Are Catholics guilty of “vain repetition” in prayer? Protestants often make this accusation. They say that repeated standard prayers—rather than spontaneous, improvised prayers—is pointless and even damaging. Typically, this comes up with regard to the holy rosary, but it is often applied more broadly. The claim is that Our Lord specifically condemned repetitive prayer during his earthly ministry, and Catholics are in violation of this prohibition.
The passage in question comes during the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew: “And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (6:7-8). In some translations—including the King James, which is the translation of choice for a great number of Protestants—“empty phrases” is translated as “vain repetitions.”
So was Jesus condemning repetition in prayer?
Let’s take careful note of the qualifier in the sentence, as that adjective makes clear what our Lord is saying: vain repetition or empty phrases. Jesus is not condemning all repetition in prayer; if that were his intention, he would not have needed that qualifier. It would have been much clearer for him to say, “Do not heap up repetition in prayer, which is in vain” or something similar. As it is, he condemned not all repetition, but vain or empty repetition.
But perhaps the clearest window into what our Lord meant by his condemnation of “empty phrases” or “vain repetition” comes in the verses immediately following. Jesus says, “Pray then like this” and proceeds to teach the Our Father. This is clearly an instruction to a standard, non-improvised prayer. If all repetition in prayer is “empty” or “in vain,” then why would Our Lord teach a prayer like this immediately after condemning repetition?
Another reason it would not have made sense for Jesus to condemn all repetition is that repetition in prayer has long been part of Jewish (and later, Christian) practice, both in personal prayer and in communal, liturgical prayer.
We see many examples of this throughout Sacred Scripture, where repetitious prayer is not only acknowledged, but lauded. In the Torah, the Lord commanded the people of Israel to repeatedly recite the “sh’mah” prayer: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 6:4-7).
We also read of the vision of Isaiah in which the seraphim repeatedly chant the prayer “holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts” (Isa. 6:3). Psalm 136 repeats the phrase “for his steadfast love endures for ever” twenty-six times in twenty-six verses. Yet another example, from the book of Daniel, comes when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are in the furnace facing execution, and they pray thirty-one times, “Bless the Lord . . . sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever” (3:35-68).
We have several instances in the Gospels of Jesus himself praying repetitively or applauding those who do. One example comes in the Garden of Gethsemane, during Our Lord’s agony on the night he was betrayed. We read that Jesus prayed to the Father, making the same request, and continuing to present his petition in prayer: “So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words” (Matt. 26:44).
In the Gospel of Luke, we find Jesus teaching about the importance of persistence in prayer. “And I tell you, Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knows it will be opened” (Luke 11:9-10).
Take another example, a variation on the same theme: the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18:3-9). The widow persists in her request, confident that her persistence will eventually bring the judge around, and it does. In elucidating the parable, Jesus says God will answer those who cry to him day or night—in other words, persistence in prayer, repeatedly making the same request.
In the book of Revelation, the angels chant “day and night.” “They never cease to sing” the same phrase, and it is one familiar to Catholics: “holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (4:8).
Consider this point as well: reading Scripture is itself a prayer. Would any believing Protestant seriously claim that it is efficacious only the first time you read a passage from Scripture, because anything after that is merely “vain repetition”? I think not.
What, then, is vain repetition? At this point, we’ve established that not all repetitive prayer is in vain or “empty.” But some is—so what is the difference? What makes some prayer vain? What was Jesus talking about?
As we have seen, when you take the context into account, it’s clear that Jesus was not condemning all prayer with any repetition. What he is condemning is the way in which the Gentiles rattled off mindless and repetitive prayers in order to appease their gods. The words are said repeatedly to check a box.
There is another point to make: the Gentiles’ prayers were in vain because their gods don’t actually exist! Recall also Elijah and his competition with the prophets of Ba’al. Elijah was confident that their prayers would be ineffective, since Ba’al does not exist (see 1 Kings 18:20-40). Elijah, perhaps less charitable than Our Lord, flat-out mocks the prophets: “cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is musing, or he has gone aside, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (v. 27). Clearly, a prayer will be in vain if it is directed to a god that does not exist. But this does not mean that all repetitive prayer is pointless, by any means.
Is there a modern form of vain and repetitious prayer that we should be wary of? One example, the mantra, comes from the New Age philosophies, which often incorporate elements from eastern religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism. A mantra is a repetitive chant to aid in meditation or enlightenment. The pagans of Jesus’ time chanted their vain prayers to appease false gods, but today’s New Age mantra is designed to calm and elevate the person using it. It’s really no prayer at all, except maybe a prayer to yourself.
Pagans and atheists aren’t the only ones who employ vain prayers. Catholics must be vigilant and not allow prayer to turn into something they do merely to satisfy a requirement, to check a box, in order to keep God from getting mad. Prayer is a conversation, a communing with God. Rather than heaping up empty phrases, let us pray prayerfully.
When our Lord condemned vain repetition and empty phrases in prayer, he was not condemning all repetition. Standard prayers, such as the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Psalms, etc., can be a wonderful aid in approaching God in prayer and in focusing our minds, hearts, and souls.