Annalyn’s Corner: Empty Prayer in 91 Days

91 Days is one of the least flashy—and thus most intriguing—anime of the season. I could comment on candle symbolism in the first episode or the interesting choice of art style for the backgrounds, but this is Beneath the Tangles. And the religious references caught my eye. I’m especially interested in the use of prayer as an apparently empty recitation.

Since 91 Days centers on the mafia, it’s only natural that Roman Catholicism makes an appearance—it’s a part of Italian culture. But so far, only one character has shown much interest in religion: Vanno Clemente, part of the Vanetti family and the main character’s first revenge target. When Vanno serves his friends dinner in Episode 2, he insists they pray before eating. This would have caught my attention no matter what, but I was especially surprised to see it coming from him. Up to this point, he’s appeared to be one of the more hotheaded characters, more worried about protecting honor and family with violence than about niceties like a good meal and prayer.

After that, Vanno and the rest return to discussing and acting on criminal activities as per usual.

Later in the episode, Vanno captures Serpente, the man who killed his friend. As he walks Serpente to a cemetery at gunpoint, he prays:

O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee, and I detest all my sins because of thy just punishments, but most of all because they offend thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin. Amen.

The translators must have recognized this as a traditional Christian prayer and used the English version instead of just translating from Japanese to English, because when I pasted part of it into Google, it had a word-for-word match.

I’m not Catholic, nor am I from any other liturgy-heavy Christian tradition, so perhaps MedievalOtaku or Josh would be better candidates to write about this, but here’s what I found: Vanno is saying an Act of Contrition. Contrition itself is not a particularly Catholic thing. It’s defined as “sincere penitence or remorse,” or, theologically, “sorrow for and detestation of sin with a true purpose of amendment, arising from a love of God for His own perfections (perfect contrition) or from some inferior motive, as fear of divine punishment (imperfect contrition)” (Dictionary.com). So an “act of contrition,” or a prayer of contrition, is said in some form by Christians of all denominations, in their own words or following the words of a traditional prayer, in private or during confession.

My less liturgical background uses the word “repentance,” which means basically the same thing, but doesn’t have the same traditions attached to it. So while I don’t recognize the words of Vanno’s prayer, I recognize and agree with the ideas expressed.

Coming from Vanno, though, the words feel empty. He’s leading Serpente to his friend’s grave, fully intending to kill him. How can he proclaim contrition and intend to murder someone at the same time? Or is he modeling an Act of Contrition for Serpente, who he will encourage to pray before killing him? Though that wouldn’t make sense, because the prayer indicates an intention to live a bit longer and try to avoid sin. He’s not going to let Serpente live. 

Vanno prepares to shoot Serpente (ep 2).

I can’t see any purpose to Vanno’s prayer. He may as well be chanting a nursery rhyme. And yet, he seems to take religion more seriously than any other characters. When the others mention religion as part of their background, it’s flippant: There’s a bar in a former church, and no one minds. When the Vanetti brothers talk about mass, it’s only so the younger one, Frate, can point out another way that he followed guidelines for acceptable behavior while his older brother played hooky. For him, church wasn’t about God, but about seeking his father’s acknowledgment. 

Perhaps these Catholic references are meant only as cultural decoration to make the mafia families seem more Italian. Other than the church that’s been converted to a bar, there isn’t even much purposeful irony, which makes me wonder how much thought the writer put into the characters’ relationship with religion. So perhaps Vanno’s prayers are empty in multiple ways.

But whatever the creators intended, Vanno’s empty religion isn’t unrealistic. Whatever his motivation—honoring family tradition, habit, superstitious belief in rituals’ power as hellfire insurance (very different than the same rituals as part of a true belief in God), etc.—he shares it with many people in real life. Granted, most emptily religious folk don’t kill for revenge—but they do many other things that are contrary to their purported religion, often without noticing the contradiction.

Pause.

