from a motivation of fear or with the goal of appeasing a capricious being. It is not a command prohibiting the repetition of words, phrases, psalms or other prayers as a means of communication and communion with God. It was the practice of the Jews (including Jesus) to use repetition of set prayers at set times as part of communal liturgical practice.

“Practice makes perfect” was a line I first heard from my piano teacher when I was six years old. I grew to hate that phrase! But I also grew to understand the truth inherent in those words. There is almost nothing that we do in our lives that doesn’t get better the more we do it. Whether we’re talking about an art form, communication skills, athletics, or the spiritual life, practicing until we know the basics is a necessity. Imagine trying to participate in a marathon without running daily for months beforehand. No one becomes a gourmet chef the first time they walk into a kitchen. It’s absurd to think that Rembrandt’s first painting was a masterpiece. I wish I knew when my third child was born the things that I learned by parenting her older brother and sister! It should not surprise us that developing relationship with God through prayer is no different. We learn as we grow, and much of that learning comes by repeating certain patterns and practices that inherently develop that part of our being.

Some of us are familiar with the importance of “doing the reps” at the gym. When I first worked with a physical trainer, he showed me how to do a number of exercises to strengthen the weaker parts of my body. I felt virtuous for learning the motion of each of these exercises, and was deeply disheartened when I heard him say “Great, now do three sets of twelve of each of these exercises three times a week.” Three sets! Of twelve! Three times a week! No way! Apparently, both because of his testimony and because of the evidence in my body, I have come to realize that doing the reps as he suggested is the only way to strengthen those particular sets of muscles. It just takes that much repetition to teach the muscles what they are supposed to be doing.

Developing a set of repetitions in our prayer life is just as important—and just as difficult. Praying once in a while is a good idea, and will certainly be heard and valued by God. It’s not that we get extra points or extra favors from God by praying regularly. But certain things can happen—different possibilities can develop when we develop repetitive patterns of prayer. As we learn the art of repetition, we grow in our spiritual fitness in at least three ways: we build strength to resist temptation, we establish pathways of grace—well-traveled paths in our souls through which we can discern God’s direction for our lives, and we learn how to “center down”—to get to that quiet space inside us where we can simply be with God, experiencing the transforming presence of God’s Spirit within us.

As I understand it, the whole point of doing physical repetitions is to work a particular muscle group so that it can do its part in total body functioning. If the muscles in my back and shoulders are strong and well toned, they will be able to support my spine so that the vertebrae in my neck will maintain the C-curve (among other things). This will help me to have better posture, keep me from developing a hump on my back as I age, and keep the nerves that emanate from the spinal column free from compression (so that I don’t develop nerve pain down my arms and legs). If I fail to exercise the muscles in my back they will follow the path of least resistance which will, eventually if not immediately, result in poorer overall health and functioning. The right kind of regular, repetitive exercise that gives focus to the different muscle groups in my body is integral to my wellbeing. The muscles won’t function at their optimal level all by themselves—they need to be trained, strengthened and supported so that they will be doing the right thing in the right way at the right time. 

Repetition in prayer is a helpful beginning towards spiritual fitness for similar reasons. When we use our mind, our lips, our heart to form words of prayer, we’re training our “spiritual muscles” to orient ourselves towards God. As we repeat practices that help us to attend to God, we learn to “live into God” in a way that we become more and more aware of God’s presence within and around us. Conversation with God becomes our “default mode”—the natural expression of our pain and our joy, our questions, longings, triumphs and celebrations.

Breath Prayers

Part of Brother Lawrence’s practice of the presence of God was the use of a “breath prayer.” Breath prayers are named that because they are simple phrases that can be spoken in one breath—short, simple prayers that we can pray often—prayer which can be spoken as readily and easily as breathing. The intent of the breath prayer is that it be prayed often enough audibly that, over time, it becomes the unspoken yet continuing prayer of our heart. This is certainly one way that the church throughout the centuries has understood the command to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

In the practice of the early church, a common form of the breath prayer was simply “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It was shortened over time to “Lord, have mercy.” Historical records indicate that monks in certain abbeys were advised to pray the Jesus Prayer as many as 500 times a day, sometimes silently and other times aloud, as a form of meditation. That constitutes more repetition than most of us are ready for but the principle remains the same. 

