In Defense of Repetition

1631 Book of Psalms
1631 Book of Psalms (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently I’ve had a few conversations with people who found a distaste for Orthodoxy with a common theme, that of repetition.  You almost have to say it with a captial R, dripping with disdain.  After all, isn’t repetitious worship a major cause of the ills of Catholicism and high church protestantism.  What more do you need than Jesus’ words against “vain repetition” to tell you how destructive it is.  In the charismatic tradition I was raised in we wouldn’t be caught dead engaging in repetitious services.  We would hold only disdain for those poor Christians who actually read through a service book on a Sunday morning.  That’s dead religion.

Well, not so fast.  Allow me to rise in defense of repetition.  The disdain found in most of evangelical protestantism for repetition is as puzzling as it is knee-jerk, and yet this is such a common complaint that almost any convert has probably raised it, and any Orthodox responder has encountered it.  How many protestants of the free worship variety are willing to take an honest look at their own practices and recognize the repetition in them?  How many will take a fresh look at the effects and uses of repetition and see the positive benefits?  Not many, I believe, but this is a mistake.  Protestants who think that repetition is inherently spiritually dangerous and that their own practices are far from repetitious are wrong on both counts.  Rather, repetition is both beneficial and in fact necessary in the Church.

Repetition: By Any Other Name

First, let’s consider the common thought among evangelicals that they are anything but repetitious.  Feeling that extemporaneous actions equal true worship or true relationship, they strive to pray extemporaneously and do unplanned actions during worship.  However anyone who has been an evangelical or been around them for long will quickly realize that the extemporaneous prayer is anything but.  Themes and phrases are repeated.  Tones and patterns are very common.  In fact it’s a common complaint among evangelicals (I know this from first and second hand experience) that their prayer life has become something substandard because they feel it is too repetitious.  Extemporaneousness becomes a burden that’s impossible to bear.  Even when you strive to remove a set structure, or reject structures of the past, new structures blossom in their place.

The same is true with the corporate worship of an evangelical church.  If you are honest, how much actually varies from week to week, or even from year to year?  Sit down any evangelical of some duration and ask them how the order of service at their church will go.  They will be able to give you with some exactness what will happen on Sunday.  I always found it somewhat humorous that even the “unplanned” elements of a charismatic service will fall into a schedule and begin to happen at very consistent times.  I don’t need to belabor this point.  Merely recognizing and accepting that in fact repetition is just as common in evangelical prayer and worship as it is in Orthodox (or Catholic or any highly liturgic church) can help to dispel the automatic negative reaction.

Repetition: A Necessity

Repetition appears to actually be a necessary component in human relationships.  This can be positive or negative.  For someone who has emotional or relational disfunction this might be evident in serial abusive relationship.  In a healthier light a relationship that is functioning properly gains stability through repeated actions and experiences.  In any case you find that repetition is innate to human nature in our interactions with others.  Good or bad, repetition is everywhere.

Even when people intentionally try to remove repetitious elements in their Christian activities they are unsuccessful.  The Reformation saw a beginning of intentional disconnecting with the immediate past, and a process of reinvention that has only sped up over time.  While Luther and Calvin didn’t see themselves as re-imagining Christianity, that is exactly what is attempted by many modern Christians.  In some grander irony, though, intentionally shunning the historical actions of the church and coming up with something “fresh” does not remove repetition.  New traditions arise in their place.  Remove the creed, and a new creed will come up.  Remove old music, and a new standard line up emerges.  Fight the old prayer patterns and lo and behold, there’s a new pattern.  The result of removing a tradition isn’t the removal of tradition, it’s just the loss of the richness of what had been there before.  Orthodoxy has an old, rich soil of worship that has been well cared for.

Repetition is a very hardy breed.  It’s impossible to kill.  It’s something that has been with us as far back as we can see in Scripture.  Old Testament worship was strongly repetitive.  The hymnography of the Hebrews (Psalms) was highly repetitive.  Human nature shows itself to be consistent over long periods of time.  There’s nothing new about those patterns under the sun.  One must come to the conclusion that repetition is inherent in our nature due to its omnipresence.

Repetition: Foundation for Healthy Relationship

While much maligned, repeating activities and actions with a loved one is a great tool for building a relationship.  Any married couple can tell you after some years of marriage how their spouse will act in given situations, and while that is not always seen as a benefit it’s really is the foundation to a relationship, because it provides stability.  While variety provides nice interest, it’s the repetitious elements of a relationship that build connection.  Every time I leave the house I make sure and tell my wife that I love her.  I’ve repeated these words and this actions countless times, and yet my wife has never told me to stop being so repetitive.  “I love you” never ceases to be helpful in maintaining our relationship.  It would be ludicrous, in fact, to insist that terms of endearment must be new every time.  How many widows and widowers take great comfort in remembering the repetitive aspects of their dead spouse’s life.  They remember the way they drank coffee, or read the newspaper, or sang that one song over and over.  Those actions repeated over and over are the connectable ones.

