Catholics often get criticized for our rote prayers - the formulaic, memorized prayers that have been passed down from century to century. After all, isn't that exactly what Christ meant when He warned us to "not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think they will be heard for their many words" (Matthew 6:7)? Doesn't your mind immediately go to monotone Rosaries and lengthy magical novenas? Mine does.
While rote prayer can most definitely be heaped up empty phrases, it is not in itself such. I so love spontaneous prayer that leaps out of the heart and speaks directly and specifically to the situation at hand. It is good and beautiful. But I also love rote prayer, those prayers that have been passed down from generation to generation that can find its way to our lips in an instant. It's not an either/or but one of the many many both/ands of the Church. Here are a few reasons why I've fallen in love with rote prayer:
Rote prayer gives us a language in which to pray.
To some the ancient prayers of the Church feel funny in the mouth and they're thrown out as antiquated and irrelevant. But the more I pray with these "antiquated" prayers, the more my language in speaking to the divine is refined and recognizes the Beauty it is that I am addressing. My language changes not because I am trying to be false but because I am trying to become true...true to who He has created me to be and true to Who He is.
In our deepest most profound moments - when there are no words - it gives us words.
There have been times in my life when there were just no words and the most I could eke out was a desperate Ave. Whether it is in grief or pain or joy, there are moments in our human existence too deep for what we can express in our (or at least my) limited vocabulary and the learned prayers become a source of grace and comfort. When the tragedy strikes or the grief overwhelms they are the words that make sense even when nothing else seems to.
Rote prayer ingrains in our hearts.
Ask any life coach and they will tell you that our words (internal or external) have the power to shape our thoughts and actions. Our words are powerful. When we pray the words of these prayers with devotion and in good will, they have the potential to shape how we think, how we act, and our own internal state of heart. They become the focus of our hearts. Those prayers, revered through the ages, can become a springboard for our minds and souls to move deeper into union with God. In some ways I even find that my soul can go deeper than otherwise because I'm not as preoccupied with finding the best words.
Rote prayers give me a "go-to" when someone asks for prayer.
How often do we tell someone we will pray for their intention? Better question: How often do we actually do it? When someone asks me to pray for them or for an intention now, I've learned to immediately pray a Hail Mary or Memorare or the Jesus Prayer. This way I know that I've been true to my promise and I am able to pray and bring those intentions to God immediately (and hopefully again later) whereas I might otherwise forget or try to pray in my own words and immediately get distracted.
Rote prayers help me to grow in humility.
When those intentions come, be it for me or for someone else, sometimes I don't know WHAT the right answer is. But He does. Rote prayer for me involves a surrendering to His will. I'm not asking for a specific outcome but for whatever is truly best in the situation. Prayer becomes not about me forming the "perfect" words for the situation or asking the "right" way for what I see as the best solution but simply abandoning myself to the work of the Holy Spirit and His will.
Rote prayer helps the Church grow in unity.
When we pray with others, having the same words to pray deepens that prayer as two or more are praying that much more closely together. It grounds us in the knowledge that our life as Christians is not just a "me and Jesus" reality but a corporate one. Similarly, when someone from a completely different country and culture is praying the Hail Mary, even though I cannot understand the language I can still know what they are praying. There is communion and beauty in that.
Rote prayer helps to preserve the collective memory.
Rote prayer unites us with the saints of before and preserves us from the pride of thinking we're smarter or holier or more enlightened than the billions of people who have preceded us. It allows us to participate more fully in the human experience of passing on our beliefs and culture to the generations after and links us to the generations of before.
Rote prayers allow me pray as He did.
Jesus as a devout and perfect Jewish man prayed rote prayer constantly. Traditional Judaism is centered around rote prayer - the reciting of the Psalms, the Shema Yisrael, the prayers and rituals directly given the Israelites by God Himself. Their prayers are chanted and memorized and we can assume that Jesus participated faithfully in those prayers. They were not "empty phrases" but were deep and heartfelt and a part of His perfect life in union with the Father.
Certainly the Christian needs to guard their prayers from becoming empty phrases. St. Teresa of Avila said "Much more is accomplished by a single word of the Our Father said, now and then, from our heart, than by the whole prayer repeated many times in haste and without attention." The state of our heart is of utmost importance. But simply because a prayer is memorized does not make it empty.
Picture the husband who is telling his wife "I love you." It can be repeated out of habit yet sincerely every morning as he leaves the home for work and it can also be spontaneously exclaimed in a rush of emotion. Both times have merit and worth and beauty in different ways. Our focus need not be on eliminating repetition in prayer but simply to make sure that the words we do pray are sincere and from the heart, as best we are able.
May all of our prayers whether ingrained in our memories or uttered unscripted be from a sincere and humble heart.