The repetition of breath prayers in helping us to orient towards God also serves the function of strengthening us against temptation. When our minds and hearts are directed towards God, it is more unlikely for our words, attitudes and actions to be directed away from God. Perhaps this is why the psalmists often made such cries as that found in Ps. 119:36: “Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to covetousness,” knowing that we cannot walk in opposite directions at the same time. As the repetitions of the prayer increase during our day, more and more of our time is spent with our hearts aimed towards the purpose, the power and the presence of God. We are able to remember God and, in remembering, to align our lives accordingly.

There have been seasons in my life when praying the Jesus Prayer has been a key “meeting place” with God. I am especially drawn to repeating this prayer when I am tired, distracted or feeling unworthy of approaching God. Everything I need to know theologically is held in these few verses: that Jesus Christ is Lord, that He is the Son of God, that I am a sinner and that He came to show mercy on people like me, saving me from my sins. Each time I repeat these few words there is a deeper penetration of truth, a quiet centering into peace as I allow this to become the “default position” of my mind and heart. It reminds me that I am not alone on my journey of faith and that underneath whatever I am experiencing are the everlasting arms of God (Deut. 33:27).

Breath prayers are not limited to the Jesus Prayer but, like the Jesus Prayer, they typically are formed by combining one of the names of God with a simple petition. It may be that a certain quality or characteristic of God that is reflected in one of God’s names is especially meaningful or helpful in a particular time or season. Perhaps one’s image of God has been damaged in such a way that God is perceived as hostile, capricious or absent. By focusing on the true nature of God through the address by such words as “Good Shepherd,” “Prince of Peace,” “Faithful One”—and adding a short petition that sums up our need as it is revealed to us, such as “teach me,” “guide me,” “renew me”—we can move towards healing and wholeness. As we experience the grace of God to us in the very place where we have been wounded, the Holy Spirit breathes renewal and transformation into our soul.

Exercises:

Take a few moments to consider the image or name of God that has been most inviting to you in the past. Why is that so? Tell God of your desire to know Him more in that way. 

As you consider your spiritual journey, of what need are you most aware? Form that need into a short petition. Add the petition to the name of God to create a breath prayer.

Practice your breath prayer once an hour during the day and try to repeat it as you fall asleep. Remember, it takes time to feel comfortable with any new routine. Be gentle with yourself as you take this step towards spiritual health and wholeness.

A second way that repetition helps us in our spiritual growth comes from forming pathways of communication with God. God speaks to the hearts of those who keep silence in order to listen. As we practice attending and attuning to God, we create space in our lives for God to speak to us about God’s purpose and plans. Not only do we develop the habit of talking to God about all that is happening in our lives, but we also develop the ability to listen as God speaks to us. 

Repetition helps us to go deeper rather than wider in our experience of God. Our culture values more, bigger, better and faster! Notice how many of the ads on television and radio are geared to entice us using these very words. Yet spiritual formation by definition is about slowing down, being attuned to God, participating in a process that lets the work of God unfold in us as we receive and respond to God’s initiative. What comes to my mind as I ponder the difference is this: we can drive by a field of flowers and appreciate the riot of color that we see, but if we walk on a path through the field of flowers, we’ll also be able to notice the different kinds of flowers, the textures and fragrances that present themselves to us. And, if we choose to sit on a bench and hold one of the flowers, the intricate delicacy and design will bring forth an added appreciation. Many of us speed through our lives, perhaps reading a book or two about prayer and spiritual disciplines. Some of us slow down enough to try one or two of the practices for a week or so. But the full benefit of prayer can only be known when we stay with it, letting the connection with God grow deep and strong, training ourselves in attention and attunement. We’ll know a wisdom and discernment that can’t come from life in the fast lane—even if we’ve taken some “time out” occasionally. 

