Praying By Rote

Why have all generations before us prayed mostly by rote? 

Because they were illiterate? It can’t be: even the most educated men of the past have always prayed by rote without any problem. 

Because they did not care? Clearly not: through all centuries of best Christian spirituality, prayer by rote was the Gold Standard. 

Because they were “Pharisees”? This is absurd, as it implies that Christianity has been dominated by Phariseism basically since inception; an argument I would expect, if at all, from a Hindu. 

The simple truth is that Christians have always prayed by rote for at least two reasons: Jesus Himself taught us to pray by rote; and praying by rote is the best guarantee of orthodox prayer, which in turn is a pretty good ingredient of orthodox thinking, which in turn leads to orthodox living. 

When I pray by rote, I am led along a Catholic railway from which no excursions on the left or right are allowed. Valuable information sinks in my consciousness and can be recalled at a moment’s time. I can be sure that my prayer is not involuntary straying from the straight and narrow and venturing into strange territory. 

Conversely, it is impossible not to notice that cafeteria Cathoicism goes hand in hand with “spontaneous” prayer, and that this becomes more and more pronounced as we wander in the dark regions of dissent. Which makes sense, as dissent is the open refusal to follow the Catholic railtrack, and cafeteria Catholicism is, if not as bad, certainly a dislike for it even in its mildest form. 

Prayer by rote also allows the gathering of many of them in prayer books; which, on closer observation, reveal themselves as a sort of “everyday Catholicism for the masses”, imparting a quantity of sound doctrinal and theological knowledge when the prayers are traditional, 

Many of the most frequent answers posed by your non-believer or non Catholic friends at the pub, and many nagging doubts of lukewarm, non-practising Catholics, can be answered simply by recalling the one or other prayer. 

“Spontaneous” prayer can very easily become an heterodox prayer, because we will naturally tend to lay our own railtrack, and it is not difficult to guess whether this own private railtrack wil follow the official one. 

I also noticed another phenomenon: that even the proponent of “spontaneous” prayers need structured prayers, even as they negate their role. 

Go to every big bookstore in an Anglo-Saxon country and you will find there huge more or less new-agey sections, with books allegedly teaching you to “pray with the angels”, or “pray for peace”, or whatever these people feel good with. The oh so powerful connection between the new-ageist and whatever he calls God still needs structure, order, discipline. Similarly, whatever crap the book peddles will be reflected in the prayers. Everyone needs this kind of structure; even tree-huggers need a “prayer of the tree-hugger”, or “morning prayers to the garden Pine”. 

In the end, therefore, everyone ends up going back to what… is the proper and sound thing to do, and to appreciate the guidance and security that only approved, orthodox prayers learnt by rote can give. 

Someone should explain it to someone very high up the Hierarchy. 





Posted on May 22, 2014, in Traditional Catholicism and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Fantastic post. ‘Prayer by rote’ seems to epitomise insincerity in the Church today. In fact, it seems that Vatican II can be summarised neatly by the phrase ‘don’t pray by rote’.

    Apparently these days its all about ‘an encounter with Jesus’. Sounds wonderful, I fully support it, but I suspect its meant in an exclusively charismatic sense. I suspect the phrase expressly excludes ‘encountering’ Our Lord via rote prayers such as the Rosary or Breviary, even the psalms, or a multitude of other examples.

    Very difficult to explain this to the ‘average’ ‘everyday’ Catholic you meet in the pews without coming across as spiritually dead.

    • Thanks for the kind words.
      I suspect the “encounter” many wish is where their fantasy Catholicism meets their own sins.

  2. How can I thank you for this post? It is beautiful in a hugely non-sentimental way. Like so many of your posts, a sincere act of charity. I am elderly: a tragic impact on my life, which I , with help of the Mother of God, dealt with–was the glorification of “spontaneity” in the last——-oh,you know the drill.

    • Well, you can certainly thank me by praying…

      I am, I think, sincere in my love for the Church, but I already once lapsed because of the sugary nonsense I heard everywhere, instead of the solid truths for which my heart yearned.

      Now, I write with those younger “me”s in mind. I do it in a way many may find harsh or crude, but that I find the best drill for Christ’s soldiers, and a drill I had to give to myself.


