“Teach Us How to Pray”
“LORD, teach us how to pray.” That request was made by one of the disciples of Jesus Christ. (Luke 11:1) The unnamed disciple was obviously a man with deep appreciation for prayer. True worshipers today similarly recognize its importance. After all, prayer is the means by which we gain audience with the Highest Personage in the universe! And just think! The “Hearer of prayer” gives personal attention to our concerns and anxieties. (Psalm 65:2) More important, by means of prayer, we render thanks and praise to God.—Philippians 4:6.
Nevertheless, the words “teach us how to pray” raise some serious questions. Throughout the world many methods of approaching God are used by different religions. But is there a right and a wrong way to pray? In answer, let us first take a look at some of the popular religious customs that involve prayer. We will focus on those practiced in Latin America.
Images and “Patron Saints”
Generally, Latin-American countries are deeply religious. For example, throughout Mexico one can observe the popular practice of praying to “patron saints.” Indeed, it is customary for Mexican towns to have “patron saints” for whom festivals are held on certain days. Mexican Catholics also pray to a great variety of images. Which “saint” is invoked, however, depends upon what type of request the worshiper desires to make. If someone is looking for a person to marry, he might light a candle to “Saint” Anthony. Someone about to embark on an automobile trip might commend himself to “Saint” Christopher, patron of travelers, particularly of motorists.
Where, though, did such customs originate? History shows that when the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, they found a populace devoted to the worship of pagan gods. In his book Los Aztecas, Hombre y Tribu (Aztecs, the Man and the Tribe), Victor Wolfgang von Hagen says: “There were personal gods, each plant had its god, each function its god or goddess, even suicides had one. Yacatecuhtli was the businessmen’s deity. In this polytheistic world, all the gods had clearly defined tendencies and functions.”
The resemblance of these gods to Catholic “saints” was so striking that when the Spanish conquerors tried to “Christianize” the natives, these simply switched allegiance from their idols to church “saints.” An article in The Wall Street Journal acknowledged the heathen roots of the Catholicism practiced in some parts of Mexico. It noted that in one area, most of the 64 “saints” venerated by the populace corresponded to “specific Mayan gods.”
The New Catholic Encyclopedia argues that “between saint and those on earth there is established a bond of confident intimacy, . . . a bond that, far from detracting from the relationship with Christ and with God, enriches and deepens it.” But how could a bond that is clearly a vestige of paganism deepen one’s relationship with the true God? Could prayers that are offered to such “saints” really please God?
The Origin of the Rosary
Another popular custom involves the use of the rosary. Diccionario Enciclopédico Hispano-Americano (Hispanic-American Encyclopedic Dictionary) describes the rosary as a “string of fifty or one hundred and fifty beads separated into tens by others of larger size and joined at the ends by a crucifix, presently preceded by three beads.”
Explaining how the rosary is used, one Catholic publication says: “The Holy Rosary is a form of vocal and mental prayer about the Mysteries of our redemption. It is made up of fifteen decades. Each decade consists of reciting the Lord’s Prayer, ten Hail Marys, and a Gloria Patri. A mystery is meditated upon during each decade.” The mysteries are doctrines, or teachings, that Catholics should know, in this case referring to the life, suffering, and death of Christ Jesus.
The World Book Encyclopedia says: “Early forms of praying with a rosary began in Christianity during the Middle Ages, but became widespread only in the 1400’s and 1500’s.” Is the use of the rosary exclusive to Catholicism? No. Diccionario Enciclopédico Hispano-Americano states: “Similar beads are in use in Islamic, Lamaist and Buddhist worship.” Indeed, the Encyclopedia of Religion and Religions notes: “It has been suggested that the Mohammedans derived the Rosary from the Buddhists, and the Christians from the Mohammedans at the time of the Crusades.”
Some argue that the rosary merely serves as a memory aid when the repetition of a number of prayers is required. But is God pleased with its use?
We do not need to speculate about or debate the appropriateness or validity of such customs. Jesus gave an authoritative response to the request to teach his followers how to pray. What he said will enlighten and perhaps surprise some readers.
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Catholics commonly use rosary beads. What is their origin?