Repetition is integral to this process. It’s what helps move us from simply obtaining information (cognitive knowledge) about God and God’s purposes for us, to formation and eventually transformation (being changed into the image and likeness of God). Right information is important, but it’s like the car ride through the field of flowers. We can see the big picture of what’s there, but the benefit to us personally is superficial. Until we are engaged in and influenced by that information, we remain largely unchanged by it. 

The prayer exercises that have been used in the church through the centuries are deceptively simple. One can learn how to pray a breath prayer in a few minutes. But repeating it to God throughout the day is where the life is! We can learn how to do a jumping jack in about two minutes, but one jumping jack isn’t going to do much to aid in our physical fitness. It’s the repeating of the jumping jacks over time that strengthens the muscles, increases our circulation and helps us to lose body fat. 

The Prayer of Examen

In the space that we create through repetition, we can begin to discern God’s voice in our prayers for wisdom, discernment and guidance. One form of prayer that is particularly helpful in this area is the Prayer of Examen. The Prayer of Examen is a part of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

The Examen is a way of learning to discern God’s guidance in our lives by helping us to reflect on experiences, thoughts and actions that we might easily overlook as insignificant. It causes us to note the consolations and desolations in our lives—the consolations being the experience of being drawn towards God and the desolations the experience of distance or separation from God. Both of these are realities in each of our lives, and rarely do they come with a name! It takes reflection with God upon our daily life to perceive where life is really happening and to also see where our true life with God is being sucked away.

God is the Creator—and God is still creating you and me. God creates out of nothing: he brought forth a baby from an untouched womb and a savior from an empty tomb. He has created you and me “out of love,” and continually is shaping our personhood, our very selves. It is God’s continual creative love that created us out of nothing, and is forming us in the midst of all of the circumstances in our lives. When we look for the “life force of love” at work in our lives, we see the hand of God. It may be in the midst of difficult or hard circumstances that we see the burning love of God giving us life. We need to learn to discern not just by appearances, as the world would teach us to do, but to judge where and how God is finding meeting places in our lives that impart His Life wherever that may be. The Examen is a way to help discover these meeting places.

God’s gaze cleanses, endows with grace, enriches and illumines like the sun that dries and provides warmth and splendor when it pours down its rays.

St. John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle, 33

Praying the Examen is simple in the extreme. It consists of asking two questions: where today have I experienced great encouragement, love for God, enthusiasm to go on, light and life? And, where today have I experienced discouragement, anger, revulsion, or simply nothing at all? Taking even a few minutes at the end of each day to revisit those places with God can reveal much over time. As we take note and keep track of the places in which we experience both consolation and desolation, we begin to see patterns that help us to discern God’s leading and direction. 

My good friend John has a wife who has suffered for 20 years with multiple sclerosis. While Ann was highly functional for many of those years, recently she has become unable to walk, talk, feed herself; she requires care 24 hours a day, seven days a week. John is highly involved in her care, as well as having in-home help from others. John teaches at a nearby seminary, carries a full teaching and writing load, and manages to advise and mentor many of his students as well. Observing the many “important” tasks that God has clearly given John, several friends have advised him to place Ann in a convalescent home where he will not have to bear the burden of bathing, feeding and dressing her. They cannot understand why he continues to be so involved in a “hands-on” way when others could do the mundane things and he could visit her once or twice a day to show his support and love for her. While it may at some point become necessary for John to make that choice, he has discerned that now is not the time for that to happen. A large part of his discernment has been through the practice of the Examen, in which he has discovered that the time he experiences the most connection with God is through caring for Ann in the most mundane ways. God meets him there, gives him strength and consolation, and continues to deepen his love and appreciation for his wife. God has also spoken much to him about God’s love for John—and for all of us—who are broken, damaged or disenfranchised, those whom our culture would never call “beautiful” or “valuable.” While some standing outside the situation looking in may see only the difficult sacrifices that John is making (which are very real), John’s experience is quite different. 