  3. prudentissima

    Lovely. I also enjoy how you can make me laugh by your phrasing. These days laughter can be scarce.. Having lived until recently in a very new age place I found the ” morning prayers to a garden pine” very amusing. They are quite serious about their ritual as well. I enjoy a good looking tree myself. For shade. I need to view the entire Lord of the Rings again this long weekend.

  4. Yes, I agree that these prayers encourage orthodoxy and contain valuable lessons within them. One only needs to learn to apply their heart and thoughts to every word to make it their own and “heartfelt”. It was interesting I thought that Benedict asked us to say The Creed everyday during the Year of Faith. He knew exactly what he was doing there! If the new hierarchy try to change any article of faith contained therein, quite a few people (incl. youth) may recall words to the contrary. There’s a lot to reflect on in The Creed as well as every other ‘rote’ prayer. Anyway, do not the very angels in heaven sing over and over “Holy, Holy, Holy…”?

  5. Totally agree about praying by rote. A couple of points:

    1) It’s often held that praying by rote implies inattention, e.g., saying the Rosary with rapid-fire Hail Marys, to get it over with faster. Rote prayer definitely carries this risk, and it is incumbent on us to pray attentively, to mean each Hail Mary. This can be difficult, but it is necessary; otherwise, prayer becomes meaningless. The Rosary can be especially difficult in this respect, since we are called upon to be attentive to each prayer and to each mystery at the same time.

    2) Re “spontaneous” prayer, from the Baltimore Catechism, #485: “Q: May we use our own words in praying to God? A: We may use our own words in praying to God, and it is well to do so often.” As you point out, with spontaneous prayer, there is the risk of becoming heterodox, but abandoning this sort of prayer for that reason would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. As long as one is aware of the risk, and has the genuine intention sentire cum ecclesia, such prayer is very pleasing to God, as long as rote prayer is not abandoned in its favor. Both/and, rather than either/or.

    • 1) the risk is there with spontaneous prayer, too. Again, even “spontaneity” end up with their own prayers, which they then recite at home.

      2) of course one can also pray spontaneously. I do and write it often, for example, concerning Francis’ papacy! But when the spontaneous talking to Jesus or Mary becomes a substitute of rote prayers, we are in trouble already.
      Also, the old catechism were written in times when the abuse of “spontaneous” prayer as happened in the “Springtime” was unthinkable, so we must see their words and mine in the appropriate context.


  6. I work with the elderly demented (varying degrees) in hospice. Deep into their neurocognitve decline the Catholics are able to pray the rote prayers, thus, we are able to pray together. This is a beautiful thing.

    • How beautifully said!


    • donnaliane72

      I must say Mundabor, that this topic appears so popular that I think it’s “gone viral” !
      I’ll be emailing the link so others can benefit from this conversation- think of all the good that all of your collective words can do. And therefore, be encouraged today.

    • donnaliane72

      I agree. It is profoundly beautiful to pray with a dying, suffering or otherwise fragile person. And a lasting grace and comfort. I hope I die repeating the prayers of the Rosary, fully cognitive or not. And if they call me ‘mad’, I’ll be further blessed.
      Once when suffering so greatly that I thought I was dying, I could only repeat “Jesus, Mary…”. It was meant to be the short prayer, ” Jesus, Mary, save souls!” But I was impaired by the pain and could only send out the first two words- even in my mind, as I wasn’t speaking. Such comfort and solace in found in these short prayers. Another inspiring example with story of its benefit is found here:
      [EDIT: link not allowed as it leads to a false apparition].

  7. If we have hallowed, time-tested, saint-prayed, truth & love teaching, Biblically and doctrinally faithful and good prayers i.e., “by rote”, we are thus freed up to give our whole mind, soul, and body unto God in prayer. The road has lines, stop-signs, yield-signs, and speed limits. We’ve had 60 years of liturgical chaos and making stuff up, and ‘steam of consciousness’ prayers. Praying whilst listening to somebody else making stuff up is a stop-and-start gridlock-traffic kind of prayer, unless you don’t care what you are agreeing to (“Amen” = so be it, O Lord), or you think the Holy Spirit is a spirit of confusion and babble.

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