Got a note the other day that inspired me:
Hello Mark, Thank you for your witness to our Catholic faith. I appreciate your writing and your humble example and commitment to sharing God’s wisdom and love with our brothers and sisters in Christ. I write to ask a favor. A number of years ago I had stumbled upon your reflections of the mysteries of the rosary. (Around 2012?) I pray the rosary daily, and the last few days I was remembering details of those reflections. I recalled how helpful your reflections were as a source of meditation on the rosary. I was unable to find the links to the reflections and I had hoped you might be able to help me. Thank you!
I can’t find the series I did on the Rosary, so I thought I’d go one better and give the material from my chapter on the Rosary from my book, Mary, Mother of the Son. So, away we go!
The Rosary, though clearly Marian in character, is at heart a Christocentric prayer. In the sobriety of its elements, it has all the depth of the Gospel message in its entirety.—Pope St. John Paul II
There are about a jillion forms of prayer in the Catholic tradition. In the massive fields of prayer that stretch out like a grand prairie of wildflowers, there is no end to the ways in which Catholics approach God through Jesus Christ. Here, more than anywhere else, we experience the Church’s curiously decentralized approach to faith. This can surprise us, because many people have the notion that a hierarchical Church insists on a top down command economy where bishops issue prayers and the faithful salute smartly and recite them. But the Church has always made the assumption that devotions will spring up among the faithful like orchards and gardens in April. The devotional life may need tending and pruning here and there so people don’t starting praying in loopy ways, but the Church trusts that the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, will provide the sunlight, rain, and inspiration that brings prayer from the hearts of the faithful.
Consequently, the prayer life of the Church is a riot of color and variety. Aside from liturgical prayers such as the Mass and the Divine Office (a series of prayers prayed throughout the day, particularly in monastic or religious orders, also known as the Liturgy of the Hours), there are gazillions of other private devotions, some popular, some obscure. There are litanies, icons, prose, poems, and beloved music. Private prayer is done in all sorts of postures: laying, sitting, standing, kneeling, walking, even dancing (as St. Teresa of Ávila used to do, employing castanets in her impromptu outbursts of meditative prayer). There is prayer to the Blessed Trinity, prayer to each Person of the Trinity, prayer to saints, prayer using Scripture, prayer to the Eucharist, prayer alone, prayer in groups, prayer employing all the senses, prayer using physical objects, prayer that avoids distraction by physical objects, prayer that chatters, prayer that’s silent, prayer done while working, prayer for valor in battle, prayer for courage to die rather than shed blood, prayer sung, prayer spoken, prayer enacted, prayers of love, rage, confusion, hope, fear, contentment, boredom, even small talk.
This colossal variety doesn’t diminish one iota when the subject is Marian prayer. Mary is prayed to and addressed under many titles. She is Mother Mary, Blessed Mother, Holy Mary, the Virgin. She is Mother of the Church, Seat of Wisdom, Daughter of Zion. She is Bride of the Holy Spirit, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Mother of Mercy, and Our Lady of Sorrows (just to name a very few of her titles).
Some people, uncomfortable with this creativity in finding ways to praise Mary, think they can get away from intense Marian piety by escaping to the Eastern Churches. That’s because the Eastern liturgy is experienced by few in the West, while Western Catholic “private” devotions are so visible in secular life what with all the posters, medals, statues, holy cards, and icons all over homes and offices. Many Americans perceive Western Catholics to have the heavy duty devotion to Mary and imagine the Eastern Churches haven’t gone overboard about her as Westerners supposedly have. But in reality Eastern Christianity is, if anything, even more intensely Marian than the West. It’s just that in the Eastern Churches, most Marian devotion is found in the liturgy (where you must participate) rather than in private devotions (where you may participate). Indeed, to bind Marian devotion to the liturgy is to place her, in the profoundest way, at the heart of the faith.