Exercises:

At the end of each day for the next month, ask God to give you discernment through his Spirit, and reflect upon the following questions:

  1. For what moment am I most grateful today?
  2. For what moment am I least grateful?

Other ways to ask this:

  1. When was I most aware of life stirring within me? When did I feel most connected with God, with creation, with myself?
  2. When did I most experience life being sucked out of me? When did I experience disintegration with myself, with God, with the life-world in which I live?

Or

  1. When did I give and receive the most love today?
  2. When did I give and receive the least love today?

Keep track of your responses over time. As you begin to recognize where God is creating life and love within, you may begin to align your time, energy and actions towards that focus. The discernment that evolves as we continue seeking God will leave us with a sense of wholeness and peace, even though it may not be what conventional wisdom or well-meaning friends may suggest!

Learning to resist temptation (classically alluded to as “purgation”) and to begin to align our lives with a discerned understanding of the purposes of God for our lives (often called the stage of “illumination”) are helped through the practice of repetition. But the use of repetition also helps us move into an even deeper experience of God: a contemplation of God’s love that enables us to experience transformation in our innermost being.

“You yourself are God’s dwellingHis secret room and hiding place.” 

St. John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle, 1

The Quakers in the 19th Century used the phrase “centering down” to describe the quieting of their hearts and minds that would enable them to listen and respond to the “still small voice of God” within. Their communal experience was that, by sitting together in silence and solitude, they would be able, over time, to pay attention not to the noise of the world outside the meeting room, nor even to the noise within themselves, but would be able to attend and attune to the Spirit of Jesus within them. 

Richard Foster puts it beautifully:

“The less we are mesmerized by human voices, the more we are able to hear the Divine Voice. The less we are manipulated by the expectations of others, the more we are open to the expectations of God. In solitude, we die not only to others but also to ourselves. To be sure, at first we thought solitude was a way to recharge our batteries in order to enter life’s many competitions with new vigor and strength. In time, however, we find that solitude gives us power not to win the rat race but to ignore the rat race altogether.”

Prayer, 63

The disciplines of silence and solitude are much neglected in our culture, which is perhaps why we find that so many of our words are empty, our messages superficial. Yet it’s scary to be silent for too long—even before God. I sometimes wonder how much spoken prayer and other “spiritual activity” is actually a cover-up for our fear of what will happen if we ever “Be still, and know that I am God.” (Ps. 46:10) What will we hear God say if are quiet enough to listen? Will God chide us, condemn us, rebuke us…or not even be there? Our deepest insecurities before our Maker are unmasked in silence and solitude. All of our unplayed (or replayed) tapes about God and ourselves suddenly find voice in the silence. Our truest feelings about ourselves become known when we remove ourselves from the affirmations and judgments of those around us. 

Giving ourselves room to find out more of who we are when alone is a vital part of spiritual growth and maturity. Most of us can be greatly helped by going there with a spiritual director, trusted pastor or wise counselor. A person trained in the art of spiritual direction can help us to find signs along the road of our spiritual journey that will help us to know which direction is towards healing and growth, which paths are destructive, and when to just stop in a “rest area” for awhile. 

Lectio Divina

“Centering down” to the place of quiet within us can also be helped by the practice of lectio divina. Lectio divina is Latin for “holy reading.” This type of prayer has been a part of the church for many centuries, and is becoming more known throughout the Body of Christ in our day.

Lectio divina differs from other forms of prayer in that it involves praying and meditating on Scripture. While most of us have read through the scriptures, or at least through parts of the Bible, we may not have experienced praying them in this way. Our cultural value is on “more”—even more content in reading, as suggested by Bibles which are designed to help us read through the Old and New Testaments within a year. This certainly has value, although it’s important to note that when we read at this pace we’re probably reading more for information than for formation. The advantage is that we learn more about the big picture (going by the field of flowers on the highway at 65 mph) and we may begin to discern principles from the stories as they unfold (walking through the field). But lectio is when we stop along the way and hold one of the flowers—we’re close enough, and involved enough, to see, feel, hear and interact with the text.

“How do you pray?” I look on God’s beauty, and rejoice in it!

