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!,” “Alleluia!,” and “Praise the Lord!”
Tradition sets certain phrases because they sum up a particular thought or feeling. Moreover, they tend to clarify the thought or intensify the feeling not only in the hearer but in the speaker as well. The more I tell my wife I love her, the more I fall in love with her. The more I speak my thanks to my mother, the more I must ponder my gratitude to her.
The more, in turn, we give our voices, our hands, and our hearts to words of love for our queen, our mother, and her Son, the more we will grow in devotion and holiness.
How the Rosary Arose
No area of Christian life is so susceptible to fads and fashion as the techniques of prayer. This is true not only for Catholics. I saw it throughout my years as a Presbyterian minister, too. Pop methods come and go at a rate of several per decade. Yet the rosary has persevered through many centuries, enduring a full frontal assault in the years of the Reformation. From generation to generation, it has won the approval of all the popes and the most revered of the faithful: Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Alphonsus Liguori, Louis Pasteur, Fulton Sheen, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, to name just a few….
The Protestant historian Anne Winston-Allen has shown that the rosary was a profoundly Christ-centered devotion and the most potent force “for spiritual renewal and reform on the eve of the Reformation.”
Why do we know so little of the origins of the rosary? Because it arose out of love.
Notice how, when movies flash back to scenes of tender love, the camera turns to soft focus. History works the same way. Humankind records its horrors in the minutest detail, but love is most often left to perpetuate itself through love. Christian history works with precision, for example, in recounting the deaths and torments of the martyrs; but history leaves us few and sparse accounts of the love of Christian mothers. Yet can we doubt that, in every generation, mothers have produced as many Christians as martyrs did?
Though the roots of the rosary are obscured deep in the ground of history, its fruits are evident throughout the Christian centuries, including our own.
And its varieties are endless. In my country, most people begin with the Sign of the Cross, then proceed to pray the Apostles’ Creed while holding the crucifix at the end of their beads. Next, they pray an Our Father, three Hail Marys, and a Glory Be, for an increase in faith, hope, and charity. Then they pray the mysteries. Some people have the custom of reciting the Fatima Prayer—so called because it was revealed by Mary to three peasant children in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917—after each Glory Be. After the last mystery, many people will recite the “Hail, Holy Queen,” the Litany of Loreto, or some other Marian prayer.
Upping the Meds
The how of the rosary is not too difficult to pick up—the fingering of the beads, the repetition of the words. Its simplicity has made it popular among the most immense variety of people.
Where most people get hung up is in the meditation. The mysteries are what make the rosary. When we repeat the formal prayers, we try to focus our mind and heart upon the given event from the life of Jesus. We try to place ourselves within the scene, imagining what it was like to be there.
This is the stuff of the rosary. Yet this is where we will be most prone to distraction. Once we open the corral of our imagination, there’s no telling which horses will run loose—or how far afield they’ll go.
That’s why I always recommend scripture as the foundation of all rosary meditation.
There are many fine collections of scriptural meditations on the mysteries of the rosary. Such books are wonderful, and the Holy Spirit can use them to open our minds to deeper wisdom and to turn our hearts to repentance. Some small books give a single, well-chosen line for us to digest with each Hail Mary. Others give fully developed chapters for us to read as we begin a mystery or as we go along.
Still, when I speak of a scriptural rosary, I mean much more than a booklet, more than a book, and even more than a library full of books. I mean that Catholics should immerse themselves in scripture so that each mystery of the rosary evokes countless biblical associations, from both the Old and the New Testaments. For the mysteries—the events of Jesus’ life—did not arise out of nothing. God has been preparing each of them from all eternity….
If we steep ourselves in scripture, we will draw from rich reservoirs, again, when we meditate upon the third glorious mystery, the first Pentecost. We will think first, of course, of the action-packed scene in the Acts of the Apostles. But we will also think of the Pentecost of ancient Israel, marking the giving of the Law. We will recall the time when the Holy Spirit descended upon the elders in the desert (see Num 11:24-29).
When we imagine the tongues of fire, we will recall how Elijah called fire from heaven to consume his sacrifice (1 Kgs 18:24-38). What, then, is the new covenant sacrifice consumed by the fire of the Holy Spirit? Could it be you and me? Then, when the apostles speak in tongues, we will naturally remember the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11) and the passage in Isaiah (28:11) when God again confused the speech of the people. What does it mean that, on Pentecost, He reversed the process?
“‘Seek in reading,'” says the Catechism,” ‘and you will find in meditating'” (no. 2654, quoting Guigo the Carthusian).