Just what is rote prayer? And is it a waste of time?
This article will answer these and related questions to better understand the value, purpose, and limits of rote prayer.
Let’s start by defining rote. What does it really mean?
A brief Google search will reveal that rote is typically used in a way that is disapproving. As a method of learning rote is contrasted with meaningful learning, rote being that method that requires not much more than mere repetition of a word, phrase, passage, prayer, concept, etc..
Rote learning can be said to involve two things: mechanical repetition and memory. The purpose of it is to repeat something enough that you remember it.
So, in the case of prayers, a person could memorize the Lord’s prayer without ever thinking more deeply about what it means. If the job of the student is merely to memorize it, he may not ever have thought about what it really means. And if it is always just rattled off quickly and thoughtlessly, that doesn’t help much.
However, there is a place for rote memorization as part of learning. Unfortunately, contemporary learning theory really undervalued the role of memory and memorization in learning. That is why in catechesis there was a generation of people who didn’t know basic prayers, creeds, and truths of the faith well. Rote memorization, as it was referred to, was seen as a lower form of learning that wasn’t actually transformative. So, it was basically thrown out as a learning method in catechesis.
A better, more integrated perspective on rote memorization and rote recitation of prayers is that it is a stage or a part of learning to pray, and learning the deeper truths of the faith. It is an essential part, but it’s not meant to be the only part.
For instance, I can’t really meditate on the Lord’s prayer, and go deeper into the meaning of it, if I don’t have it memorized well. Sure, you can meditate from a text but at some point key passages and prayers need to be committed to memory. That way we can internalize them and begin the longer process of evermore entering into the truths that the words represent.
A friend asked if Jesus recited rote prayers. If we are using the word rote to mean that he recited or said prayer in a superficial way then we recognize that it isn’t likely that he prayed this way as the Son of God. However, Jesus, as a boy studied the Old Testament and so much of his preaching and teaching was a presentation of the truths and prophecies of the Old Testament. Clearly, Jesus knew the Shema, a prayer recited by Jews daily. That prayer must have been so close to his heart.
This question about the place of reciting prayers and rote memorization of prayers often times comes from a sense that when a person is reciting prayers that are memorized he is not easily able to connect with their deeper meaning. The conscience is troubled by this. It is because we know there is more power behind these prayers, these practices, and these rituals that we participate in than we are able to experience. It is the Word of God, but sometimes we just aren’t connecting with it.
If this is something you have experienced I would view it as an invitation to go deeper into the practice of Catholic meditation, where you take the prayer, passage, or creed, etc., in question, and you pray it slowly, very slowly. Taking the Lord’s Prayer for example, as the Catechism does, you can take the first phrase, Our Father, and think deeply about what it means to address God as Our Father. Enter into the experience of God as Our Father. Take each passage this way, prayed slowly. It can be recited out loud but also interiorly.
If a person commits to praying and meditating this way, for instance, on the Lord’s Prayer, they will begin to have a deeper understanding of it. This deeper understanding can then be more easily accessed when we are in situations that call for the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, such as the Sacred Liturgy.
Last but not least is that it is important to be recollected when we pray, being recollected means that we are not scattered mentally and emotionally. Prayer, both liturgical and personal requires the recollection of the self so that one can be present to what he is saying. Recollection involves gathering the self together in the presence of God. It helps to make it so that when we recite prayer, our heart and our mind is aligned with our voice, so that it is really us saying this and not just mindlessly following along.