Repetition in prayer can be meaningful

At my church, we pray the Lord’s Prayer every single Sunday. It is the same words every week.

The Lord’s Prayer is part of both my morning and evening prayers, when I pray them.

To some, this repetition may seem to fly in the face of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:7 against using “vain repetitions” (King James Version).

But I have not found this repetition to be empty.

In my evening prayers, when I pray them, there is a prayer of confession of sin. With others around the world praying their evening prayers according to the Book of Common Prayer, I confess that I have sinned against God, through my own fault, “in thought, and word, and deed, and in what we have left undone.” The same words. Every time.

But I have not found this repetition to be empty.

When I pray the Lord’s prayer, I try to pray it slowly, listening for how Christ’s millennia-old words are my own, and how they speak to me. Am I trying to build my own kingdom? My prayer adjusts my intentions: “Thy Kingdom Come.” Am I anxious for my country or for the world? “May thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

When I confess my sins, sometimes I lay in my bed pondering the prayer I pray: “I have sinned against God in thought and word and deed, and what I have left undone.”

I ask, “How have I sinned in my thoughts? In my words? In my deeds? What have I thought, or said, or done, that harmed others? What have I not thought or said or done, that my failure to do it harmed others?”

Sometimes while I pray my prayers and think back on my day, I recognize patterns. Thoughts, words, and deeds (and those I left undone, unsaid, and unthought) come back to me. I remember how my toddler wanted me to play with him and I was busy, or how my wife was stressed because I did not carry an equal share of the childcare and household duties that day.

This question is not intended to fill me with guilt; indeed, in my prayer book the next line says, “May the Almighty God grant us forgiveness of all our sins, and the grace and comfort of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” I read it and take in God’s forgiveness. And sometimes I pray for the strength and energy to live into my intentions tomorrow better than I did today.

If we allow them to bend our hearts, good, repeated prayers can go from meaningless repetition to words that change our hearts.

The repetition is only vain (empty, meaningless) if we let it be.

This column appeared in The Herald-Palladium on October 3, 2020.