Confession: while I fall short of a righteous life in many areas, and don’t follow Jesus as I should, I don’t understand people like Vanno. I don’t understand the purpose of religion that is nothing but empty ritual. Why pray words you don’t mean? Why go to mass or any other church service if you don’t intend to let it change your life? I suppose I can understand tradition and pleasing family to some extent—tradition becomes part of your cultural identity, and pleasing family is generally the most peaceful choice. But it seems like a lie, a fake identity… and a tragedy. Because those who participate in empty religion, especially empty Christianity, appear close to the truth—and so perhaps even they themselves can’t see how far away they are.

I realize that there are cultures and subcultures in which religious symbols, rituals, and language are still a big part of day-to-day life, even when many or most nominal members of those religions aren’t very committed believers. This is especially the case in nations that have had a national religion.

Again, I can sort of understand this position… but not on a personal level. While I came from a Christian family, and I don’t deny my community’s influence, my faith ultimately comes down to decisions I’ve made since a young age to honor, love, and obey Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Jesus offers a relationship and salvation from sin and death. Prayer is the most relational, personal part of faith. Why on earth would someone want to take the words of traditional prayer—and presumably also rituals/ordinances/sacraments such as baptism and communion—and forget about the valuable relationship Jesus offers?

Look, for the non-Christians reading this, let me tell you something: the most visible parts of our religion are not all there is. Communion, baptism, spoken prayers, sitting in church—these are all very important for various reasons, but they’re merely manifestations and tools of faith. They—but I’m getting sidetracked and emotional. Let’s just focus on prayer for now. Specially, let’s focus on what Vanno’s missing out on when he reduces prayer to nothing but recitation.

(A note on recited prayers: Sometimes, less liturgical protestants can be suspicious of ritual and recited prayers. So let me be clear: The ideas behind an Act of Contrition cross the denominational lines—including, I’m sure, that the contrition should be real. It doesn’t have to be in your own words in order to be sincere—in fact, many prayers and spiritual statements made by people in their own words can be as empty as those recited. And recited prayers can be as sincere and personal as those made in our own words. They often, like Psalms or the prayers modeled by Jesus, help guide our thoughts in the right direction. It comes down to the heart.)

Vanno Clemente before he kills Serpente. He’s a likable guy—and a repeated murderer. It’s too bad we never hear how he tried to reconcile Catholicism with mafia life.

Here’s Vanno’s prayer again. From him, the words were empty, but they have great value:

O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee, and I detest all my sins because of thy just punishments, but most of all because they offend thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin. Amen.

Like most good prayers, this is as much about who God is as about anything else. It’s not just communicating to God, but verbally processing truth about him and the person’s relationship with him. Looking at each piece:

“O my God”—the word “my” is obviously personal. God is not just a powerful deity out there somewhere. He is my God, to whom I owe my loyalty, love, and obedience. I acknowledge him as the one with authority and power in my life and in the universe. And he promises me much as well, as part of this two-way relationship. (He carries the weight of the relationship, because I’m weak, but it’s still two way.)

“I am heartily sorry for having offended thee”—This isn’t just the lame, obligatory “I’m sorry my words hurt you” apology I gave my sister as a kid. Formal/archaic language aside, this prayer shows true regret and recognizes that sins don’t just break some moral code, but offend a personal God—who, as God, has the right to be offended, in a way we should take seriously, not just dismiss as an offended politically-incorrect leader.

“and I detest all my since because of thy just punishments…”—God is God. He makes the rules for good reason, and while he’s made a way for reconciliation, those who reject that way will be justly punished. Humbly recognizing his authority is a key part of repentance (or contrition).

“… but most of all because they offend thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love.”—This is key. Sin separates us from God, not only because he is righteous and holy, but because it’s a personal offense that harms a relationship, like offense harms any relationship. God is good and loving, and he deserves everything from us—from me. As a Christian, my sin is more than breaking a law: it’s betrayal.

“I firmly resolve, with the help of thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin.”—Repentance doesn’t stop at being sorry. It involves change. It requires action. But not on our own. God, in his grace, gives us help through the Spirit and often through other Christians, if we reach out to them for aid. And even with help, we should be making conscious efforts to avoid situations that make us stumble. Recovered alcoholics don’t enter bars. Recovering porn addicts don’t watch ecchi, even if it “actually has a good story.” And, on a more personal level, if I don’t want to be unloving toward the people I live with, I’ll be more careful to get the down time and prayer time I need in order be less grumpy and more focused on others’ needs.

