What did Jesus really mean when he told his followers "But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking" (Matthew 6:7 KJV)? What exactly are "vain repititions"?
When Jesus gave this instruction (advice) for prayer, anti-Catholics believe that Christ meant that we should not make any prayer in repitition or utter words in prayer in an uninterrupted sequential manner. This is the anti-Catholics argument against Catholics saying prayers like the Rosary where we would pray five decades' worth of the "Hail Mary" prayer, the "Our Father", the Apostles Creed, particular litanies, etc. The emphasis the anti-Catholic makes is on the use of the word "repititions". So according to them, any prayer made in succession or that is repetitive in nature is not valid prayer and is the prayer of the "heathen" (pagan). But what does scripture tell us about prayer? Many anti-Catholics seem to neglect the fact that we are encouraged to pray fervently, and for what purpose? Well, we all know that if we don't speak to a loved one on a regular basis or if we neglect to relate with them, the relationship may suffer.
We know that Christ himself prayed and prayed on numerous occassions. In fact, if we read on from Matthew 6:7, we see how Christ instructs his followers to pray; the "Our Father" prayer:
"This, then, is how you should pray:
'Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.'" - Mathew 6:9-13 (NIV)
How many times do you think this prayer is recited/prayed by the same anti-Catholics that tote the "vain repititions" argument? Would they not themselves be guilty of praying like the "heathen" (pagan) does? Because of their focus on the word "repititions" it's apparent to them that any prayer made in repitition is a prayer of the heathen. What they, anti-Catholics, ignore is the use of the word "vain". Before we look into that, let's have a look at the Douay Rheims Bible citation of Matthew 6:7...
"And when you are praying, speak not much, as the heathens. For they think that in their much speaking they may be heard."
I wonder how "speak not much" made it's way to "vain repititions" over the years of scriptural translation and interpretation!
The meaning in the phrase "speak not much" is simple: Jesus is speaking of mindless babble! "Vain repititions" refers to words without meaning, intent or purpose, and prayers made in vain! Jesus refers to the heathens in this verse of scripture because they:
a) Pray in public to be seen as righteous;
b) Pray many words in the hope they will be heard;
c) Do not pray with purpose or genuine intent.
This is precisely why Jesus gave us the Lord's prayer, so that we may be able to prayer with pure and genuine intent, and not babble as the heathens do.
A vain repitition or the babble of the heathen is prayer made without direction, intent or purpose. It's is perfectly okay to repeat a prayer so long as it has direction, intent or purpose, or else every time we sing those hymns at Mass or any non-Catholic Sunday service, we could be in a lot of trouble!
The issue is not with the repititions but with the vainness of prayer. Jesus' focus is on the vainness and not the repitition. If His focuse had been on the repitition then He would have said, "... use not repititions..." rather than "... use not vain repititions..." (Matthew 6:7 KJV). The distinction is made quite clear.
When Christ makes His prayers in the garden of Gethsemane, do we not see Him making numerous prayers?
"And leaving them, he went again: and he prayed the third time, saying the selfsame word." - Matthew 26:44 (Douay Rheims)
And are we not encouraged throughout the New Testament to be fervent/persistent in prayer?
"A religious man, and fearing God with all his house, giving much alms to the people and always praying to God." - Acts 10:2
"And he, beholding him. being seized with fear, said: What is it, Lord? And he said to him: Thy prayers and thy alms are ascended for a memorial in the sight of God." - Acts 10:4
"For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers" - Romans 1:9
"rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing stedfastly in prayer" - Romans 12:12
"Pray without ceasing" - 1 Thessalonians 5:17
"And the four living creatures had each of them six wings; and round about and within they are full of eyes. And they rested not day and night, saying: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come." - Revelations 4:8
The bottom line is this: no prayer, whether it is a prayer you're making up on the spot, a prayer read out of a book, or a prayer memorised, should be made without direction, purpose or intent. Always, always, always have give yourself a purpose to pray, whether you are thanking God for something or making petition for a friend or loved one for any particular need:
"Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms. Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit." - James 5:13-18
When Catholics pray the "Hail Mary" in the Rosary and prayer their litanies, while yes they make repititions, but they are not vain repititions because the prayers are always made with direction, purpose or intent.
Pray with purpose and give yourself a purpose to pray!
Further reading: http://thoughtsfromaragamuffin.wordpress.com/2009/04/01/vain-repetition/