Thirty years ago, I tried not to repeat myself in prayers. But at some point since, I have learned the value of repetition. One discouragement in my youth was the idea that I shouldn’t have to pray something a second time if I believed it the first time. I shudder to think how long it took me to realize that that argument works only if prayer is just a mechanism aimed at getting stuff.
Matthew 6:7 also kept me wary of repetition for a long time. Bible translators differ in their view of the meaning of the original. Perhaps Jesus only warns against trust in prolixity. One translation says He instructed us not to “heap up empty phrases.” Another says, “don’t babble on and on.” But the King James translation says, “Use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do,” and many other translations use similar wording. As obvious as the phrase may be to some people I’ve known, the practical syllogism of the command isn’t entirely clear to me. I know the major premise: that I should not be like the heathen. But I don’t know the minor premise or premises. All repetition is heathen? All repetition is vain? All heathen prayers are vain? If I don’t know the minor premise, I don’t know the conclusion. Does Jesus tell me not to repeat, not to pray vainly, or not to repeat vainly? I don’t precisely, but I have decided that He doesn’t mean the first option.
One argument for saying that all repetition is vain (which would lead to the conclusion that we must not repeat prayers) begins with the idea that repeated phrases have no meaning or aren’t heartfelt. But my experience tells me just the opposite. We repeat ourselves most when our hearts are full: “Why? Why? Why?” “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.” Who would ever say to someone, “You must not be sorry. If you meant it the first time, you wouldn’t have repeated yourself”? If at least some repetition is meaningful, then perhaps Jesus proscribes not all repetition in prayer but only meaningless repetition.
A view just as wrongheaded as the prohibition of all repetition says that it does no good to write down prayers, to read your own prayers, or to read someone else’s prayers. If you’re in the middle of proposing marriage, I suppose it wouldn’t go over so well to stop and say, “Let me write this down instead,” or “My friend Jack said this better than I could. Let me read you his proposal to Debra.” But written letters can come from and can convey deeply held feelings and thoughts. And I feel certain that everyone reading this blog post has on more than one occasion read someone else’s words and thought along these lines: “She said it so much better than I could, I didn’t even realize I thought this way until I read it in her words.”
Yesterday, as on many days when reading Boswell, I read a prayer Dr. Johnson wrote out. You can’t read the Life of Johnson without coming away convinced that Samuel Johnson had the most spontaneous eloquence of any English speaker in history. Yet even a man of this great verbal command felt the need over the years to write a long notebook of prayers and meditations. Far from seeing these written prayers as dry and empty, I find in their power a helpful reminder of the forgotten common sense that writing helps organize the thoughts and can make knowledge firmer, feelings warmer, and belief stronger.
This morning during my walk, I read the first of Dickens’s Reprinted Pieces. In that essay, he says that he is sitting by a fire on New Year’s Eve and that as he watches the flames flicker, ghostly voices and images from tales of travel that he has read parade before him. Did it actually happen this way? Since he writes it all in the present tense, one thing is certain: if these stories really came to him spontaneously that winter’s night and he used the present tense literally, he left out one important detail in his description of himself: the pen and paper he used to record the event. I have to wonder whether the fire or the pen actually did more in conjuring up the memories. I know that even with all the starting and stopping and editing that takes place as I write this blog, the act of writing, by reining in my thoughts, ironically gives them the freedom to be spontaneous and heartfelt. Perhaps I should begin writing out prayers.