In this form of repetition, the Living Word forms and transforms us as the written Word penetrates us like gentle dew on dry soil. I like to call lectio divina a “holy holding of the Word,” rather than “holy reading,” because in our culture and context reading usually means reading for information, reading to finish something, reading to prepare a sermon or write an article. But this reading is a holy holding of the word, providing an opportunity for pondering, praying, listening and responding to God.

In lectio divina, the emphasis is on less rather than more. We want to go deeper with a passage, rather than wider in our reading of the chapter or book. In this manner of praying we choose a small portion of scripture, a psalm or perhaps an event in the life of Christ in which we see Jesus interacting with someone. There are four movements in praying the scripture: Lectio (Reading), Meditatio (Meditation), Oratio (Praying) and Contemplatio (Contemplation). We all know that if Latin is involved, we’re definitely becoming more spiritual!

Exercise:

Reading:

Settle into a comfortable position and read the text once or twice to get the feel of the passage in its entirety. Repeat the reading slowly for a third time. As you read, pay attention to where there is a quickening, as if something gets highlighted on the page. It may be a single word, a phrase, an image, an idea or even something inside that says. “Oh, sure—not in my world!”

Meditation:

Stay with the one thing, idea, image or phrase that, for whatever reason, caught your attention, and enter into dialogue with God. Perhaps a fear or anxiety was quickened. You might be noticing positive or negative feelings. The idea is to get into a conversation with God—“God, I long for this,” or “I don’t know how to do this,” or “What should I expect?” or “What does this mean for me?” Continue the meditation by imagining yourself as being present in the story as it unfolds. With whom do you feel most aligned? Are you a bystander taking it all in, or one of the persons in the story? What is the scenery like? Imagine as best you can the context—with all of the sights, sounds, feelings, distractions, etc., that were present in the original situation. Be as honest as you can be about what you are actually feeling and experiencing (as opposed to what you think you should be feeling and experiencing) as you interact with the scripture, and particularly with the word or phrase that stood out to you.

Prayer:

The time of prayer begins as a time of silence, a time to wait to see what God says back to you. God may give you specific insight or direction during this time. Wait with God and see what bubbles up inside of you. As you feel able, bring to speech a question or a request for what you most want. Articulate what you are really asking for. Until we take time to reflect and listen, we don’t know what to ask for. As we let God form our request in our spirit, we give ourselves more to the process of formation and transformation. Faith and trust are built, and the presence of God is experienced as real and tangible.

Contemplation:

After the time of prayer, we can be still and rest in the presence of God. We may receive more insight during this time, but often this is an occasion when we simply have heightened awareness of the presence of God. Sometimes it seems there’s a flooding of God’s life in us, even to overflowing. I think of it as God putting a really warm blanket around me—I’m cold all the time—and holding me and warming me as I rest in God. There’s nothing I have to do or say. Contemplation is a place of peace and contentment, of belonging, of being at home.

“The truly loving heart is content with nothing less than His Presence.”

St. John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle, 6

Praying through a portion of scripture in this manner can lead to deepening connection with God, even if you do it only once. However, like the other exercises that have been discussed, it is the repetition of the exercise that yields the most fruit. 

On a directed silent retreat one weekend, I was encouraged on Friday evening by my spiritual director to pray through the passage of the Annunciation from the Gospel of Luke. Practicing lectio, I read through the verses about the angel Gabriel coming to Mary and bringing her the news that she was to become the mother of Jesus, who would rule over the house of Jacob forever. In the first reading of the passage, I was drawn to the name and ministry of the angel Gabriel. My son’s name is Gabriel, and it was out of this passage many years ago that I had chosen this name. It means “messenger” or “man of God,” and I had prayed that if I ever had a son, that God would cause him to be one who would be known as God’s own. In this first reading, I reflected on the faithfulness of God by recounting how God had put that prayer in my heart as a teenager, and had answered it in the gift of my son. 

