By RAYMOND de SOUZA, KM
The Pharisee and the publican — improvised prayer and repetitive prayer:
“Two men went up to the Temple to pray, the one a Pharisee and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and began to pray thus within himself: ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men, robbers, dishonest, adulterers, or even like this publican. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I possess’ ” (Luke 18:10-14).
Let us notice that the Pharisee was wont to do what Jesus exhorted people to do in the Sermon of the Mount: Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Those were undoubtedly very good deeds, but the Pharisee performed them in a spirit of pride and self-exaltation, and expressed his personal glory in a detailed, improvised prayer of thanksgiving.
“But the publican, standing afar off [if he were Catholic, he would kneel], would not so much as lift up his eyes to heaven, but kept striking his breast, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’”
The first man babbled words, telling the Lord in detail what was going on in his reputedly Godly life, whereas the second used a simple, short prayer of repetition. Which one was pleasing to God?
Jesus said: “I tell you, this man [the publican] went back to his home justified rather than the other [the Pharisee]; for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”
Amen! The exalted, improvised wordy prayer is the prayer of the proud. The simple, repetitive prayer — like the rosary — is the prayer of the humble. We may, of course, add other prayers as the Holy Spirit inspires us, including reading biblical prayers, meditating on the words of Jesus, etc., etc.
The striking of the breast is done by Catholics immediately before receiving the Holy Eucharist: “Lord I am not worthy to receive you. . . .” And in the short prayer of the Hail Mary, after repeating the Holy Spirit-inspired words of the Archangel Gabriel and of St. Elizabeth in the praise of Mary (Luke 1), Catholics repeat, like the publican, “Pray for us, sinners…”
And of course both Catholics and Protestants repeat “Amen” all the time. . . .
By the way, some people say that when the Pharisee trimmed his beard in the morning in front of the mirror, he might sing a famous church song, such as How Great Thou Art. . . .
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As the two JW visitors left my home on that Saturday afternoon, I couldn’t help thinking about those separated brethren divided into thousands of denominations who oppose the rosary and yet endlessly multiply words in their prayers, chatting away with the Father as if He needed to know each and every detailed aspect of the issue, in order to avoid any possible misunderstanding. Those are the kind of Christians who insist in serving God as His . . . advisers. They babble along, multiply words endlessly, speak a lot in prayer, and, at times, improvise sentences in a way that it becomes an exercise of oratory at best or just meaningless verbosity.
In so doing, they incur in the precise condemnation they accuse us of, that is, to babbling like pagans, using a lot of meaningless words, multiplying words, speaking much.
Jesus did not condemn the repetition of prayers, such as the Our Father, which He Himself taught us, the Hail Mary, whose first part was inspired by the Holy Spirit and the second by Jesus’ own Holy Church, and the Glory Be, a prayer similar to that of the Roman Catholic seraphim in Heaven, who unceasingly glorify God, day and night.
1) The JWs Bible and most non-Catholic versions of the Bible contain a text mistranslated and out of context, which they turned into a pretext against the rosary (Matt. 6:7). Otherwise, Jesus would be giving a contradictory teaching, condemning something in one verse and commanding the same thing in the next.
2) The words of Jesus in the Our Father and of the Angel and St. Elizabeth to Mary cannot possibly be classified as “vain repetitions.”
3) The prayer of the rabbinical schools was repetitive: Just as John the Baptist taught his disciples a prayer to identify their prophetic school, Jesus taught His disciples His prayer, the Our Father, which identified His rabbinical schools apart from the others (Luke 11).
4) In the parable of the persistent friend who knocked at his neighbor’s door for bread (Luke 11), Jesus exhorted us all to pray with persistence — and persistence cannot happen without repeating the prayer over and over again.
5) Bible prayers, such as the Penitential Psalms, are perfect prayer for sinners, highly repetitive, and inspired by the Holy Spirit. Especially the long Psalm 119 with its 176 verses, virtually repeating the same ideas over and over again. They have been used by faithful Jews since 1,000 years before Jesus. Since the dawn of Christianity, faithful Christians have done the same. In Psalm 136, David composed his own Catholic litany of repetitions.
6) In Gethsemane, Jesus repeated the same prayer to the Father, saying the same words over and over again (Matt. 26:38, 42, 44).
7) In Heaven, the countless seraphim endlessly repeat the same “holy, holy, holy” to God — they must all be good churchgoing Roman Catholics, of course.
Examination Of Conscience
Having said all that, a last word for us Catholics about lip service: How many of us outwardly appear to do like the angels in Heaven who indulge in repetitive prayer, while at the same time inwardly pray the rosary mechanically, with our lips only, while the thoughts of our minds and the feelings of our hearts and the images of the imagination wander away everywhere? And if we consent to that wandering, could we be pleasing to God? Would it not be like the Pharisees who indulged in lip service?
If Jesus condemned the mere babbling of the lips, the meaningless wordy outpouring of verbs, adverbs, pronouns, and prepositions, while the mind takes a vacation, He also condemned the prayer of lip service:
“You, hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me’ ” (Matt. 15:8).
So, in our repetitive prayer, in our prayer of the humble, in our rosaries and litanies and the like, if our imagination tends to wander away from our prayer, let us always bring it back. If it wanders away one hundred times, let us bring it back one hundred and one times. Our Lord sees the good intention of our hearts, not our human miseries.
May Our Blessed Mother, who herself composed a prayer of praise and thanksgiving to God, which Christians have repeated for nearly 2,000 years — the Magnificat — pray for us, so that we may always endeavor to say our prayers with modesty, attention, and devotion, as St. Louis de Montfort teaches in True Devotion to Mary.
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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.)