About contemplative prayer, Joe asks: "How do those of us for whom the ancient practices are so foreign, connect with the sense of awe and intimacy you advocate? I can see that while the Jesus Prayer can focus us, I'm concerned that it might just as easily become nothing but more than a rote and empty old habit." Joe asks an important question and offers a helpful caution. We don't want rote and empty old habits; Jesus does warn against vain repetition (Matthew 6.7). Here's my take on this---
When Jesus taught us to pray, and warned us against "heaping up empty words," he nevertheless taught us to pray by rote (Matthew 6.9ff): “Our Father, who art in heaven…”
And if we look at the Bible’s many prayers, so many of them are essentially a recitation of the tradition (cf. Mary’s response to the angel in Luke 1.38: “Here I am, servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word,” compare also the disciples' response to persecution in Acts 4.23ff: they pray Psalm 2, verbatim, then improvise on it).
The Bible, and biblical prayer, celebrates rote repetition and is highly suspicious of the forms of free prayer we in the West consider “authentic.” They’d consider it vain. Any improvising the believer does in prayer is done based upon the memorized text from the tradition.
The problem is that those of us raised in modern, western, enlightened civilization think rote repetition is a bad thing. We’re hung up on so-called "free thought". There's no such thing as free thought. We all improvise on some “text”.
Listen to the prayers that spill from our lips; they do not cohere very closely to the Bible, but rather to Western values–mostly for security, safety, and abundance. There are a few precious exceptions of course, but these praying persons have drunk deep of sacred texts.
Next post, how repetitive praying can move us toward silence, the language of God...