I assumed that Friday night’s prayer time was preparatory for further reading/study/prayer, and was thereby surprised on Saturday morning when my director suggested that my prayer and meditation should again be around the passage. Had I failed in my experience? Had I not seen something that I should have seen? Did I have to repeat this passage because, like a math problem, I hadn’t “solved” it right? My director assured me (with a chuckle) that the point was something very different. He wisely suggested that I just stay with the passage for the morning and that we would talk later to see how it went. 

I spent Saturday morning with a “holy holding” of the same passage. This time, as I read it through, I was struck by the words, “The Lord is with you.” As I meditated on these words, it became more and more real to me that God was saying these same words to me that were said to Mary. The Lord is with me. Right now. Always. God, the Creator of the Universe, is here, with me. The realization of the implications of that simple yet profound truth shifted my vision like a kaleidoscope coming into focus. If God is with me, I can rest in his power and wisdom. I can ask for help, I can rely on God’s strength to love, to serve, to obey. As I moved into prayer and contemplation, it felt like pounds of stress were being taken off my shoulders. 

When I met with Fr. Joseph early in the afternoon, I thanked him for suggesting that I stay with the passage. There was so much more for me in it! He just smiled. When we talked about how I might use my evening time for prayer, he suggested a repetition of the same verses. A little surprised, I agreed to sit with the text after supper until bedtime.

In this third experience with Luke 1:26-38, my attention was caught by Mary’s pregnancy and the miracle of her conception. How tangible the Life of God became! I thought how her body, over the next nine months, swelled with the indwelling and expanding presence of Christ within her. As I waited with God in that image, it came to me that God wants to accomplish the same in my life. He wants to expand the life of Christ within me, so that my “outside shape” becomes conformed to the growing presence of his spirit within me. I will be changed outwardly by his presence within me. While my body won’t swell as Mary’s did with the Christ-child within her, the inclination of my heart will be shaped by the Spirit of Christ within me. I began to pray that the work of my hands and the meditation of my heart would be pleasing to God, and that God would cause the fruit of the Spirit to grow to fullness within me for the blessing of those in my life-world.

By Sunday morning, as I began the last of my four prayer opportunities, I had a pretty good idea what my assignment would be. As anticipated, I was counseled to repeat the lectio on the Annunciation. In this final weekend reading I was struck by different words than I had noticed before—“For nothing is impossible to God.” How many impossible (to my mind) things were mentioned in these few verses alone! The appearance of an angel, selection of Mary from all women in all times to be the mother of the Christ child, impregnation by the Spirit, reestablishment of the throne of David—and this time without end, Elizabeth’s pregnancy in her old age… Any one of these things would be hard to believe. God led me to ponder the things that he has spoken to my heart over the past years of walking with him, and to consider how many had already come to pass. He spoke other words of promise and blessing that are too personal to put into print— words that I can, like Mary, hold in my heart as I await their fulfillment, knowing that nothing is impossible to God.

I was able to read these 12 verses in Luke in about two minutes. I could study it a bit and tell you all of the salient events in about five or ten minutes. I could exegete the passage and compare verses with Old Testament scriptures and do word studies in about two or three hours. All of these interactions with the Word of God have their value and their place, but through repetition in praying the verses I have experienced this event with God in a way that has changed me. Each time I repeat the “holy holding” of the word, I believe that God will not only inform me, but God will conform me a little bit more to God’s own image and likeness. 

Repetition is not magic, it’s not superstition and it doesn’t give us brownie points with God. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that I am a human being, both animal and spirit, and that, as both, I am helped and strengthened by activities that help me to pay attention to my inner life with God. As I repeat breath prayers throughout the day, I train that part of my being that needs to be reminded that God is a real and ever-present source of help in all manner of life experiences. Repeating the Examen helps me grow in discernment about the movements and directions that God is establishing in my life-world. As I pray the scriptures through a holy holding of the word in lectio divina, I have opportunity to experience a deepening union with God that yields the fruit of transformation. 

Finding a rhythm for practicing spiritual exercises such as those we’ve just explored is crucial to our development. Given the many demands on our time, our energy and our attention, we will look together in the next section at ways we can discover rhythms of grace in our lives that enable us to keep spiritually fit.