The Rosary and the Commonplace Mysticism of Catholic Faith

It should be clear that the Rosary is a supreme example of the Catholic faith’s openness to the enduring expressions of the heart of the common man and woman. It shows as clearly as anything in the entire Catholic tradition that the faith is about plain things that have happened in broad daylight and not about obscure, esoteric things requiring secret handshakes, special knowledge, and mystical powers.

That’s very confusing to post-modern people like us, because we don’t know whether we want God to be a democrat or an elitist. On the one hand, we post-moderns are democrats who revile “elitist” approaches to religion as inimical to the sanctity of the common man. We like Frank Capra movies. Everything in us says “yes” when George Bailey is shown that his seemingly humdrum existence has actually been a “Wonderful Life” that has blessed thousands of others and made the heavens themselves sit up and take notice. We root for St. Francis and his gospel of simplicity.

There’s something to be said for this. We do want a revelation that shows us the love of God for all human beings, not simply some select group of the elite. We want the glory of the Lord to cover the earth as the waters cover the face of the deep. We cheer at the words, “He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree” (Luke 1:52). Nobody would take seriously a faith that announced God’s love is reserved exclusively for those with a six-figure income, and that the lower classes are a shiftless lot who can go to hell for all God cares.

On the other hand, we post-moderns are also mystics who deeply distrust “conventional” or “institutional” religion as a thing of empty ritual, dreary formality, and dry theological jargon unconnected to the human soul. Our culture is chockablock with people looking for special revelations that bypass all this “mundane religiosity” and communicate dazzling mystical insights directly to their heart and soul. There’s something to be said for this, too. We want a revelation that really touches the heart, not one that’s simply a matter of externals. We want the law to be written on the heart. We distrust “pop religion.” Indeed, the airwaves are full of people who say, “I think faith is a personal thing. I don’t think it should be a public thing.” The idea at work behind this notion is that “personal” means subjective, private, esoteric and inward.

I used to hold these contradictory notions myself when I was a teenage agnostic. In my “Fanfare for the Common Man” mood I could praise Luther for bringing spiritual truth to the plowboy, while in my “Spirituality is for the Truly Enlightened” mood I could nod approvingly at the notion of religious experience being something like mastery of the Force in Star Wars. In that latter mood, “spiritual” experiences were, I thought, the sort of thing that ought to happen to those who have achieved some special state of enlightenment, some plateau of contemplation forbidden to the unwashed mass of humanity, some elevated sphere of intensely private mystical insight incommunicable to the hoi polloi. However, as I got older (and especially as I came to understand the Catholic faith better), I learned something I should have known all along.

Personal things are not private, but universal.

When do we really feel the deepest movements of our hearts? Precisely when we find ourselves connected to another human being by some utterly ordinary experience. Sharing a meal, mourning the death of a friend, cracking jokes, celebrating a book or a movie we have both loved with a passion, feeling pride when our children grow to be good boys and girls, seeing the sun rise, rejoicing at the first snowfall, falling in love. These are not rare or esoteric things known only to the elite, but common things shared by all. It is when we meet another person who has loved and lived (and appreciated!) these sorts of things in all their everyday humanness that something within us rejoices and cries, “You, too? I thought I was the only one!” When we meet what is universal, we meet what is most personal. We are led not to an isolated mountaintop of mysticism, but to the broad plain of the human family.

This is true “all the way up.” Does a great spiritual teacher tell us something we’ve never heard before, or lead us into hidden caverns of mystic wisdom intended only for the initiate? No. A great spiritual teacher reminds us more than he instructs us. Thus Moses says:

For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it (Deut. 30:11–14).

Likewise Isaiah grabs Israel and shakes them saying, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?” (Is. 40:21). This isn’t private. Everybody knows this stuff.

That’s why when the rich young man cried, “What must I do to be saved?” our Lord told him nothing new: Do what Moses said. Love your neighbor. Tell the truth. The usual (See Matt. 19:16– 22). Jesus doesn’t send him off on a quack quest to track down misaligned engrams, but straight back to the common things he was taught on his mother’s knee.

But the rich young man wouldn’t have it. He was apparently looking for trendy past life regression training or whatever the Shirley MacLaines of his day were selling, because when Jesus challenged him with the dull commonplace that he had too much dough, he balked. His wealth was private to him, like he wanted God to be. So he went away sad. No spiritual thrills here. No revelation aimed only at the rich and famous. Why, this supposed Messiah was just another peasant worried about money, for crying out loud. How common!

The peasant, for his part, went down a different road—and was eventually raised from the dead and proclaimed King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

This is the curious quality of God’s revelation: It’s hidden in plain sight. Sort of like the Word made flesh. You could look right at him and, depending on whether you choose to have eyes to see or not, behold a peasant carpenter or the Incarnate Second Person of the Trinity. It all depends on whether you believe God is so fragile he can only reveal himself via trances to sensitive people in private, or so powerful he lets himself be crucified in broad daylight and held up for the whole world to see.

The Rosary, like the Catholic faith, reconciles the apparent contradiction between our democratic and mystical impulses. For the faith insists that meditating on the ordinary, common, and public events of the life of Jesus Christ—stuff known to every Catholic butcher, baker, and candlestick maker—is the way to grow more deeply in the mystical life of Christ and to come to love his people (including their Mother) better. It stolidly denies the Gnostic notion that revelation is esoteric and available only to the elite. Indeed, Jesus utters loud warnings to those who fancy themselves to be part of the spiritual elite, as in Matthew 23. At the same time, the faith also reminds us that while the common man has immense dignity, it doesn’t follow that whatever pops into the common man’s head is the voice of God. After all, it was the common man who cried out, “Crucify him!” (Luke 23:21) and uttered the terrible words, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matt. 27:25), as the Sorrowful Mysteries remind us. The common man, like all human and natural things, is God’s creature, and therefore good. But he is damaged by the fall and needs the grace and mystical revelation of God to help his defects and bring him to perfection. Those come to us not through incommunicable experiences known only to the initiate, but through the very public life of Christ that the Rosary holds up to any Tom, Dick, or Harry.


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