Confession of sin should always come with a desire to change, even if you can’t come up with a plan by yourself. It involves calling on God’s grace to help avoid the same sins in the future. And, while this is not mentioned in the quoted prayer, it involves asking for forgiveness, as modeled in the famous Lord’s Prayer. God is faithful to forgive if we confess our sins (and forgive others in turn), but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother asking.

Obviously, I view prayer as a very important and personal. I dissected this Act of Contrition, but it’s only one example of the ongoing conversation every believer should have with God. We pray when we’re sorry, when we’re grateful, when we notice how beautiful God’s creation is, when we’re seeking to understand the Bible, when we’re doubting, when we’re sure… We speak, and we listen, because while very few are blessed to audibly hear God himself speak, he reveals himself in the Bible and sometimes through people and elements of his creation as well.

My prayer life isn’t as active as it should be. I’m hardly a prayer warrior. But I’ve experienced enough to see Vanno’s prayer as tragically empty. For him, religion seems to be only tradition, to be “honored” in traditional words the same way he “honors” his friend and the Vanetti family through vengeance.

There’s a better way.

I’ll conclude with encouragement for two sets of people:

Christians, however liturgical your denomination is or isn’t, make sure you’re engaging in each ritual and habit (whether a sacrament, an ordinance, or a worship song) as you’re meant to: prayerfully, as part of your relationship with God and with other members of the Church. And don’t neglect prayer  in devotional time and as you go about life—I’m speaking to myself here as well.

Non-Christians, know this: a relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is life-changing. It’s not mere ritual or hellfire insurance. I’m sorry that we Christians are often hypocritical—and not just those who are nominal traditional Christians, but even those of us with a deep personal faith. I’m sorry that we, in our human imperfection, often show Christianity as a surface level religion. Please, look past the surface. Look past our failings. Look past media representations of us. Learn about Jesus. Read the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—the first four books in the New Testament of the Bible, which cover much of Jesus’ ministry and teachings). Please. Don’t just take my word for the role of relationship in Christianity.

9 thoughts on “Annalyn’s Corner: Empty Prayer in 91 Days

  1. Great article! I especially like how you examined the Act of Contrition. This was the Act of Contrition I learned in fourth grade, and I suppose that it’s the most popular version. Though, I have seen at least two different versions pasted on the prie-dieu in confessionals. Usually, it is prayed prior to absolution during the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

    You’re right that in most contexts it doesn’t make sense to be culturally Christian or Catholic. In America, you won’t likely suffer shame or persecution for not espousing religion. I marvel at the millions of cultural Catholics who don’t believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, neglect Mass, never go to confession, and vote for politicians who espouse the culture of death.

    In the case of the mafia, cultural Catholicism shows group loyalty. The center of a culture, even a mafioso’s culture, is the cult. So, Vanno’s expression of Catholicism shows how loyal he is to the family–important in a situation where lack of loyalty can lead to your demise!

    One curious thing about Vanno’s religion is that it must not have been entirely empty. What makes me say that is how vehemently he tried to get Serpente to pray before his death. This shows that Vanno firmly believes in the four last things (death, judgment, heaven, and hell), and wanted to give Serpente his best chance at avoiding hell.

    Of course, Vanno ought to have looked more to his own salvation. One wonders if he thought mere loyalty to his system of religion was enough?

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    1. Thank you, Medieval! I was hoping you’d comment. I grew up non-denominational, so I learned the Lord’s Prayer—barely—and prayer outlines (ex: ACTS—Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication), but that’s it. Google had to help me out with the Act of Contrition. While I never learned the Act of Contrition myself, I found examining it like this to be a beneficial reflective exercise.