Therefore, if someone chooses to, say, worship in a Byzantine Catholic church in order to get away from things like the Litany of Loreto or May crownings, they will soon realize they’ve arrived at the expression of Christianity that perfected the Akathist Hymn, a long hymn of praise to the Blessed Virgin, offered while standing, that includes such acclamations for the Virgin as:
Container of the Uncontainable God!
Door of Solemn Mystery!
Report Doubtful to Unbelievers!
Undoubted Boast of the Faithful!
All-Holy Chariot of Him Who Sitteth upon the Cherubim!
All-Glorious Temple of Him Who is above the Seraphim!
Thou Who hast United Opposites!
Thou Who hast Joined Virginity and Motherhood!
Thou Through Whom Transgression Hath Been Absolved!
Thou Through Whom Paradise Is Opened!
Key to the Kingdom of Christ!
Hope of Eternal Good Things!
O Bride Unwedded!
There’s no end to the variety of praise for Mary in the Catholic faith—eastern or western.
Cataloguing every facet of this colossal diversity could go on for thousands of pages. We don’t want to do this. The best way to approach Marian prayer is to go where the vast majority of Catholics turn, to the 800-pound gorilla and all-time champion form of Marian devotion: the Rosary. For in its mysteries there are lots of opportunities to take side jaunts into some of the other forms of devotion out there as well.
What Is the Rosary and Where Did It Come From?
The Rosary is a string of beads whereon we pray while meditating on the life of Christ in union with his greatest disciple, Mary. It’s divided into twenty “decades” (sets of ten beads) in which we meditate on twenty “mysteries” in the intertwined lives of Jesus and Mary.
The Rosary’s origins are obscure, but there are some things we know about it. We know, for instance, that though there is a pious legend that Mary appeared to St. Dominic (founder of the Dominican Order) in a vision and gave him the Rosary, recommending it as a spiritual weapon against faithlessness and heresy, there is no evidence St. Dominic ever heard of or prayed the Rosary. Still and all, the Dominicans would eventually become huge promoters of the Rosary, and to this day, Dominicans wear a Rosary on their left hip—the “sword hip,” symbolizing that the Rosary is their “sword of the spirit” (Eph. 6:17).
In fact, the notion of prayer beads comes from pre-Christian antiquity, like Christmas trees, Easter eggs, and wedding rings. The function of beads was to involve the whole body in prayer, freeing the mind to focus on the subject of one’s meditative prayer while reciting a repetitive prayer. A natural question arises in many minds. “Didn’t Jesus condemn repetitive prayer?” After all, he said:
And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him (Matt. 6:7–8).
True. And then he immediately gave his disciples a new prayer they were to memorize and repeat over and over again: the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9–13). And repeat it Christians have done—for two thousand years. The problem isn’t repetition but meaningless repetition or, worse still, superstitious repetition, as though God could be compelled to knuckle under and answer our demands if we grind him down with the same magical phrases over and over and over.
But meaningful repetition? Jesus has no problem with that. Neither did the inspired writers of the psalms that Jesus loved. For instance, Psalm 136 uses the repetitive refrain “for his steadfast love endures for ever” as it recites a litany of the praises of God. The device of repetition is as good as any other when used for the glory of God.
Why Beads? Isn’t That Superstitious?
One can, if you’ll pardon the pun, pray the Rosary on one’s fingers in a pinch. We’re not legalists. We know law was made for man, not man for law. The goal is to focus on God, not beads. If you are stuck on the bus without your Rosary, feel free to pray it without them. Nonetheless, the Church urges us to make use of the beads if we have them and happily blesses those beads that they may be a means of grace for us. That puzzled me for a long while. Why wouldn’t fingers do just as well? The answer to the riddle came in a particularly Screwtapian way.
