The Rosary, a Spirit-filled prayer? Isn't that a contradiction in terms? Its monotonous and repetitive form seems a far cry from the rush of the Spirit, the spontaneous joy that wells up in the heart when one is touched by the presence of the Lord, or the new awareness of the word of God awakened when the Scriptures seem to leap off the page. How can we settle for prayer formulas like the Rosary when the Holy Spirit seems to give us new words of prayer in the heartfelt inspiration of our own words? What does the Rosary have to offer us?
These are good questions. I asked them myself. The answers came to me gradually from my experience in the charismatic renewal as I saw the need for the "spirituality of the long haul."
When I came into the renewal in 1967 I had long since left the Rosary behind. Like many Vatican II Catholics, I mistakenly thought that the Council had banished such devotions. In the first flush of prayer meetings, renewed interest in reading Scripture, and spontaneous prayer with friends, I had no need of the Rosary.
Only after I'd been in the charismatic renewal for quite some time did I see the need for a quieter, more rhythmic type of prayer. I came to appreciate this form of prayer especially in the "dry" times when the Spirit did not seem so active. I realized that the Rosary is not a prayer foreign to Scriptures, but one drawn directly from it. Most of the mysteries are events in the lives of Jesus and His Mother that are depicted in the synoptic Gospels.
Thomas Howard, a convert to Catholicism who treasures the riches of his Evangelical heritage, explains the Rosary as a way of "gazing" on the Gospel events— prolonging the experience by entering deeply into them in prayer and meditation. The regular rhythm of the Our Fathers and the Hail Marys calms our spirit and creates an inner space where we can encounter the Lord as we ponder particular aspects of the mysteries of his life, death and resurrection.
Pope Paul Vl recommended praying the Rosary in his letter Marialis Cultus ("To Honor Mary"). He pointed out that while the Mass makes Christ sacramentally present in the Paschal Mystery of his life, death and resurrection, the Rosary makes these same mysteries present to the mind in meditation—thus the Rosary can prepare us to celebrate the Eucharist.
As a Dominican, I am proud of the tradition that St. Dominic received the Rosary from Our Lady when he was in deep depression over his inability to convert the Albigensian heretics in southern France. These heretics taught that all matter was evil and that whatever increased the material—for example, sex, marriage, and the begetting of children, as well as material food and drink—was to be avoided. The celebrate "perfect" fasted as much as possible, but ordinary people were permitted to enjoy sex as long as they did not marry or have children. The old were encouraged to commit suicide. This was a very dangerous heresy, upsetting the whole fabric of Christian society and fostering the same contraceptive and anti-life mentality that promotes abortion and euthanasia in our own era.
The tradition attributes to St. Dominic's eventual success against the Albigensians to his preaching of the Rosary to them. Paternoster beads, on which lay people who couldn't read the 150 psalms in Latin recited 150 Our Fathers as a substitute, were known before St. Dominic's time. As Marian devotion flowered in the Middle Ages, Hail Marys were substituted for some of the Our Fathers. The Dominican author, Fr. Bede Jarrett, suggests that as Dominic, inspired by Our Lady, preached on the great mysteries of the Incarnation and the Redemption, the people meditated on these mysteries while they recited the Our Fathers and Hail Marys. Hearing that matter and flesh were good enough for the Son of God to assume and that he suffered and was also glorified in the same flesh would have been a good antidote to the Albigensian teaching.
How can we effectively be led by the Spirit as we pray the Rosary today? What do we meditate on while we pray?
Some find it helpful to read the pertinent Gospel passage before each mystery; others use the Scriptural Rosary, which has a passage from Scriptures for each Hail Mary . . . most like to picture the scene. When I was young, our family had a small easel with 15 prints of paintings by the Old Masters illustrating the mysteries. During the family Rosary, one child would flip to the next scene at the end of the mystery so that we all had an image to gaze on. We can do the same thing in our imagination. We can also apply the events we are meditating on to our own lives.
The joyful mysteries — the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation, and the Finding of the Child in the Temple—all are chronicled by St. Luke in the first two chapters of his Gospel. At the beginning of his Gospel, he describes Mary's wholehearted surrender to the Lord. Mary embarked on a journey of faith. Do we do the same?
Upon hearing of her cousin Elizabeth's pregnancy, Mary lovingly hastened to her aid. Mary has often been likened to the ark of the covenant, which bore the presence of the Lord in the Old Testament. At the Dominican House of Studies where I was trained, there was a lovely lectern from which the word of God is read and proclaimed. An image of the pregnant Virgin stands atop the lectern. We were told that we were being trained as preachers filled with the Word, as was Mary. Is not this true of all Christians?
