As I was desperately trying to think of reasons not to become Catholic, I considered and researched all of the objections to Catholicism I’d heard my whole life. On this score, I can’t count the number of times I googled “why Catholicism is wrong.” One of the old standards on the Protestant hit parade of answers to this question is the topic of this post: the charge that much of Catholic practice is mere “vain repetition.”
Now, I freely admit that much of Catholic practice is repetitive. At Mass each Sunday, the order of the liturgy is exactly the same and a number of the prayers are exactly the same. Catholics regularly genuflect when in a church building and often make the Sign of the Cross. When praying the Rosary, one of the most common Catholic devotional practices, a Catholic says the Our Father no less than six times and the Hail Mary 53 times. As a Protestant, I looked at all of this repetition and concluded: “Wow, how monotonous. Those folks can’t possibly be doing any of that stuff because they really believe it. And, even if they do, it’s so sad the way they’re stifling their creativity. God surely doesn’t want
I’ll deal first with the issue of how, as a Protestant, I felt like Catholics who engaged in all of these repetitive practices couldn’t really be taking them seriously. The more I thought about this, the more I realized that the mere repetition of some particular practice said absolutely nothing about the sincerity of the person engaging in that practice. For example, I’m blessed that Nikki and the kids regularly tell me they love me. I don’t look at them and say, “Boy, you say that so much, you must not really mean it.” No, I take the fact that they repeat those particular words so often as a sign that they actually love me quite a
On the more general issue of “monotony vs. creativity,” over time I came to feel that creativity” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Over and over again as a Sunday school teacher at the Baptist church we attended, I’d struggle to come up with an impromptu prayer at the beginning of class that sounded half-way coherent. Also, it just seemed to me more and more that, by focusing so much on creativity, I was really focusing on myself and my own ability to say or do something clever—not on the revealed truths of Scripture (which I didn’t write) or on the wisdom of the ages passed down over the generations (which I also couldn’t take credit for).
Don’t get me wrong here: I’m not saying that creativity is necessarily evil. Not at all. Indeed, I’ve never felt freer in my life to be myself than since I’ve embraced Catholicism.
My point here is simply that the most basic things in life–like our family relationships, how we eat and drink, our work lives, etc.–are based much more on routine than on any brilliant flashes of genius. Why should I expect my faith life to be different? If I find routine comforting in the context of my family life, why wouldn’t I want that in how I live out my faith?
I also now am firmly convinced that the apparent “monotony” of Catholic practice is simply a foretaste of what Revelation 4 tells us Heaven will be like. There, St. John reports that, in his vision of Heaven, he saw the four living creatures before the Throne of God repeating endlessly, day and night: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come.”
If Heaven is full of repetition, though, then why did I for so long rebel against it in the practice of my faith? I think Chesterton explains the reason well:
[I]t might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
As with so many things, children instinctually sense things we adults tend to forget when we grow up. When we first started attending Mass, our 10-year-old, Schuyler, asked us the question, “Why do Catholics do the same thing every week at Mass?” To which our
7-year-old, Emma, responded: “Maybe they think it’s important.”