Why the Rosary is Not “Vain Repetition”

The aim of the Rosary therefore is not to empty the mind, but to fill the mind with the mysteries of the life of Christ.

Pixabay/CC0 (photo: Register Files)

Protestants sometimes charge Catholics with “vain repetition” in praying the Rosary. This is a reference to Matthew 6:7, where Jesus instructs, “When you pray to not babble with vain repetition as the pagans do.”

Sure, when we pray the Rosary there is a lot of repetition. The problem is not repetition but vain repetition. If repetition were the problem Jesus would be have an “Um what about…” moment with Psalm 136 in which every verse ends with “for his mercy endures forever.” No there’s not a problem with repetition was such, but with vain repetition.

So what is “vain repetition?” Vain repetition is when the person praying is given a mantra to repeat over and over again in order to get his mind into a trance-like state. In transcendental meditation, for instance, the devotee is given a seemingly meaningless word to repeat over and over again. That’s vain repetition.

Vain repetition is also repeating a set prayer without thinking about it, a set prayer in a language you can’t understand or a set prayer that you feel has some sort of magical power like an incantation or spell. Vain repetition can also be the repetition of a prayer formula that you feel has merit simply because it is repeated over and over again. The words could be any old mumbo-jumbo, but the devotee thinks it is meritorious simply by being repeated. Vain repetition is repetition without any foundation in meaning or purpose.

That’s what Jesus means in the second half of Matthew 6:7 when he says, “They think they are heard because of their many words.”

The Rosary might seem the same as a Hindu chanting his mantra, but it is radically different.

The Eastern repetitious prayer has the intention and purpose of helping the devotee empty their mind and enter a state of self-abnegation and forgetting this world. The object of meditation in Eastern religions is for the devotee to enter into a kind of nothingness in which all material things are forgotten or denied.

The Rosary is not an emptying out but a filling up. It is not a forgetting but a remembering. In a similar way to the Mass, through which we bring into the present moment the events of our redemption, so through meditation on the mysteries of the Rosary we bring into the present moment the mysteries of the gospel and allow the Holy Spirit to apply them to our lives.

I have written about this in my book Praying the Rosary for Inner Healing. This book explains how the mysteries of the Rosary take us step-by-step through the life of Christ, and as we meditate on the stages of life in Christ we access the perfect life of Christ with Mary. Where there are imperfections, sin and trauma in the stages of our lives and in the lives of our loved ones, the perfect lives of Jesus and Mary are applied for the healing and reconciliation of our lives.

This is far from “vain repetition” — instead, through the mystery of the Rosary, the dynamic life of Christ in the world is brought alive and applied to our needs and the needs of the whole world.

But there is an aspect of Eastern meditation that is present in the use of the Rosary. The repetition of a mantra, a repetitious prayer, does have an effect on our minds and hearts. What it does in Eastern meditation is to occupy the “language channel” of the mind, allowing the rest of the mind to enter a state of emptiness. This is the object of Eastern meditation. The repetitious prayer provides a kind of “background static” so that the mind can move beyond language to the realm of the Spirit.

This Eastern form of meditation is actually not only vain, but spiritually dangerous. If a person is not baptized or protected by the Holy Spirit, once they have “emptied their minds” they can also open their minds and hearts to foreign spirits. This is the criticism of Transcendental Meditation. The mantra the person is given to recite seems like a meaningless word. However, some critics say the word “Omm” is not a meaningless word, but the name of a Hindu deity — and that an unprotected person, by chanting this name over and over, is actually invoking pagan gods and inviting them into their hearts and minds, which have been conveniently vacated through the prayer technique.

The repetitious prayer of the Rosary has a similar effect of occupying the linguistic channel of the mind, but instead of doing so with a meaningless word or phrase it depends on the deeply meaningful prayer of the Hail Mary, which takes the person into the heart of the mystery of the incarnation.

The aim of the Rosary therefore is not to empty the mind, but to fill the mind with the mysteries of the life of Christ. The aim of the Rosary is not to enter a numb state of mental and emotional emptiness, but to enter into the fullness of the joyful, luminous, sorrowful and glorious mysteries and thereby to enter more fully and mysteriously into the life of Christ.

Practitioners of Eastern religions and pagan religions do use repetitious prayer, and repetitious prayer clearly has some practical benefits: it occupies the linguistic channel of the mind thereby opening the super linguistic areas of the mind to a higher level of prayer. However, the Rosary differs from those pagan forms of prayer because it does not take the religious disciple into a bland and blank state in which anything can happen. Instead it takes the disciple of Christ into a positive, powerful and meaningful participation in the mystery of the incarnation.

The Rosary is therefore a powerful symbol of  the whole of Catholic theology. Our religion is not an escape from reality or an avoidance of the physical. Instead it is an immersion in reality and a full participation in the physical and historical. Our religion is not an escape from this world, but an embrace of this world. It is not a mental opt-out, but a fully human opting in. Christian prayer is not an ethereal experience of another world, but a supercharged experience of the other world penetrating this one through the mystery of the incarnation of the  second person of the Trinity into this world through the amazing action of taking flesh of the Blessed Virgin.

The Rosary is powerful and transformative because it is a daily, simply, prayerful and powerful participation in this mystery of our redemption and the redemption of the whole world.