I grew up a very good little Mormon boy. At one point I went through a stage where I took very seriously the scriptural injunction against “vain repetiitons,” well known from Matthew 6:7:
“But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.”
This was not a problem in private prayer, but I had a devil of a time trying to avoid stock phrases in public prayers. I had spent my entire life blessing the food “that it may nourish and strengthen our bodies,” as had my family members, and over the course of time we eat a lot of meals and therefore give a lot of blessings. And when put on the spot publicly, it was very difficult to come up with completely different ways of pronouncing a blessing on the food. This is just one example of the difficulties I encountered on this little quest of mine. I used to struggle with this, until a couple of realizations helped me to mellow out and not stress so much about repeating phrases in public prayers.
First, read with a little historical context, Jesus was probably referring to a specific pagan practice of his day, and not to the use of stock phrases that so concerned me as a boy. Here is the comment I wrote on the expression “use not vain repetitions” in Footnotes:
battalogesete babble, speak without thinking. The word is rare elsewhere, and may possibly be a hybrid form rendering ARAM ‘mr btlt “talk idly.” The context here suggests the word was used with reference to pagan practices of lengthy repetition in prayer, such as is illustrated in Acts 19:34, where it is reported that the people prayed for about two hours repeating the words “Great is Diana of the Ephesians.”
The second insight is one that came slowly to me from various areas of study, and it has to do with the use of oral formulaic language in extemporaneous composition. My first exposure to this idea was as a young classics student at BYU, and had to do with the common use of formulae in Homeric epic. Consider, for example, the following from Illiad III:67-75 (Lattimore’s translation):
Now though, if you wish me to fight it out and do battle
make the rest of the Trojans sit down, and all the Achaians,
and set me in the middle with Menelaos the warlike
to fight together for the sake of Helen and all her possessions.
That one of us who wins and is proved stronger, let him
take the possessions fairly and the woman, and lead her homeward.
But the rest of you, having cut your oaths of faith and friendship
dwell, you in Troy where the soil is rich, while those others return home
to horse-pasturing Argos, and Achaia the land of fair women.
Although eventually written down, this epic poetry was originally orally composed in the meter of epic, dactylic hexameter. The italicized phrases are examples of Homeric formulae, stock phrases that are used repeatedly throughout the epic. Since they fit particular parts of the metric line, the reuse of such phrases allows the poet quickly and easily to compose his poem according to its metrical requirements.
This basic insight of forumlarity also helps us to understand Hebrew poetry, which was written not in meter in the same sense as Homeric epic, but using various patterns of parallelism. In ancient near eastern cultures, there was a common stock of repeating word pairs, which could be used by the poet as the basic building blocks of different synonymous lines. Consider, for example, the repeated use of the word pair earth//world (‘erets//tebel) in the following examples:
The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof;
the world, and they that dwell therein. (Psalm 24:1)
for the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and he hath set the world upon them. (1 Samuel 2:8)
Who hath given him a charge over the earth?
or who hath disposed the whole world? (Job 34:13)
Their line is gone out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world. (Psalm 19:4)
Let all the earth fear the Lord:
let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him. (Psalm 33:8)
A the lightnings lightened
B the world;
B the earth
A trembled and shook. (Psalm 77:18)
(For further details, see my article “Poetic Diction and Parallel Word Pairs in the Book of Mormon,” JBMS 4/2.
Eventually, it occurred to me that these insights have application to our practice of public prayer, which is essentially an extermporaneous oral performance, much like the ancient singer of tales composing oral poetry around the campfire.
If the bishop forgot to call someone to give a prayer, and calls you from the pulpit, and assuming that you have some experience with Mormon prayer practice, do you hyperventilate? I don’t; I don’t give it a second thought. I walk to the pulpit and give the prayer, relatively effortlessly. But it is a different story if the bishop calls you from the pulpit to give a talk; you freak out over that. Why is it any different?
The answer is that in our tradition we have an entire stock of oral formulaic phrases that allows us quickly and easily to compose prayers on the spot. Each prayer is unique in its own right and speaks to the particular situation, but it is filled out by oral formulae. (In fact, I once thought it would be interesting to do some “field work” demonstrating this point, but I decided that recording people’s prayers would perhaps be perceived as a little too intrusive.)
So the next time you are giving the closing prayer and you want to pray “that we may return to our homes in safety,” don’t sweat it. The sentiment is genuine, and the fact that we have a certain stock vocabulary of prayer is not a bad thing. Without it, offering public prayers would be extremely traumatic for us and very difficult, which would interfere with the purpose of such prayers in the first place.