Thursday, October 24, 2019

The Power of Repetition

Countless parents and caregivers flock to the library. We bring our children to encourage literacy, to get social interaction (for them and for us), and to fill some of the seemingly-endless hours of the day. Some days, the stream of adults and children flows past the children's area and curves between bookshelves to pour into a special room. Our children squeal with joy as the librarian takes her place by the flannel board: "Old Mother Goose, when she wanted to wander..." The congregation of children is alert and happily moves their arms as wings-together-as they enter into this dedicated time and space. So begins the weekly ritual.

In between the familiar rhymes that appear week after week, a selection of different stories are proclaimed: picture books that often relate to the specific season: Snowy scenes in the winter, rabbits in the spring, gardens in the summer, leaves in the fall. The newness is exciting, and the familiarity is reassuring. The children look, listen, and let their spirits absorb the oft-repeated words. "Father and mother and Uncle John went to market, one by one..."

The little children stand, sit, and bounce their legs (mostly) in unison. Later, they may circle the room together, forming a joyful and solemn procession as they hold their red STOP signs aloft. They'll return to their seats, joining in the closing song: "The more we get together, together, together, the more we get together, the happier we'll be..." 

They burst forth to play throughout the room, their hearts enlivened by this weekly gathering of literature and fellowship. Later, after the librarian blows bubbles for them to chase and pop, they will leave the room. They will return next week, and the week after that, and the week after that; their young hearts nourished by the familiar songs and words that are spoken in community with each other. 

"People learn by repetition," the librarian declares one day. It's a simple fact. Who would disagree with it? If we want to play an instrument well, we practice the same song over and over again. If we want to learn a particular dance, we do the steps over and over. If we want to recite poetry, give a speech, or act in a play, we will recite the same words over and over.

If we want to learn to pray, we should pray-and reciting the same words over and over can help us in this conversation with God. As we repeat the familiar words of various prayers, we can slip into a deeper meditation. Those words and phrases can begin to take root in our hearts. 

Some of us may slump into Mass on Sunday, exhausted by the week. I just want to be refreshed, we may think. This is time for me and Jesus. We take a deep breath, looking forward to a spiritual boost that will leave us feeling elated, happy, and ready to take on the coming week.

It doesn't come.

Maybe we keep dragging ourselves to Mass week after week, wondering what we're doing wrong, why our attendance isn't "working" and making us feel different. Maybe we stop going to Mass altogether. We shove our rosaries into a drawer, and push the breviary back onto the shelf. 

These repetitive prayers are just so formulaic, we may think. Why should we follow rituals that we didn't personally create? Why say the same words over and over again, week after week? 

People learn by repetition.

I am immensely grateful that my religious heritage is steeped in repetitive prayer. From the earliest days of the Church, when Jesus and the Apostles prayed the psalms and celebrated the Liturgy, winding down the centuries to our modern world, Catholics have been uttering the same prayers and words of Scripture over and over again. When I stand, sit, and kneel at Mass, I am joining with the entire Church in prayer. When I curl on the couch with my breviary, breathing in the silence of the early morning with the words of the psalms, I continue to pray with the Church. And over time, these words and prayers seep deep into my heart. 

One day, as I walked up to receive the Eucharist, my soul spontaneously cried out: "O God, you are my God, for you I long..." I now often continue to utter the first few verses of Psalm 63 as I walk in the Communion line. I have prayed this psalm so many times when reciting the Liturgy of the Hours that it has become rooted in my heart. This is just one of many ways that the repetition of certain prayers has enriched my life. 

In romantic relationships, spontaneity and unscripted expressions of love and passion are powerful and important. At the same time, reliable rituals of love and words are still valuable. In the spiritual life, spontaneous prayer is important. Praying in a variety of ways is beneficial. But even with spontaneity and creative expressions of prayer, my soul still craves the reliable, steadfast, repetitive prayers of the Church.

Some great articles on the Liturgy of the Hours (the practice of praying the Psalms):
"Where did we get the Liturgy of the Hours?" by Fr. Timothy Gallagher (Catholic Exchange)

"Liturgy of the Hours: Why, History, Development" by Sr. Anita Louise Lowe (Sisters of St. Benedict of Ferdinand, Indiana)

And, for the Byzatine Catholic perspective-"The Daily Cycle of Services" (Metropolitan Cantor Institute-from the Byzantine Archeparchy of Pittsburgh)


  1. Replies
    1. I'm so glad that you enjoyed this, Laura! I hope that you and your family are doing well :)

  2. I think this is so important because sometimes I don't "feel" like praying or I don't "feel" close to God. If we do something repeatedly, it becomes habit. It's like it gets impressed upon our souls. We don't have to "feel" like doing something in order to do it.
    Some people don't like this idea because it is "going through the motions" or some might even call it legalism, but I like it because it is like a tool. We'll use a ladder (a tool) to reach something high on a shelf. We'll use a magnifying glass (a tool) so view something small. Why not use repetition (another tool) to help us practice our faith?

    1. You expressed this so well, Shannon! I think it's neat how you mention this repetition being a tool. That's such a great way of looking at it!