Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Leghorn Liturgy

Perhaps you remember the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn. For those that don't, he was a rather puffed-up and arrogant rooster with precious little in the way of self-awareness. His adventures usually centred around being vindictive to the farm dog. Mel Blanc who voiced Foghorn Leghorn was a man who would often give his creations their character through a speech impediment. Sylvester and Daffy Duck had a lisp, Porky Pig a stutter, and Foghorn Leghorn used to repeat, I say, repeat himself constantly. The point is that this rooster had such a value of his own self importance that he believed that everything he said was worth repeating. It was a stroke of genius on Blanc's part and shows why these cartoon characters are still loved today.

Forghorn Leghorn might be described as a battologist - someone who repeats himself needlessly. This comes directly from a Greek word which has the idea of empty chatter, or babble. Interestingly, this is a word that appears in the Gospel according to St Matthew. In chapter six, Our Lord tells us:

 "when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him. After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen." (vv 5-13)

Our Lord accuses the heathen of being battologists (in fact that very Greek word is used in the original text!). What was actually happening? We must remember that the "heathen" in this case were the Romans and Greeks who worshipped the Olympic gods. They would attend sacrifices, with long babbling prayers but lived their lives as if these gods had nothing to do with them. These gods didn't mean much to these heathen unless they wanted a favour: they were simply paying lips service to a social custom.  The point is that these battologist heathen live two completely different lives. They were not sincere to their religion. Of course the big difference between the Olympic gods and Our Father who is in Heaven is that Our Heavenly Father really does exist: the gods of Olympus do not. Any prayer to them would certainly be in vain,  but our prayers to Our God are not because He hears them and they mean much to Him.

That's the point that Our Lord is making when He warns us to guard against vain repetitions. We are not to babble to God with a list of things we want Him to do. Prayer isn't like that, and Our Lord wants us to pray properly. Thus He gives us the wonderful Lord's prayer.

Interestingly, the Lord's prayer is a prayer that we repeat often - at least three times a day. If we want to avoid vain repetitions, surely we only need to pray it once in our lives - just one sincere recitation of "Our Father..." would be enough once for all. Except, prayer isn't like that either. Our Lord is telling us to pray the Our Father when we pray. We don't just pray once, we pray lots of times. In the eighteenth chapter of St Luke's Gospel we read that:

Jesus "spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint; Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith . And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?" (vv 1-8)

God is greater than any judge let alone an unjust judge. He hears prayers which are continually offered to Him. Prayer is clearly something that expresses our relationship with God. We are to do it always -pray without ceasing! - even when we don't feel like it. In fact one might say that we should pray especially when we don't feel like it and "take Heaven by storm". Having set words helps us to formulate our prayers and focus on how we are interacting with God. Of course, we can say our own prayers in our own way, but it is good to join in the same prayers with the whole Church and to pray alongside countless millions across Time and Space. Using the same words helps us do just that. Of course, Our Lord's words about vain repetitions hold true here. We are not to pray in vain, i.e. without thought, just paying lip-service to God.

Nor are we to babble without meaning: St Paul reminds us that if anyone prays in tongues, someone needs to be able to interpret what they are saying otherwise it is meaningless. We are not to use the words of liturgy without thought. Yes, the words will praise God, and the fact that we do intend to pray will always help us, but the words are to be prayed carefully. St Benedict suggests that monks who don't take care over the words of the liturgy should be punished!

During the Mass, we often repeat ourselves. For example, Kyrie eleison, Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, et c. Notice that this is not a vain repetition. We are addressing the Holy Trinity for mercy. We need God on our side. We need His love in action. We cry out with the whole Church for mercy on humanity. We are merely following Our Lord's example in St Luke's Gospel.

Another repetition occurs at the moment we are to receive the Holy Sacrament. Three times we say "Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof, but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed." Why three? Is that vain repetition? Not unless we make it vain by not taking care about what we're saying. Again, we follow St Luke's passage above, but notice what effect repeating this three times has. Each time we say it, we become more aware of what is happening. We are forcing ourselves to recall our need for God, our unworthiness to receive Him, our need for faith like the centurion whose words we are paraphrasing, and thus becoming more and more aware that we are to receive truly the Body and Blood of Christ into our fallible little bodies. The repetition is not vain. This is not battologism.

What about the Rosary with all those repetitions of "Hail Mary," "Our Father", and "Glory be"? Surely these are vain repetitions? Again, not unless we make them vain through being slack in our prayer lives and just paying lip-service. However, do we really subject ourselves to the Rosary just for something to do - a way to kill an hour? Surely not! Surely, we have some desire within us to say it as a prayer in the first place! It's very hard at first to say all the prayers devoutly with attention and devotion, but it does come with practice. The words do matter, but the wonderful thing about those repetitions is that it has a good effect on our brains. In occupying our body, we free our minds and souls to soar to God. Repeating those words reinforces our desire, and are not vain repetiotions. This is St Luke 18 again. In saying the Rosary, we allow Our Lady to help pull us up towards her Beloved Son.

Often, Protestants like to pull Catholics up on what they pray using Our Lord's dim view of vain repetitions. They have a good point to make. Our lives as Christians MUST be sincere. We cannot just pay lip-service to God. He knows the secrets of our hearts. It is important that we don't live double lives of saying one thing and doing another, but that our words and actions come from the same place. We will damage our souls if we just say the words without trying to encounter God. Agreed, sometimes we just go off on auto-pilot. That's easily forgivable when we're tired or distracted, but when we recognise that we are going off on auto-pilot, we should use the words we're saying to bring us back to our focus on Almighty God. That's what they're for.

Before we pray our liturgy we should pray:

Open Thou, O Lord, our lips to bless Thy Holy Name. Cleanse also our hearts from all vain, evil, and wandering thoughts. Enlighten our understanding, enkindle our affections that we may say this office with attention and devotion and so be meet to be heard in the presence of Thy Divine Majesty through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.

However we get distracted and our words become vain repetitions, we should take comfort in the fact that God's Word is never in vain.

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