By RAYMOND DE SOUZA, KM
The visit I received from two Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs, for short) gave me the opportunity to demonstrate that repetitive prayer — especially the rosary — is entirely in line with Sacred Scripture. When they walked into my living room and did not miss the sight of my rosary on the mantelpiece, I knew only too well that they were itching to say something about it. And, as sure as death and taxes, one of them asked me if I was aware that prayer of repetition was “condemned by Jesus in the Bible.”
In this article I’d like to provide more information I trust will be useful to Wanderer readers to use in their efforts of practical apologetics.
The Rabbinical Schools
In Jesus’ day, there was no single, unified Jewish Magisterium, no ultimate point of reference for solving doctrinal disputes, as in the days of Moses and Joshua. There had been no prophet of God for centuries, either. The Rabbis were the authorities in matters of the Law and Doctrine. Each scholarly Rabbi had his own following, and many times, just like modern-day theologians, they disagreed among themselves. Rabbis were wont to identify their school of thought by a certain prayer, which they taught to their disciples. It was a way to distinguish themselves from other rabbinical schools.
“And it came to pass, as He was praying in a certain place, that when he ceased, one of his disciples said to him, Lord, teach us to pray, even as John also taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1).
It is evident that Jesus’ disciples, being pious Jews, knew very well how to pray. So, in St. Luke’s Gospel, chapter 11, it is suggested that John the Baptist had also taught a particular prayer to his followers. So, the disciple asked Jesus for His own prayer, to become their prayer, which would identify His rabbinical school.
Being known as a Rabbi himself, a preacher, and having His own school of disciples, just as John the Baptist did, Jesus followed a good tradition among the Jews for Rabbis to teach a prayer to their disciples, so as to identify them from the others. Unfortunately, the Gospel did not record the prayer that John taught his disciples to pray.
Jesus said to the disciple, “When you pray, say, Father, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come,” etc. Thus, the Our Father became Jesus’ prayer, the prayer He wants us to use to identify us as His disciples. Here we see, once again, Jesus giving us a prayer to repeat — He taught the Our Father twice to the people, once at the Sermon of the Mount, the other time to meet the request of a disciple.
Conclusion: Anyone who does not wish to repeat the prayer of Jesus can hardly be identified as His disciple, to put it very mildly.
How Often Must
We Pray Jesus’ Prayer?
Of course, there is no specified number of times we must pray Jesus’ prayer. It is enough for us to know that Jesus wants us to pray it with persistence. Yes, persistence is the word. In the same chapter 11 of St. Luke’s Gospel, right after teaching the disciples His prayer to repeat, Jesus told a parable, the one of the persistent neighbor, who had received a visitor at night and had no bread to give him. So he went next door and knocked and knocked and knocked until the neighbor was so fed up with the knocking that he opened the door to give him bread, just to get rid of him.
Here’s how Jesus concludes it: “I say to you, he will not get up and give him because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him all he needs. And I say to you, ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”
There you have Jesus Himself telling us to persist in prayer, and of course you cannot do your persisting without repeating your request a good number of times.
The Penitential Psalms
The Penitential Psalms have been used by faithful Jews for 1,000 years before Jesus, when they wished to repent of their sins and go back to God’s friendship. Since the dawn of Christianity, faithful Christians have done the same. The Penitential Psalms are inspired by the Holy Spirit, and their regular repetition is most salutary to us, sinners, because that’s a very specific way the Holy Spirit wants us to pray. They are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143. Anyone who says that to repeat the Penitential Psalms — or any psalm for that matter — is a prayer of “vain repetitions” risks blaspheming against the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes I wonder if the Holy Spirit, when He inspired Psalm 119, was not thinking of the future JWs or the separated brethren in Baptism who condemn repetitive prayer. Psalm 119 is the most repetitive prayer in the whole of Scripture! It is the best illustration of how repetitive prayer is pleasing to God. It is by far the longest psalm in the Bible: 176 verses in total, divided into 22 groups of eight verses, and each verse in each group begins with one letter of the Hebrew alphabet. So the first group of eight verses begins with Aleph, the second group with Beth, the third with Gimel, and so to the last one, Thau.
Virtually each verse repeats the same basic idea of praising the love and observance of God’s Law, under a variety of denominations, all signifying the same thing.
It is repetitions galore! I ask you: Was the Holy Spirit encouraging a pagan mode of prayer when He inspired David to compose such a long ode to the Love of God’s Law? Who would say such a piece of nonsense?
Psalm 136, David’s Litany
Every decent Catholic knows a litany or two, especially Our Lady’s Litany. The one I find most touching to the heart is the Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus. But the first person to compose a litany of repetitions was not a Catholic saint or Pope: It was a Jew: David, King, Prophet, and Priest, a man according to God’s own heart. Psalm 136 was inspired by the Holy Spirit about 3,000 years ago, and has been used by both Orthodox Jews and faithful Catholics ever since. In it, every other verse says, “For his mercy endures for ever” — repeated 26 times!
There you have the Holy Spirit — again! — inspiring repetitive prayer. Just like those Roman Catholic seraphim in Heaven who unceasingly repeat the “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
Let The Wanderer reader open his Bible (Catholics are supposed to pray with the Bible too, of course) and make good use of these magnificent Holy Spirit-inspired prayers of repetition to praise God’s perfect Law and Mercy, and to rejoice in them.
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(Raymond de Souza is director of the Evangelization and Apologetics Office of the Winona Diocese, Minn.; an EWTN program host; regional coordinator for Portuguese-speaking countries for Human Life International [HLI]; president of the Sacred Heart Institute, and a member of the Sovereign, Military, and Hospitaller Order of the Knights of Malta. His web site is www.raymonddesouza.com.)