      I can see how cultural Catholicism shows group loyalty—in the mafia and elsewhere. It just makes me sad to see Christianity used to show loyalty to a group of people who are going against God. I do wonder about it in Vanno’s case, though. I’ve only seen religion referenced by one other Vanetti (though I’m an ep behind now), which makes me wonder about its role in the family culture. The Vanetti brothers have conflicting perspectives on family loyalty, and religious expression only barely factors into either perspective.

      I suppose Vanno was rather vehement trying to get Serpente to pray. To me, it felt like he was going through the motions, thinking, “I’m supposed to give him a chance to pray, and he’s supposed to pray, so I’ll give it my best shot.” His insistence does seem to go beyond cultural loyalty, so perhaps it’s not entirely empty… just not exactly full. He demonstrated no pity or true wish to see Serpente saved from hell.

      I suspect you’re right, and Vanno did think that loyalty to his system was enough.

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  2. There’s a line from the TV show “Big O” which goes “Cast ye in the name of God, ye not guilty” that logs Roger Smith onto Big O. Believe it or not, this line was engraved onto the blades of 17th century executioners. And I think that that says something about the strange loyalties one can have to God and the sacred that have nothing to do with His actual laws. That is…

    I’ve had a scene in my head for a long long time which is vaguely Lion King esque, depicting a King’s brother stabbing him in the chest while embracing him (Which is also a callback to Utena). The scene is supposed to be horrifying and…intimate, sacred…At the same time. Death, and especially murder, is the ultimate violation of the Divine Order, the profaning of the sacredness of life. So I think that’s why people who grew up in a religious culture sometimes feel the need to say prayers before they kill someone, or kill in an intimate, weird way.

    It’s…A marking of something big, important, and in religious cultures people mark events like that by apologizing to God. Because it’s not just that you’re hypocritically praying to Him while violating His law…It’s that you want Him to know what’s happening here. To watch. People like this still believe God exists and even love God even though they’re sinners in His sight.

    “Why pray words you don’t mean? Why go to mass or any other church service if you don’t intend to let it change your life? I suppose I can understand tradition and pleasing family to some extent—tradition becomes part of your cultural identity, and pleasing family is generally the most peaceful choice. But it seems like a lie”

    Because throughout human history, and historically, sacrifices and altars and community have literally been more important than actual belief to survival. We’re a social species. Having the same beliefs as everyone else was very literally how to not get tortured and hung by your neighbors.

    The Romans, whom the Italians are descent from, also basically thought that if you performed the right sacrifices the gods would hold off on ruining your life for a while. They didn’t care what the gods thought of them exactly, more that they hoped the gods would ignore them a little longer. It doesn’t really surprise me that in most cultures, they just replaced one inherited set of rituals with another. Enlightenment ideals, humanist thinking, the whole idea of personal independence and responsibility, didn’t really…exist for thousands of years.

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    1. Thank you for commenting, Luminas. Your thoughts on why people from a religious culture may want to pray before killing are very interesting. My only protest would be to the suggestion that “People like this… even love God even though they’re sinners in His sight.” To willfully cross that line and murder (as Vanno did), even talking to God right beforehand, calls into question that love. Perhaps such people love their version of God, rather than the true God, and are fooling themselves. In that moment, at least, they are showing that they love something else more than they love God.

      You have a point on humans believing things as a part of community. My individualistic, modern-day American perspective definitely influenced that part of this post. It still makes me sad to see people believing for the sake of cultural survival instead of trusting and loving God because of who he is.

      “Enlightenment ideas, humanist thinking, the whole idea of personal independence and responsibly, didn’t really… exist for thousands of years.”

      On the one hand, you have a point. Things have gotten a lot more individualistic in recent centuries. In fact, Christianity is often presented in a more individualistic manner than it’s meant to be.

