Dear Father John, I went to Adoration this morning with my prayer group. There weren’t too many of us, but I always have a feeling that there is too much talking during our Adoration, and I just don’t get the “purpose” of a “litany” (which we pray together during Adoration). Each time I hear a litany, repeating the same sentence 2 or 3 times gives me feeling of being brain washed. I don’t see any love coming out of this kind of prayer. I guess I m missing something. Could you explain it a little to me?
In our last post on this topic we talked about “too much talking” during Adoration and the differences between communal and personal Adoration. In this post we will offer three reflections on the purpose of praying litanies.
Not the Only Path
First, remember that litanies are not the only form of prayer the Church offers us. We don’t have to force all our prayer time into litanies. In some religious traditions, litanies or formulaic vocal prayers are indeed the only kind of prayer. But in our Christian tradition, we also have the other forms of prayer. First of all, we have liturgy itself (the Mass, the other sacramental celebrations, the liturgy of the hours…). Secondly, we have a rich treasury of vocal prayers that we are encouraged to make our own – like the prayer of St Francis (“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…”) or Blessed John Newman’s famous prayer, “Lead, kindly Light…” Thirdly, we are constantly encouraged to learn to pray to God in our own words, through meditative reflection on the Bible or other spiritual books. This is called mental prayer. The litanies are only part of our tradition of prayer, a subset of vocal and liturgical prayer. So you should feel no pressure to make them your favorite form of prayer.
An Honorable Tradition
Second, keep in mind that litanies do have a long tradition and that they have indeed been a favorite form of prayer for many Catholics through the centuries, and even for popes. Pope John Paul II, for example, had a whole pile of his favorite litanies on his kneeler. He used them constantly.
Third, since litanies have such a strong spiritual pedigree, there must be some value in this form of prayer. Yet, they are so repetitive, and so formulaic – what’s the value in that? They offer at least two advantages.
The Value of Litanies
In the first place, repetition is one way of showing emphasis. When we repeat three times, “Lord Jesus, I believe in you,” for example, we are emphasizing and thereby renewing our decision to put our faith in Jesus Christ. It’s like lighting three candles on the side of the altar instead of just one: we are emphasizing the meaning of those words when we repeat them. It’s not a form of brainwashing, because we are not forcing ourselves to affirm things that are false, or that we don’t believe in. On the contrary!
In the second place, repetition and formulas help us channel the deeper emotions of our hearts, the emotions or desires or concerns that we often have great difficulty expressing in words. When a loved one is suffering, for example, we can pray for them in our own words, asking God to heal and strengthen them. But sometimes the words that we come up with just don’t seem to be powerful enough to express the love we have in the depth of our souls. In that situation, praying the litany of the saints for the intention of the suffering loved one can come to our aid. By invoking the saints and begging them to intercede for our loved one, we allow the words of the litany to serve as a vehicle for our inexpressible love and concern. The litanies become like the wheels of a train, carrying the weight of our hearts up to the Lord.
A Spoken Song
In this sense, litanies are like songs. In a song, the words are often repetitive, as when we sing the refrain over and over again, and the music is a pre-set formula. But the repetitive and formulaic nature of the song, instead of impeding us from expressing our prayer, actually enables us to pray more personally and passionately, giving expression to sentiments that reside in the hidden, hard-to-access depths of our souls.
If you still feel uncomfortable praying litanies, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. If you continue to invest in the Christian forms of prayer that resonate with you most deeply, the Holy Spirit will certainly be able to continue guiding you closer to the fulfillment of his dream for your life.
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC, ThD
Feature Photography: Adoration Jesus Christ Blessed Sacrament Eucharist Monstrance, Estler, 2014.