Between Amens — The power of repetition

Dr. Karen Shadle

Repetition, as the saying goes, is the mother of all learning. According to neuroscience, a piece of information must be repeated 30 times or more before it becomes ingrained in memory. Cramming the night before a big test is only effective in the short term. For retention to occur, notes must be reviewed frequently over a long period of time.

Repeated information becomes knowledge, and repeated action becomes habit. It is the consistent, daily practice over many months that allows a pianist to acquire the muscle memory to execute difficult passages with ease. Repetition helps to transition a skill or an idea from the conscious to the subconscious mind. It is no longer something we have to think about because it is ingrained in our very being.

In the Gospels throughout this Easter season, Jesus harnesses the power of repetition in his instruction to his followers. He seems to be using this precious time between the resurrection and the ascension as a period of intense teaching and learning — a time to impart the truths of the faith and repeat them again and again so that they “stick.”

In the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus teaches about the Eucharist. “I am the Bread of Life,” he plainly states. Later he expands and explains this concept: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever.” Again, “The bread that I will give is my Flesh for the life of the world.” And again, “Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood has eternal life.” “My Flesh is true food, and my Blood is true drink.” “I am the Bread of Life.” Really. I mean it.

This continues for several days in the lectionary. One has to imagine that by the end of this chapter, the disciples have got the idea.

As we continue through these years of Eucharistic Revival, we must be reminded that the cherished doctrines of our faith are not things that can be learned once, checked off the list and then set aside. We must constantly repeat, renew and revive these concepts over and over again.

For example, children preparing for First Holy Communion receive wonderful, age-appropriate catechesis about the Eucharist and sacraments. However, if this content is not repeated at frequent intervals in both word and action — primarily, by encountering Jesus in the Eucharist week after week, month after month, year after year — it will be quickly forgotten.

Consider the practice of gathering in community at a particular time for Mass or the actions of receiving Holy Communion and of genuflecting before a tabernacle. Repetition does not render these meaningless reflexes. Rather, when repeated actions become habit, they simply become part of who we are — part of what it means to be Catholic.

During this Easter season, let us embrace the repetition and allow it to form us. Every Sunday is a reprise of the great Easter feast. Every Mass instructs us again to “take and eat,” “take and drink.” It cannot be repeated enough.

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