      However, there’s a certain amount of personal independence and responsibility in following Jesus as it’s presented in the Bible. He called disciples away from their family business (fishing) and made it clear that following him needed to be prioritized above family (though I think he used some hyperbole to make his point). He challenged the religious leaders of the day (the Pharisees) and their version of Jewish faith—a version that was all about the letter of the Law (with a lot of extra letters, as if the Torah didn’t have enough) without the spirit. That’s a big one, because for the Jews, religion was definitely part of cultural identity—which would have been a good thing, if they hadn’t gotten so off track their religious leaders didn’t recognize the prophesied Messiah (aka Christ, “Anointed One”). Individuals had to go against the religion they grew up with and personally choose to follow Jesus Christ instead. In the decades that followed, the apostles had their work cut out for them, trying to separate lesser cultural traditions from the core of faith in God. (ex: “Dude, you shouldn’t just eat with fellow Jews. Following God isn’t just a Jewish thing, so let’s dine with fellow believers of all nations. And stop trying to make everyone get circumcised.”)

      All that to say, personal responsibility has been a part of Christianity for 2000 years, and a part of following God from the get-go. When Christianity is culturally accepted, some people use that as an excuse not to take personal responsibility to learn about God and have a relationship with him—they rely on the interpretations and guidance of others instead. When Christianity is counter-cultural, people are forced to either take responsibility or choose not to follow Jesus. And when individualism is prized above Christianity, people may be so “independent,” they won’t give the interpretations and guidance of other Christians the attention they should. Finding the balance, whatever your religious climate, has always been a challenge.

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      1. “To willfully cross that line and murder (as Vanno did), even talking to God right beforehand, calls into question that love…. In that moment, at least, they are showing that they love something else more than they love God.”

        Exactly— Hence the need to apologize to Him, and to, in a way, sanctify the taking of someone else’s life. To draw the attention of the Sacred to this profane act, in hopes that one day the person can change and beg forgiveness. I don’t necessarily agree that such persons do not love God— But I do agree that they love something on Earth more than God.

        “It still makes me sad to see people believing for the sake of cultural survival instead of trusting and loving God because of who He is.”

        ….I think that…It’s strange that He would choose to call us into a personal relationship with Him, when the default state of mankind seems to be something more akin to ritual and cultural tradition with regards to religion. The vast majority of human beings who live on the planet don’t act or think like the commentators on BTT. Instead they mark the important events in their lives— Birth, death, marriage, adolescence, remembrance of the dead, the appeasing of wicked spirits, the entreating of good ones— With the Sacred. They draw Its attention to what they’re doing, good or bad. To think of a God as a Person, an entity to whom one can owe personal loyalty to, exists in every culture too, but it’s the far rarer scenario.

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        1. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: I love reading your perspective on religion. You’re expanding my perspective, and I appreciate that. It’s easy for me to forget that many people don’t understand God as a Person.

          Since I grew up learning about how God has personally interacted with people since the beginning of humanity, it doesn’t seems strange at all. Because I’ve experienced some of the fulfillment that comes from a relationship with God, it seems even less strange.

          People’s default approach to religion may seem to be about ritual and cultural tradition, but people are relational and always have been. We simply choose—corporately and individually—not to relate to God on a personal level, whether because we’ve never known God to be personal, or because we prefer not to (or a combination thereof). This wasn’t always our default religious approach. It’s a result of our sinful state.

          Of course, many of us who do know God as a Person still conveniently forget about his personhood (just as easily as we can forget his supremacy and divinity). We may know intellectually that we owe personal loyalty to him, but we often act as though we don’t. It’s easier to mark events with rituals or to follow rules, because if we focus on the external like that, we don’t have to give as much of ourselves to God. And those of us who have been Christians for a long time can forget about God as a Person the way we forget about our parents as people—we take our relationship for granted and neglect to show thanks and love in return.

          Any good, personal relationship requires vulnerability. A deep relationship requires sacrifice—not to appease, but in order to love. It requires you to share your life with another. It can be fulfilling, but it’s not easy. People often avoid deep relationships with other people because the vulnerabilities and responsibilities make them uncomfortable. When the other party is God, who deserves not only love, but great honor and obedience… well, it’s no wonder many of us prefer a less personal view of God. But when you look at the fulfillment that comes from seeking God and receiving his instruction, love, and forgiveness… well, it’s no wonder he chooses to call us into a personal relationship. He loves us, and that’s what’s best for us.

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