Repetition is a staple of life. Year follows year, Our weeks are usually structured in asimilar way from one to the next. Within each day, we have our habits: when we wake up, how many meals we have, what we do with our free time. And, of course,repetition is important in the life of the Church: Orthros begins with the reading of the same six psalms, most of the Liturgy hymns do not change from one service to the next. If we use a prayer book, we say the same prayers day after day at our prayer times.
There are two things that can happen as we repeat things over and over. One is that it can become routine and something that we do automatically. As I often do, I think of this in terms of sports or music; bothr equire repetition. Basketball players, for example, practice shooting. They can put up a number of shots (say, 1000) and be done regardless of result – the goal is just to get through the practice. The alternative is that they pay attention to each shot and try to make sure that the form on each one is as good as it can be, to build consistency and stamina. Music is similar: you can practice so you can say that you practiced,or you can practice attentively – stopping as needed, paying attention to difficult passages - so that you can get better. Thel atter practice is beneficial and is what is needed on a regular basis in order to fully exploit one’s talent.
The spiritual life works along the same principles. We can attend church because somehow it got on our to-do list. The result of this approach is that we get to church when we get to church (as long as we get there before the antidoron is distributed,we get to check the box), we listen as the words of the epistle and the gospel zoom by, sit through the sermon – perhaps wondering why the priest uses his hands more this week than he did last week – and go home with an extra checkmark. Our prayer life can also be affected by this approach. We can go through prayers at speed, distracted, and get to the end not remembering a single word of what we have said. At this point I should say that a checkbox approach to the spiritual life is better than no spiritual life at all, if only because by spending time in church / prayer / Scripture reading we give God the opportunity to touch our minds and hearts and wake up from our reverie.
The alternative here is to attend church because it is the place where the kingdom of heaven meets earth and we are lifted to the throne of God so that we may partake of the Body and Blood of Christ.The repetition of the psalms or the prayers then becomes an opportunity to memorize them and internalize them; for them to become an expression of our faith (not just St. David’s, or St. John Chrysostom’s, or of whichever saint wrote a particular prayer). The epistle and Gospel, instead of being words meant for the Corinthians, Ephesians, or the apostles, become words meant for us, with a direct impact on who we are and how we live.
The great 20th century pianist Arthur Rubinstein said about practice “If I miss one day....I know it. If I miss TWO days, the critics know it. If I miss THREE days, the WHOLE WORLD knows it!” The same idea applies to the spiritual life. If we don’t spend time with the Scriptures and in prayer for a day (and if we pay attention) we’ll know it. If we let days pass, those around us may well know it, because our lives, our interactions with those around us, are affected by the time we make for God.There is a rule in the church (I do not know how strictly it is enforced) that a candidate for the office of bishop should know all the psalms by heart. It occurred to me a while back that this was not meant to weed out candidates based on their ability to memorize things. In monastic practice, the psalter is read twice through each week during services. This requirement then, seems to me to try to ensure that the future bishops are faithful (repeated), attentive attendees at services. This, in turn, is because the services themselves are essential to our spiritual formation and to shaping us intot he likeness of God.
Let us, as much as it is in our power, also be faithful and attentive, both in our church attendance and our personal prayers.