Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Vain Repetitions

In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, the Savior offered a few directions as to how we ought to pray. Among other instruction, he told his disciples that "when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking" (Matt. 5:7). This divine injunction notwithstanding, my admittedly imperfect prayers are frequently riddled with repetitive phrases: "Help me be a better father"; "thank you that we arrived safely"; or "please help me find someone to share the gospel with."

I've noticed that I'm not the only one with a tendency to use filler phrases--or at least phrases that so well-used that no one who hears them really thinks about them. I especially love hearing the phrase commonly uttered in prayers before a meal, "Please bless the hands that prepared it," because it reminds me of a sketch done by BYU's Divine Comedy. After an offstage explosion, a man with singed hair and a sooty face comes running in carrying something in his arms. When the paramedic meets him, he asks, "What happened? And what are you carrying?" The man explains that there was an explosion and that everything inside the house was destroyed. The only thing that survived, he explains holding up two prosthetic limbs, are "the hands that prepared the food." It's a mental image that puts into perspective the ridiculous nature of some phrases that unconsciously slip into our conversations with deity.

At any rate, I was reading accounts of the pilgrims at Plymouth in the 1620s and was amazed to discover just how old some of the vain repetitions frequently uttered at Mormon meal times really are. In Good Nevves From New-England (1624), Edward Winslow recalls instructing the local Indians as to how they should pray over their food before eating. He explains that "whatsoeuer good things wee had, wee receiued from God, as the Author and giuer thereof, and therefore craued his blessing vpon that we had, and were about to eate, that it might nourish and strengthen our bodies" (33). Hoe many times have you heard that in a blessing on the food? Please bless this food that it will nourish and strengthen our bodies... Just imagine--God's been hearing that exact same phrase for well over three centuries now (and probably longer). Doesn't it make you want to spice up your prayers? After all, I can promise you that if you'd been eating the same meal for three hundred years, you'd be dying for some tabasco sauce. Next time you pray, see if you can't come up with some original words; just thinking about how to thank the Lord for what the food will give to and do for your body will be an instructive experience.

Of course, these thoughts about mealtime prayers remind me of a question I've long had: Why is it that we pray before eating? We don't necessarily always pray before using the bathroom or leaving the house or driving a car or doing any one of the other tasks we perform every day. So why are prayers associated specifically with meals? There are many possibilities as to why we might be commanded to do so. We might pray because the food really does help our bodies stay healthier when it is blessed. We might say prayers at meal times in order to remind ourselves that even our most basic needs are filled through divine intervention. We might say prayers at mealtimes just because it provides a regular reminder to get in touch with deity.

This last reason is my favorite. I frequently say prayers at mealtimes that have nothing to do with the food on my plate--much to the chagrin of those who wait while I have a heart-to-heart with my Heavenly Father. As far as I'm concerned, mealtimes are mostly a reminder to pray, not necessarily an occasion on which the specific content of my prayer has been predetermined. Yes, I usually express gratitude for the food and ask the Lord to bless it, but those are generally not the focal points of my prayer.

So I'm curious--what do you say when you pray over your food? Are you a "nourish and strengthen" kind of person? A "thank you for this food" kind? An "ignore the food" kind? All of the above? Let's hear. I'd also love to hear any creative alternatives to standard Mormon diction at mealtimes; I'm sure the Lord is getting tired of hearing me repeat a four-hundred-year-old dead guy.


Jo Jo said...

Please bless no pieces of glass, rocks, bones are on my plate, if so, please direct them to dad's plate.

Jenny said...

Just because we use the verbage that has been modeled to us, doesn't make them vain repetitions. The Lord modeled the way we should pray, and we tend not to stray too far from the edge of the outlined circle. We teach our kids to pray, and they repeat what they hear from us. My favorite repeated phrase of late from our four year old: Jesus loves us, so help everyone to love Jesus.

Becky said...

sweet Jen. I have heard this from you before Zach and I have to admit that I think about this subject often. I really try not to be repititious - and we have this conversation with our children as well. I don't have a problem asking for the food to be blessed because there are times that I have been at a gathering where I was feeling a little uneasy about the food - I specifically pray that the food will be safe to eat and that I won't get sick from it. (because we all know that food poisoning is AWFUL) This is all good stuff to think about. :)

Mormon Paleo said...

Fascinating comments and thoughts. Truly a pleasure to read.

I think that one should consider the "vain" part of "vain repetitions." Repetitions themselves are not forbidden or discouraged, but it is the triviality of such repetitions that is discouraged. I interpret this to mean that meaningless, empty repetitions are forbidden.

I do not see this as a divine injunction to reword every prayer in a unique way. Every prayer should be meaningful and sincere, and not full of vanity or emptiness, but that does not preclude the possibility of two or more similar sounding prayers which are equally (or similarly) well-intentioned and sincere.

Kimberlee, Marty, and a little Dot said...


I really began to think more about the food going into my body when I was pregnant. My prayers over food were no longer to just bless it, but also to allow my body to be able to use it to help my growing baby. I also pray that the nourishment in the food will give me strength for whatever tasks I have ahead for which I do not feel physically prepared. Now that I am nursing, I pray that what I take in will provide enough milk and nourishment for my baby as well as myself.

I, too, do not just focus on the food when we pray before meals. However, Marty and I have had conversations about this and we think it is incredibly important to give gratitude for the food, even when asking for a blessing on it is forgotten. I will sometimes even give gratitude for the ease of a meal (aka leftovers or something I had pulled from the freezer)or the freshness of the ingredients.

There are so many ways to and reasons for thanking our Heavenly Father. I think that even if we happen to ask for or give gratitude in the same wording it does not matter so long as true intent and desire is always there.