When our Lord Jesus was about to teach his disciples how to pray in the words that begin, Our Father… he warned them, do not use vain repetitions, as it is translated in the New King James version of the New Testament. (Matthew 6:7). This often seems rather an embarrassing verse for Orthodox Christians, since we love to offer repeated prayers to God, such as Lord have mercy! Kyrie eleison! Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!
Often we will want to distinguish between the idea of vain repetition and positive repetition. This is certainly a valid distinction. We should never offer prayer of any kind with a lack of attention. All of our prayer, however short the words we use, should be prayed with warmth and fervour so that it is not prayed in vain.
But in fact the problem with this verse, as so many in the Protestant translations which we use in the English language, is that it does not say in Greek what is presented in some of the English New Testaments we use. This is another instance where what is needed is an understanding that not all translations of the Bible are reliable in all cases as accurate translations of the Scripture of the Church.
The actual words in Greek are…Προσευχόμενοι δὲ μὴ βατταλογήσητε ὥσπερ οἱ ἐθνικοί. It says, when you pray do not βατταλογήσητε like the Gentiles or heathen. That word βατταλογήσητε is translated in some English Bibles as vain repetition. But we can find many other English translations which express is in another way.
The International Standard Version says… don’t say meaningless things like the unbelievers do, because they think they will be heard by being so wordy.
The English Standard Version says… do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.
The Common English Bible says… don’t pour out a flood of empty words, as the Gentiles do. They think that by saying many words they’ll be heard.
The Good News Translation says… do not use a lot of meaningless words, as the pagans do, who think that their gods will hear them because their prayers are long.
The Names of God Bible says… don’t ramble like heathens who think they’ll be heard if they talk a lot.
And the New Revised Standard Version says… do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.
What is clear about these translations is that they are wanting to pick up the idea of speaking a lot, adding many words, creating a meaningless, rambling, endless flow of words and phrases and sentences, as if God is pleased by our using many words. They do not translate the word βατταλογήσητε as vain repetition at all, but as praying with many words in empty phrases. Indeed the word comes from the idea of speaking like Batta, a Greek poet who wrote long, wordy and tedious poems. It is not a religious or spiritual word at all.
If we turn to the ancient fathers of the Church, who commented on this passage, we will be able to see how they understood it in their native Greek language.
St. John Chrysostom writes on this verse, saying…
He seems to me to command in this place, that we should not make our prayers long; long, I mean, not in time, but in the number and length of the things mentioned. For perseverance indeed in the same requests is our duty: His word being, “continuing always in prayer.”
And He Himself too, by that example of the widow, who prevailed with the pitiless and cruel ruler, by the continuance of her intercession and by that of the friend, who came late at night time, and roused the sleeper from his bed, not for his friendship’s, but for his importunity’s sake; what did He, but lay down a law, that all should continually make supplication unto Him? He does not however ask us compose a prayer of ten thousand phrases, and so come to Him and merely repeat it. For this He obscurely signifies when He said, “They think that they will be heard because of their speaking so much.”
“For He knows,” He says, “what things you have need of.” And if He knows, one may say, all that we have need of, why must we pray? It is not to instruct Him, but to prevail with Him; to be made intimate with Him, by continuing in our supplications; and to be humbled; and to be reminded our sins.
It is clear from this commentary that St. John Chrysostom has in mind the idea of praying with very long prayers, and so he speaks about someone creating a prayer with 10,000 phrases in it. But he is also very clear that this passage should not be understood as forbidding unceasing prayer of the heart using some phrase or short prayer that expresses the depths of our needs and repentance. St. John Chrysostom does not translate this passage as indicating that we should not pray often and unceasingly and repeatedly in the same words, but finds this commanded by the Lord in his parables.
