And when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do, for they think that they shall be heard for the much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask Him. (Matthew 6: 7-8)
This is a pertinent topic for this blog, perchance because I came from a tradition of Protestant fundamentalism that loved to deride the Romans, the Greeks, and other apostates not only for their icon-idolatry but als for their “vain repetitions” when they pray. Those “Lord have mercies” from the papists, and those indomitable Greek Catholics earned the scorn of the denizens of sola scriptura.
Now that I’ve joined up with perhaps the worst of all the, if you well, “repeat offenders,” the Orthodox, I’ve also entered into a cult within cult, the cult of the Jesus Prayer. This coterie of hesychastic yearnings makes mincemeat of all the repeat offenders who ever tried to chant ad infinitum before. Their prayer goes like this:
Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner…
It is to be repeated often, for the rest of your life, in times of stillness, in times of stress, while driving, walking, shopping, or when fending off the wily darts of the evil one. The main objection of the scoffers of this sort of repetitive prayer is valid: Do the vain repetitions from Matthew 6 preclude us praying the Jesus Prayer? My response answer to those so-called Biblical literalists is this: There is absolutely nothing vain about the Lord have mercies or the Jesus Prayer at all: Nothing vain about Jesus, nothing vain about Son of God, or mercy, or in the value of admitting one’s sinfulness. In the Parable of the Persistent Widow, Christ declares, “men ought always to pray and not to grow faint.” (Luke 18:1).
Misjudging the meaning of vain repetitions stems from a deep misunderstanding and decontextualizing of the New Testament. In fact, the N.T. says many things about unceasing prayer. One example: Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints… (Ephesians 6:18). Of course there are different conceptions of unceasing prayer, and the prayer of the heart. The Orthodox worldview has thousands of years of study of prayer of the heart and to examine them is way beyond the scope of this blog. Let’s just say that we say the Jesus Prayer not to be blessed with a material outcome, but for our hearts to be slowly softened by the constant breathing of this prayer through our soul. For a Protestant, praying unceasingly from the heart means an entirely different thing. For some, it means trying to maintain a dialogue with God as one goes about his day. For other types of Protestants, it means to mysteriously babble (more on that later). But I think that both kinds of Protestant prayer wallow into emotionalism, which is about the opposite from Orthodox hesychasm, which approaches the divine light of God quietly and patiently and strives for the summit of all virtues, dispassion.
How does one define “vain repetitions”? The term in the Greek is actually one word, βατταλογέω (battalogeo), which occurs only once in Holy Scripture. It refers to stammering or babbling. (Again, if you consider Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, or Lord have mercy, to be akin to babbling, you probably need to reconsider your beliefs.) The Blessed Theophylact, in his corrected text of the original Greek text used for the King James Version inserted “babble” straight into the Gospel text: “But when ye pray, do not babble as the Gentiles do.” “Babbling means praying foolishly, as when someone asks for such worldly things as fame, wealth, or victory,” he writes. “‘Babbling’ is also inarticulate, childish speech. It is not necessary to make long prayers, but rather short and frequent prayers, uttering few words, but persevering in prayer.” I really like this implication that babbling also refers to praying self-serving & worldly prayers. “Please, O Lord, let the Rams win the game today. And while you’re at it, pray that we get a little extra money in our coffers today.” In fact, through a proper understanding of the intention of the Biblical Greek, we can say that this admonition actually asks us to pray prayers like the Jesus Prayer, because it is a truly righteous prayer, it does not act for worldly & selfish desires to be fulfilled and it really is asking God to transform us continually.
When I started out my journey towards Christ, I thought erroneously that if I prayed for something from the Lord, and that something for which I prayed was righteous, then I needed only to ask once. It does say, “for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask Him,” doesn’t it? Then what about the persistent widow? Blessed Theophylact wrote, “But not simply any kind of prayer; rather, persistent and attentive prayer. All these tribulations will befall the men of those times, He is saying, but prayer is a great ally, and we must offer prayer persistently and continuously, remembering how the persistence of the widow shamed the judge of unrighteousness.”
I don’t claim to have answers for any of these questions, nor could I ever overcome a Protestant, a fundamentalist, a Pentecostal, or anyone else in a debate over how one should pray. I’ll just stick my guns, which in this case is black wool rope with a lot of knots, and an Eastern understanding of Holy Scripture, calling on God to change my heart, one breath at a time.
Enough of this babbling. I’ll see you soon with the next Sermon on the Mount study, the Lord’s Prayer.