Repetition, Numbskulls, & Idiots

Thoughtless repetition of prayers can numb the mind. At the end of the Rosary, for example, we pray the “Hail Holy Queen.” The prayer refers to “this vale of tears,” and to ourselves as “sinful and sorrowful.” This echoes Psalm 90: “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.”

These prayers suggest that anxiety and pain and suffering are the default condition of our lives, and that we need God’s grace and the intercession of the saints to help us endure and to reach salvation. But it doesn’t seem to register with us. The “peace of soul” promised by Christ is falsely equated with the absence of all suffering in this life. The “Hail Holy Queen” helps us to distinguish evil actions (often quite pleasant) from inevitable suffering (often quite innocent).

But at times repetition of a prayer, despite our best efforts at thoughtlessness, can be suddenly enlightening. When a penitent enters the confessional, the priest greets him (from the Church’s ritual): “May God who has enlightened every heart help you to know your sins and trust in His mercy.” After thousands of repetitions, a priest can’t help but conclude (or so it seems to me) that God’s grace is needed to recognize evil and sin. And the repetition of the prayer is a constant reminder – not least, to the priest himself – that even if sin is obvious to him, it may not be so obvious to his penitents.

But “obvious” is a relative term. Even priests who frequently hear confessions constantly need God’s grace to recognize the horror of evil. A Mafia hit man, turned government informant, once smilingly reported that he had confessed his multiple murders to a priest in prison – and received “one rosary” for penance. (All penances assigned in Confession are largely symbolic of the need for a spirit of reparation. But a good confessor should recognize some proportion between penance and the gravity of sin.)

I’ve occasionally joined parishioners (and others, including non-Catholics) in front of the local abortion mill to recite the Rosary, which included healthy socialization with pro-life activists (perhaps the only meaningful ecumenical activity in our day). One morning I encountered the usual crew with an interior glow in response to their appreciative welcome (pro-life folks always appreciate the presence of a priest).


As the hour unfolded – and the cars with the pregnant clients entered the facility, accompanied by boyfriends and parents – one of the longtime sidewalk counselors suddenly doubled up with grief, inconsolable. After many months of witness and hard work, a sense of futility and the horror of abortion suddenly seized her – and me, as I stood helplessly beside her. God was reminding us that what we were doing was dead serious and solemn. Within shouting distance of where we stood, babies were being murdered. And God opened my eyes – if only for a moment – to the horror of the sin that I was sometimes privileged to absolve in the confessional.

I was reminded of this distant memory after watching a recent television exposé of Planned Parenthood’s selling of baby body-parts. A repentant employee explained that for years it didn’t occur to her that, as she assembled the body parts of the dismembered abortion, she was participating in a horrible machinery of death, so focused was she in the technical routine of her work. Many people may find this hard to believe. But after the countless repetition of the “May God Who has enlightened every heart” prayer, it makes perfect sense to me. We are so inclined to self-deception we need God’s grace even to see the most obvious evil.

But how do we obtain that grace? How dare to plead with God to bestow the grace of the knowledge of our sins? More harangues from the pulpit? Prominently displaying graphic pictures of aborted babies? We can’t rule these out of the Arsenal of Evangelization. After all Christ Himself confronted the Pharisees with very harsh language, e.g., “Ye brood of vipers!”  We haven’t heard nearly enough indignation from the hierarchy about pro-Planned Parenthood Catholic politicians. But the negative way, as important as it is, cannot substitute for God’s beauty and the promise of Resurrection – a beauty that provides the ultimate contrast with (and defeat of) every evil.

The Beatitudes offer the roadmap to an interior beauty: humility, meekness, comforting the sorrowful, hunger for righteousness, a merciful spirit, purity of heart, peacemaking. Bring ailing grandma into your home, if possible. Visit lonely hearts in nursing homes. Play cards with the kids. Plan a family cookout. Distract the kids from the television with a walk around the lake or attend a high school football game. Smash a video game on the concrete sidewalk. (The hunger for righteousness takes many forms.)

The beauty of God’s good creation also plays a vital part. I’ve heard of a group of Catholics who often hiked mountain trails. They decided to inspect the details of the trail one day – examining leaves and mushrooms, checking for critters under rocks – wondering how far they would walk in an hour. Distracted by God’s handiwork, they barely walked ten yards in the allotted time.

It seems to me that beauty is the primary means by which we, with God’s grace, can “enlighten hearts,” to shed light on the ugliness of evil. How about a devotional prayer that begs God to shower His beauty on us and our enemies? Making time to contemplate a sunrise; watching fields of grain sway in the wind; parking at a wayside to gaze at mountains; getting distracted by a baby’s smile; noticing with affection a mother’s loving gaze; performing an act of kindness to an enemy.

Unlike evil, beauty does not numb skulls. It’s been repeated many times and worth being said again, “Beauty will save the world.” (Dostoevsky, The Idiot).

Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.