Thursday, April 11, 2013

Repetition a Spiritual Discipline

On a recent audiocast, Richard Rohr, noted speaker, author and director of the Center for Action and Contemplation, extolled the virtue of repeating the Rosary over and over again, as good Catholics used to do. He claimed that most every religion in the world has used prayer beads and repetition as a way to “rewire” the negative messages we have ingrained in our thoughts from our upbringing and socialization.

Most of us react negatively to repetition. An example of this is when we had an exchange student living with us for a year. Before each meal, we repeated the same table grace, but she never joined in. When we asked her about it, she said, “That prayer doesn’t come from the heart, God must be bored with your repeating it over and over again.” Somehow or other, we have been led to believe, especially in more charismatic circles, that prayers that are repeated or written down to be read are not as “spiritual” as ones that are spontaneous. Our student loved the worship services in which simple choruses were sung. Somehow I had the presence of mind to respond to her, “Well, God must be bored with your singing then, because you repeat the same things over and over again.” After that she half-heartedly repeated the prayer with us.

In defense of ritual, or repetition, Ronald Rolheiser, in his weekly article of July 11, 2010, wrote: “A recent study on marriage points out that couples who make it a habit to give each other a ritual embrace or kiss before leaving the house in the morning and another ritual embrace or kiss before retiring at night fare better than those who let this gesture be determined by simple spontaneity or mood.” This is boring repetition.

Rolheiser goes on to write, “It is a ritual, an act that is done regularly to precisely say what our hearts and heads cannot always say, namely, that the deepest part of us remains committed even during those times when we are too tired, too distracted, too angry, too bored, too anxious, too self-preoccupied, or too emotionally or intellectually unfaithful to be as attentive and present as we should be. It says that we still love the other and remain committed despite the inevitable changes and pressures that the seasons bring.” Repetition “rewires” and reaffirms our commitment.

Returning to Rohr’s point, he was not saying that we all need to pray the rosary, but that we need some sort of positive repetition to “replace something that is repetitive and negative or obsessive.” He calls this replacement therapy. “When the obsessive fear-based word assaults you and wants to grab you,” he says, “you find this [positive] word that’s deep within you. For many Christians it’s Jesus—a word that re-grounds you in the positive. It’s rewiring.”

Rohr claims that our minds are constantly thinking, and all serious religious prayer “sends you into some sort of non-thinking practice, meditation, contemplation, chant, mantra, rosary, something that stops this left-brain repeating of the old party line, over and over again.” The old party line for him are negative, obsessive thoughts that lead us to addictions.

The Jesus prayer has been passed down through the ages as one of these repetitive prayers. It has many different forms, but the most cited one is, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.” It can be used with sacred breathing defined in my previous post, or I have often used it while I walk, repeating the phrase with the rhythm of my steps. Repeating it over and over again helps us to move to Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing.”

After hearing Rohr’s audiocast, I now have ammunition for defeating my obsessive snacking, probably rooted in some negative messages from my socialization. When I want to reach for that piece of chocolate, or handful of chips, I will repeat, “Jesus, you comfort me more than this ________ (fill in the blank).” And according to Rolheiser, if I do this repeatedly, my commitment to Jesus will be underscored, as his will to me.

How do you use repetition of prayers or other spiritual practice to quiet your over obsessive thoughts? To replace the negative with the positive?

The full audiocast and question and answers can be downloaded at:


  1. Thanks for the article, Don. As one who reads a lot of poetry and even writes some, I too appreciate the power and positive impact of repetition. In poetry sometimes whole lines, single words, or maybe only a single sound is repeated. Sometimes the repetition is obvious and other times very subtle. For me repetition helps the message to sink deeper into my consciousness and enhances the memory. There is often something very delightful about a well written poem with repetitious sounds or words: it's the poetic equivalent of eating a tasty meal. Perhaps the most obvious example where repetition is used effectively is the Psalms. I was reminded of them when reading your article. I'm currently using a very brief 4-word prayer as my password for the computer charting system at the VA medical center where I work. It works really well as a reminder to stay connected with God. And since we have to change passwords every 3 months, I'll soon have to write another. Thanks again. Leonard Nolt

  2. Thanks for your response, Leonard! Thanks for the reminder of the power of poetry and repetition, and of course the Psalms. Short scripture verses can be repeated over and over to produce the "rewiring" Rohr talked about, and many people do this. Also, nice idea for the password!