The same is true for God.  If you think that God is impressed by your unique expressiveness then you misunderstand his changeless nature, and the worship structure that he set in place.  If you think that he is turned off by your repetitive actions then you malign the image you were made in the likeness of, that gave you the need for repetition.  The Old Testament shows repetition in worship.  Jesus participated in this repetitive worship structure, and so did the apostles.  Apparently repetition is a hallmark of relationship to God, just the same as it is with humans.  An ever changing worship only results in instability.

One possibility to consider is that while all this attention to finding new expressions of worship and life that is so prevalent in evangelical circles may go a long way to promoting interest, but completely fail at promoting growth.  Growth in the Christian life is not served by a continuous stream of unique experiences, any more than learning is served by this.  As a homeschooling parent I get to see this first hand, and I’m sure teachers would happily concur.  You introduce new concepts to children, but it’s the repetition that let’s them master the concept.  If every school day you just focus on the new, and never look back at older concepts, you will never help that child progress.  Our relationship with God cannot be dumbed down to just education about God, but certainly you can see how frequent, shared, common experiences are a healthy building block for relationships.

Repetition: Aid to Worship

Orthodox worship is repetitious in many ways.  Not in all, to be certain.  You could definitely make the case that Orthodoxy has less repetition than many protestant churches, though that might stagger the imagination.  When you dig into the mechanics of Orthodox worship you’ll be surprised by the amount of variation from day to day to week to week.  However, there is no doubt that many elements of the divine liturgy are repeated.  This pattern is quite Scriptural however.  The worship of Israel was extremely liturgical and repetitious.  Just like Orthodox worship, it has patterns and seasons that occur over time.  Just like Orthodox worship (and protestant too) it has elements repeated every day or week.  Even entire services are repeated every week.  Just like Israelite worship we have feasts, and just like Israelite worship we have fasts.  The similarities between the two are striking.

Let us be clear, however.  This is a good thing!  God instituted this form of worship for good reason.  It promotes healthy worship.  Having a clear pattern to our worship allows us to engage the changeless God in a way that is appropriate to Him, and not focusing on the new and innovative, which promotes us.  The aim of the modern evangelical church is to use modern marketing ideas to attract people.  The aim of ancient Christian worship is to rightly praise God.  Let’s not forget the model par excellence of praise found in Scripture, in Isaiah 6:

6:1 In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the sovereign master seated on a high, elevated throne. The hem of his robe filled the temple. 6:2 Seraphs stood over him; each one had six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and they used the remaining two to fly. 6:3 They called out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord who commands armies! His majestic splendor fills the entire earth!” 6:4 The sound of their voices shook the door frames, and the temple was filled with smoke.

You can see a mirror image in Revelation 4:

4:8 Each one of the four living creatures had six wings and was full of eyes all around andinside. They never rest day or night, saying: Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God, the All-Powerful, Who was and who is, and who is still to come!”

4:9 And whenever the living creatures give glory, honor, and thanks to the one who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 4:10 the twenty-four elders throw themselves to the ground before the one who sits on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever, and they offer their crowns before his throne, saying:

4:11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, since you created all things, and because of your will they existed and were created!”

Three huzzahs for repetition.  Better yet, three “Holy”s.  One of the most foundational prayers in Orthodoxy, that you’ll find repeated in most any service and in the private prayers of the faithful, is known as the Trisagion (which is a greek word meanly “thrice holy”) prayer.  In part it says:

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Glory to thee, our God, glory to thee.

O heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who art in all places and fillest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life: Come and dwell in us and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O gracious Lord.

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal: have mercy on us.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal: have mercy on us.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal: have mercy on us.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

All-holy Trinity, have mercy on us. Lord, cleanse us from our sins. Master, pardon our iniquities. Holy God, visit and heal our infirmities for thy Name’s sake.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

That is a profoundly beautiful and repetitious prayer.  Notice the obvious patterning of the worship of heaven in it.  It rings with the Holy, Holy, Holy of heavenly worship!  You might also be interested to find out more about the Jesus Prayer.

Repetition: The Ancient Paths

An obvious benefit to repetition is that it aids in memorization.  This seems obvious, but I don’t think many people are also connecting the role of repetition in creating habits, good or bad.  Probably most people have heard that it takes 21 days of repetition to form a habit.  The reality of habit formation is much more complicated.  The duration of repetition to form a habit actually varies highly depending on the task.   The amount of time it requires to form a good habit can be as short as 18 days or as high as 254!  On average, it takes 66 days to reach a good habit plateau for our behaviors.  But for the diligent habit creator, what an amazing benefit a habit provides.  After the habit becomes ingrained it becomes somewhat automatic.  No more thought is required to enact the habit, and it becomes part of your makeup and hard to break.

