As a Catholic, you may have heard this before: why does Catholic
worship involve so many repetitive rituals? It’s weird that you all say the same thing at the same time! It alienates others who don’t know the words and it looks funny. Or you may have thought this to yourself instead: Why do we say the same thing over and over again? I get bored and my mind wonders – I just want to pray with my own words!
I was in a conversation the other day with some of my Catholic girl friends, talking how we appreciate that the rituals we practice in the Catholic faith connect us to a rich Tradition. When we pray words that others have prayed for generations we feel connected, grounded and rooted – like with the words of the Our Father prayer that go back to Christ (Luke 11:2-4), or the words of the Hail Mary prayer, some of which came directly from her cousin, Elizabeth (Luke 1:41-42).
Regular repetition = healthy!
The wisdom and depth of the way we pray – with repetition, using rituals – doesn’t stop there. It’s trendy to talk about being healthy these days, right? Everyone agrees that we need to stick to a regular schedule of eating healthy and exercising repeatedly. What about our spiritual health? Our spiritual body, our soul, needs regularity and repetition for stability and growth in the same way that our corporal body does. Going to daily mass, developing a routine of morning prayer and evening prayer, and even the way that each mass follows a specific pattern and structure – it all aids to build a healthy regularity that organisms (that’s us) need to grow.
Just the beginning!
“But repeating the same rituals and words gets boring!” My response is – great! The rituals and the repeated prayers should become the backbone of our faith – not the final realization. If the initial level of prayer and spiritual practice no longer satisfies you, don’t just zone out when you hear the same words again. Let them instead sink into your soul, to become the strong background rhythm to a whole new level of prayer – the level of prayer that emerges when your mind is no longer focused what words to say. It is at this place of deep inner prayer that we can truly began to listen. I encourage you to seek spiritual guidance to go deeper in prayer, perhaps from your parish priest, or a spiritual director, or from reading books by your favorite spiritual masters.
A fall-back plan
As a spiritual backbone, rituals and repetitive prayers serve us well specifically in those times where our souls can’t go deeper, when we feel tired or dried up. It is especially in these versions of our own “dark nights” that we must fall back on the words we have received from our Tradition because we cannot find the words ourselves, because we feel empty. Kathleen Norris describes this feeling in her book, The Cloister Walk:
“I recognize in all of this the siege of what the desert monks termed the “noonday demon.” It suggests that whatever I’m doing, indeed my entire life of “doings,” is not only meaningless but utterly useless…it mocks the rituals, routines and work that normally fill my day; why do them, why do anything at all, in the face of so vast an emptiness.” – p 131
It is precisely when we are faced with this spiritual “ennui”, that noon day demon, and prayer seems a humungous effort , that we must fall back on the firm foundation of the spiritual structure we’ve built into our daily lives. This foundation is built upon the strength of millennia of believers who persevered. It is precisely when the routines seem dry that we must stick to them, offering them sometimes in blind trust that the soul will be refreshed, when God wills. Looking back on periods of this “noonday demon” in my own prayer life, I can see that while the rituals felt at the time like cumbersome obstacles, they were actually my lifeline.
Also, this may sound obvious, but when we have common rituals and words, we can say them together. Praying aloud with others with words that are common to all, and well established with thousands of years of wisdom behind them – it lifts you out of your own subjectivity and into something greater than yourself. Consider Pope Benedict XVI’s words on the subject:
“The essential point is that the Word of God and the reality of the Sacrament really occupy center stage; that we don’t bury God underneath our words and our ideas and that the liturgy doesn’t turn into an occasion to display ourselves…Liturgy is precisely not a show, a piece of theater, a spectacle. Rather, it gets its life from the Other…The point is to go out of and beyond ourselves, to give ourselves to Him, and to let ourselves be touched by Him. In this sense, it’s not just the expression of this form that’s important, but also it communality.” (From Light of the World, page 156)
Thus, the Mass is primarily a time of communal prayer – not that individual spontaneous prayer isn’t valid (on the contrary it is vital), but there is a different time and place for it. So if you’re trying to pray better at mass by praying louder or slower than others, please instead let your voice become one in communion with those around you. Or if you’re still conscientiously insisting on saying the old Mass words, from before the Roman Missal changed last Advent, again, try to put aside your personal preference and let Christ teach you the value of the greater family, of which we are all but a part.
From the outside looking in
My last comment is for those on the outside looking in, to those to whom we seem bizarre when we pray with rituals (like the sign of the cross) or repeating the same words together (like at mass or rosaries). Although the sight of such a united group can cause feelings of being left out or confused, please know that you are invited to join! Don’t be embarrassed to ask the person next to you where to find the words (they are all in the Missal!) and don’t worry if it takes a while to get it all down. I promise that although from the outside it may seem complex, meaningless, or boring, the inner layers of such prayer and ritual are nothing of the sort – but it will take some personal effort and investment on your part to get into the depth of it. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing – if you could capture everything the Church has to offer in one service, one sermon, or in one glance – the Church wouldn’t have much to offer, would it?