Let Me Count the Ways
Down through the millennia, Christians have expressed their love for the Blessed Virgin in many different ways. The early Christians made pilgrimages to the sites associated with her life. The Eastern churches influenced by Byzantium composed long “akathist” hymns in her honor. The Ethiopians developed a rich tradition of liturgical prayer to Mary. The Egyptians appear first in the documentary record with the prayer Sub Tuum Praesidium. The West, in turn, produced the “Hail, Holy Queen,” the Memorare, and many litanies. Both East and West have amassed a stunning heritage of Marian art—predominantly icons in the East, and both sculpture and paintings in the West.
Without a doubt, though, the Church’s most popular and beloved expression of Marian devotion is the Rosary. It’s my favorite expression too.
Hearts and Hands and Voices
Non-Catholics will sometimes dismiss the rosary as a mindless, mechanical droning of formulas. Some will even condemn the practice, citing Jesus’ rejection of “vain repetition” in prayer (Mt 6:7). But nothing could be further from the mark.
First, the rosary is anything but mindless. Indeed, its meditative technique has been refined by centuries of practice in order to engage the mind most completely. The rosary ordinarily engages at least three of our senses—with the sound of voices, the feeling of beads, and the sight of devotional images—so that those senses themselves are made prayerful. Thus committed, body and soul, to prayer, we are less prone to distraction.
Further, the formulas themselves are rich in scriptural doctrine and devotion. The Our Father we learn from the lips of Jesus Himself. The Hail Mary comes from the words of Gabriel and Elizabeth in Luke’s gospel. And who could argue with the words of the Glory Be, which merely give praise to the eternal and Blessed Trinity?
There’s usually a very simple mistake at the root of these critiques of Catholic prayer. Somehow, many Christians have gotten hold of the idea that formal prayer is bad and that prayer, in order to be true, must be spontaneous, creative, and emotional. Yet Jesus did not teach this. In fact, He Himself used the formal prayer of ancient Israel (see Mk 12:29; IS’34; Jn 7:10-14).
Jesus did condemn vain repetition, but not all repetition is vain. I remember watching a Christian rock musician field questions from people who just couldn’t understand his conversion to Catholicism. One woman asked, “How do you deal with all the vain repetition?”
He looked at her with the most loving smile and said, “I don’t mind repetition. I’m a bass player. It’s my livelihood.”
Repetition and routine can be very good for us and for our relationships. My wife never tires of hearing me say, “I love you.” My mother never tires of hearing me thank her for my upbringing. My adversaries never tire of hearing me say I’m sorry for my mistakes. God, too, never tires of hearing us repeat the set phrases that have been hallowed for prayer by scripture and Christian tradition. Non-Catholics know this, too, and so we hear all kinds of Christians reecho the words “Amen!,” “Alle