I realized my question was rooted in the vestiges of the “anti-sacramental” view of the universe I had inherited in equal parts from my secular upbringing and my Evangelical tutors. In the anti-sacramental universe, God doesn’t use material things to give grace to the world. Thus, as I had been taught in Evangelicalism, Baptism does nothing, it’s just a symbol. Likewise, Eucharist is just a ritual. It can’t convey the life of God to your soul. Prayers such as the Rosary or even the Lord’s Prayer are vain repetition devoid of spiritual power. According to this view of things, God has to confine his activities to the “spiritual realm,” which is to say, to the disembodied and immaterial. Matter is, by this account, not spiritual at all.
But hand me or my Evangelical friends a Ouija board or ask us to repeat a bit of doggerel out of a book of Wiccan magic spells and shazam!, suddenly perverse “sacramentality” is bursting out all over, one that sees creation as a vehicle for evil spirits—but not for the Holy Spirit who made it. Note, for instance, the instructions one Evangelical gives for “cleansing” one’s home from contact with the demonic:
Idols: Destroy every item that has any slight association with idolatry. This includes images, jewelry, jade objects, clothing, display objects, art pieces, masks, talismans, charms, books, literature, and objects that solicit fear or demand reverence of anything besides the true and living God.
Games: All games dealing with the occult, and with the forces of darkness must be destroyed, especially “Dungeons and Dragons” and “Ouija Boards.” There are many TV and computer games along these lines that must be included in the destruction. Floppy disks should be destroyed, not erased and reused. And be sure the materials are deleted from where the computer saves deleted files.
We thought holy water, blessed oil, the Eucharist and the Rosary were “mere matter” and were powerless to convey grace to us. But when Satan enters the picture, we deemed him quite capable of bridging the gulf between the spiritual and the physical. Merely owning a Ouija board was recognized as a spiritually dangerous association with matter contaminated by unclean spirits. Similarly, we regarded repetitive prayer to God as a spiritual nothing, a wholly ineffectual practice, yet nonetheless saw mere recitation of a spell or a prayer to some pagan deity (often in a language the speaker did not even understand) as a profoundly dangerous way of opening oneself to the power of Satan. Indeed, some Evangelicals believe even a game such as “Dungeons and Dragons” is able to convey the power of Satan, a power so overwhelming that it lingers around floppy disks even after the data on them has been erased, necessitating their complete destruction to break the power of the devil.
As a Catholic, I agree that magic spells, Ouija boards, prayers to demons, and the like are dangerous and shouldn’t be messed with. What I disagree with is the notion that the devil works through matter and words but God doesn’t. I eventually came to realize that if anybody has the right and power to make spiritual things available to us through created means it’s the One who invented matter and who uttered the Word made flesh in the Incarnation. I began to realize that my secular and Evangelical backgrounds had something in common. For all the materialism of the secular view and all the spirituality of the Evangelical view, there remains this common thread: matter and spirit must never intersect. If they do, the secularist fears you will lose your mind, and the Evangelical fears you will lose your soul.
But the reality is that matter and the Holy Spirit are old friends. He made it, overshadowed it (in the person of the Blessed Virgin), conceived the Second Person of the Trinity in a body made of it, raised it from the dead, established it as the channel of his sacramental power, and, at the end of time, will raise it (and us) to participate in heavenly glory.
And so God continues to communicate grace to us through created things in big ways (the seven sacraments) and little (holy water, blessed oil, Rosary beads). That’s not superstition or magic. That’s the Incarnation still at work today. It’s also part of being human, for as human beings we live by symbols as much as by bread. A prayer on our own fingers, where we touch nothing but ourselves, doesn’t fully express what prayer is. A prayer in which we finger beads connects us with an impulse that’s almost as old as humanity. It connects us with our own Christian ancestors in a great chain of love for God handed down from one generation to the next. And through them—the Body of Christ—it connects us to God. Not for nothing, then, has the Rosary been likened to a chain that binds us to God. By it, not just our spirits, but our very bodies are made participants in the prayer life of the Body of Christ through the ages.