The Orthodox Church establishes a daily, a weekly, a seasonal, and a yearly pattern to it worship, and given time this habit or worship becomes part of who you are.  The Church is famously conservative in maintaining the pattern of worship and prayer that has been handed down to it.  The liturgy is ancient.  The prayers are ancient.  When you go through the divine liturgy or pray the trisagion, you are echoing the lives of the saints from all ages.  Your worship is their worship.  Your prayer is their prayer.

In Jeremiah 6:16 it says:

The Lord said to his people: “You are standing at the crossroads. So consider your path. Ask where the old, reliable paths are.  Ask where the path is that leads to blessing and follow it.  If you do, you will find rest for your souls.”

Those who rail against the repetitious, the traditional, rail against connecting with those who have done this Christian life before, who know where the reliable paths are.  The modern protestant historical amnesia is one of the great tragedies of Christianity.  If you want to know how to pass along the faith, consider Orthodoxy, which has successfully passed on the faith unbroken for 2,000 years.  It is the envy of all when it comes to teaching the Christian life.  Protestants should take note.

Repetition: Essential to Community

One critique of Protestantism that you’ll hear from Orthodoxy is that it promotes individualism, not community.  I won’t spend time defending that critique, but rather I’d like to point out that repetition is an absolutely critical part of building community.  If you want a group of people to build relationship they must spend time together in shared action.  How can a group of people possibly come together to worship without actions that they all know by heart, and how can they know an action by heart if it is not repetitious.  The more unique an experience or activity is, the less it promotes community among a group.  The word community refers to “those who share things in common.  I’ll assert it again, you cannot have community with repetition.

I find it interesting that inside evangelical communities you can find this desire for communal action bubbling to the surface time and again, and resulting in the re-creation of the very elements of ancient Christianity that are often explicitly denied.  One such element is a creed.  Commonly evangelicals will decry the use of a creed (which is bizarre), and yet they consistently re-create their own creeds over and over (and over and over).  They decry liturgical worship, but they promote it within their own denominations by promoting certain patterns and actions.  They reject written prayers and end up with just as strongly pattern prayers that remain unwritten.  The need for pattern in creed, liturgy, and prayer is unspoken but cannot be suppressed.

Shane Claiborne
Shane Claiborne

And you know, it may not even be so unspoken any more.  Witness the efforts of Shane Claiborne and others to recreate a common experience suitable for western/protestant Christians in their Common Prayer book.  You can even get a pocket edition to take to church with you.  :o)  By the way, I mean no disrespect to Shane.  I own and have read most of his books, and I really appreciate his desire to live rightly with God.  We could all strive to be more like him in that.  I only wish that he would stop trying to recreate monasticism and common experience, and join the continuing life of the Apostolic Church that he obviously longs for.  Shane, come home!

Psalm 136

I’ll leave the matter of repetition now with one of the works of musical beauty inspired by God, in a sense a conversation of God with Himself, which is also a monument to repetition.

136:1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,

for his loyal love endures.

136:2 Give thanks to the God of gods,

for his loyal love endures.

136:3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords,

for his loyal love endures,

136:4 to the one who performs magnificent, amazing deeds all by himself,

for his loyal love endures,

136:5 to the one who used wisdom to make the heavens,

for his loyal love endures,

136:6 to the one who spread out the earth over the water,

for his loyal love endures,

136:7 to the one who made the great lights,

for his loyal love endures,

136:8 the sun to rule by day,

for his loyal love endures,

136:9 the moon and stars to rule by night,

for his loyal love endures,

136:10 to the one who struck down the firstborn of Egypt,

for his loyal love endures,

136:11 and led Israel out from their midst,

for his loyal love endures,

136:12 with a strong hand and an outstretched arm,

for his loyal love endures,

136:13 to the one who divided the Red Sea in two,

for his loyal love endures,

136:14 and led Israel through its midst,

for his loyal love endures,

136:15 and tossed Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea,

for his loyal love endures,

136:16 to the one who led his people through the wilderness,

for his loyal love endures,

136:17 to the one who struck down great kings,

for his loyal love endures,

136:18 and killed powerful kings,

for his loyal love endures,

136:19 Sihon, king of the Amorites,

for his loyal love endures,

136:20 Og, king of Bashan,

for his loyal love endures,

136:21 and gave their land as an inheritance,

for his loyal love endures,

136:22 as an inheritance to Israel his servant,

for his loyal love endures,

136:23 to the one who remembered us when we were down,

for his loyal love endures,

136:24 and snatched us away from our enemies,

for his loyal love endures,

136:25 to the one who gives food to all living things,

for his loyal love endures.

136:26 Give thanks to the God of heaven,

for his loyal love endures!

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In Defense of Repetition

3 thoughts on “In Defense of Repetition

  1. Joe says:

    Wow. Just stumbled upon this site and have been reading it from beginning to end for a couple of days now. Thank you so much for posting all this! I am just now beginning the process of looking into Orthodoxy, and I am sure to have some useful thoughts and resources as I process this with my wife and family and friends.

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