At about the same time, Chromatius, bishop of Aquileia, wrote about this verse, saying…
Nonbelievers think that they can more easily obtain from the Lord what they require by using many words, but the Lord does not expect this from us. Rather, he wants us to send up our prayers not with wordy speech but with faith that comes from the heart. By doing so we command the merits of justice to him. He surely knows better all the things of which we have need and before we speak is aware of everything that we are going to request.
Here he expresses the same idea, that this verse is concerned with wordy prayers, and not with heartfelt expressions made in few words but filled with warmth.
Chromatius explains what he means when he adds…
We have an example of just how great a distance there is between the wordy and the humble and simple prayer in the story of the Pharisee and the publican. The prayer of the Pharisee vaunting himself in his abundance of words was rejected. The humble and contrite publican, on the other hand, asking forgiveness for his sins, came away more justified than the self-boasting Pharisee. In this we find fulfilled what was written: “The prayer of the humble penetrates the clouds,” reaching God who is ready to hear the request of the one who prays.
It is the simple prayer, and we use many simple prayers, which God especially hears when they are offered in humility and repentance. There is no prohibition or criticism of repeated short prayers, far from it. But it is the long, wordy, rambling prayer which tends to make the one saying it feel important, which God does not easily hear.
When Augustine of Hippo writes on the passage, he says…
As the hypocrites used to set themselves up so as to be seen in their prayers, and their reward is to be acceptable to men; so the Ethnici (that is, the Gentiles) used to think that they would be heard because of speaking so much; therefore He adds, When you pray, do not use many words.
It is clear that Augustine does not read this verse in Greek as saying that we should not pray often, and with short prayers that express the heart towards God. But it is using many words and making our prayers go on and on with more and more words which is criticised.
Likewise. St. John Cassian is very clear…
We should indeed pray often, but in short form, lest if we be long in our prayers, the enemy that lies in wait for us, might suggest something for our thoughts.
The more we ramble on in our prayers, the more likely it is that we will be distracted or some unworthy thought will intrude into our minds. But when we focus our mind and heart on the few words that we are praying, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy one me, then we are preserved from falling into such a trap.
Augustine picks up the same idea and continues his own thought, saying…
Yet to continue long in prayer is not, as some think, what is here meant, by using many words. For speaking much is one thing, and an enduring fervency is another. For of the Lord Himself it is written, that He continued a whole night in prayer, and prayed at great length, setting an example to us. The brethren in Egypt are said to use frequent prayers, but those very short, and as it were hasty expressions, in case that fervency of spirit, which is most necessary for us in prayer, should by longer continuance be violently broken off.
Not only should we continue in prayer as long as we are able, because Augustine does not consider that avoiding many words is the same as only praying for a short time, but he encourages the use of short prayers, repeated with fervency and warmth of heart, as was practiced by the monks of the Egyptian Desert, and as we practice today. Indeed he insists that the speaking much which is condemned is to pray with more words than are necessary. This certainly cannot be said of the short, heartl-felt prayers we use, such as Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy!
To pray at all times, as the Lord Jesus commands us, and as St. Paul encourages us, is not so that God will be moved to hear and have mercy, as if he was not already waiting to pour out his blessing in our hearts. But to praywithout ceasing, in the short forms of words which have been introduced to us from the earliest centuries, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy, is to place ourselves in the necessary position to receive grace from God, it is to seek an unfailing communion with God which is the meaning of the Christian life, and it is to prepare ourselves in increasing stillness and peace of heart to encounter God. Many words are not necessary for this encounter. Indeed, they obstruct it and leave us liable to distraction and confusion. It is in the quietening of the mind, using a few words, and offering them with our heart unceasingly, that we discover God is already Emmanuel, God with us and within us.
The Scripture does not say that we should not repeat our prayers. This is one bad translation of a Greek word, which the fathers of the Church, whose native language was Greek, explain to us clearly. It means rather, do not go on and on, adding more and more words to your prayers. This is the very opposite of what we do when we follow the spirituality of the Church and reduce our words, removing them one by one, till we are left with the very essence of prayer, Lord, have mercy!