It seems to me that the birth of the Lord is a mystery of silence and humility. Mary pondered the visits of the shepherds and the magi in her heart. Likewise she pondered the prophesy of Simeon that her child would be a sign of contradiction, and a sword would pierce her own heart. These last two mysteries are especially relevant to parents today who must learn that their children are not theirs, but belong to their heavenly Father.
Our Lord's sufferings depicted in each of the Gospels and are the subjects of the sorrowful mysteries: the Agony in the Garden, the Scourging at the Pillar, the Crowning with Thorns, the Carrying of the Cross, and the Crucifixion.
In the agony in Gethsemane Jesus suffered so greatly that he sweat blood and asked that this cup be taken from Him if possible, but He surrendered to the Father's will. Do we do the same? It's helpful for us to know that the Lord struggled, that in his humanity he feared suffering. He was stripped of his garments and humiliated. Do we practice modesty, or are we into excessive cult of the body that characterizes our society? The Lord's head was crowned with thorns as described by Matthew, Mark and John. His crown was suffering—do we seek glory for ourselves? The head symbolizes our thoughts—do we keep control over them, or do resentful or impure thoughts control us? John describes Jesus as carrying his cross while the synoptics shows Simon as helping Him. How do I carry my cross, or help others to do the same?
Finally, the crucifixion is the climax of all of the Gospels. Our Lord suffered for me; He "loved me and gave Himself for me" (see Gal. 2:20). Have I responded by crucifying my fleshly desires (see Gal. 5:24)? Am I grateful for the great gift of salvation that flows from the cross of Jesus?
The glorious mysteries —the Resurrection, the Ascension, Pentecost, Mary's Assumption into Heaven, and her Crowning—bring us to the triumph of salvation. In the Lord's Resurrection I am transformed, for in baptism I died to the old man and rose to the new in Christ (see Rom. 6:1-11). I live a new life in His Ascension; in His risen humanity shown to the Father, my humanity— despite its present weakness—is affirmed. Meditating on the Pentecost event (see Acts 2) enables me to ask for a daily empowering of the Spirit. While Our Lady's assumption and crowning are not found in the Scriptures, the woman in Revelations, chapter 12, clothed in the sun with the moon under her feet and crowned with 12 stars, is a symbol of Mary and the Church. Mary's bodily assumption into heaven is a sign of our sharing in her Son's Resurrection as she did; her crowning reminds us of the crowns promised to followers of the Lord.
As I have mulled over the mysteries, pondering their depths and penetrating their meaning for my own life, I have found myself led to a more contemplative prayer. Rediscovering the Rosary has brought me into a deeper communion with the Lord and has enriched my life in the Spirit. I believe that many others who have experienced the Lord and are hungering for growth would also receive the same blessing that I have in praying the Rosary. If only we "could find again the charism of the Rosary," as the modern Irish preacher of the Rosary, Fr. Gabriel Harty says, "and use it as an instrument of healing love as it was meant to be, (we) would sweep over the earth and renew it in fire."
A more simple and still more elevated way of reciting the Rosary is, while saying it, to keep the eyes of faith fixed on the living Jesus who is always making intercession for us and who is acting upon us in accordance with the mysteries of His childhood, or His Passion, or His glory. He comes to us to make us like Himself. Let us fix our gaze on Jesus Who is looking at us. His look is more than kind and understanding: it is the look of God, a look which purifies, which sanctifies, which gives peace. It is the look of our Judge and still more the look of our Savior, our Friend, the Spouse of our soul. A Rosary prayed in this way, in solitude and silence, is a most fruitful encounter with Jesus. It is a conversation with Mary too which leads us to intimacy with her Son.
We sometimes read in the lives of the saints that Our Blessed Lord reproduced in them first His childhood, then His middle life, then His apostolic life, and finally His Passion, before allowing them to share in His glory. He comes to us in a similar way in the Rosary and, well said, it is a prayer which gradually takes the form of an intimate conversation with Jesus and Mary. It is easy to see how saintly souls have found it a school of contemplation.
It has sometimes been objected that one cannot reflect on the words and the mysteries at the same time. An answer that is often given is that it is not necessary to reflect on the words if one is meditating on or looking spiritually at one of the mysteries. The words are a kind of melody which soothes the ear and isolates us from the noise of the world around us, the fingers being occupied meanwhile in allowing one bead after another to slip through. Thus, the imagination is kept tranquil and the mind and the will are set free to be united to God.
It has also been objected that the monotony of the many repetitions in the Rosary leads necessarily to routine. This objection is valid only if the Rosary is prayed badly. If well prayed, it familiarizes us with the different mysteries of salvation and recalls what those mysteries should produce in our joys, our sorrows and our hopes. Any prayer can become a matter of routine —even the Ordinary of the Mass. The reason is not that the prayers are imperfect, but that we do not say them as we should—with faith, confidence and love.
The Rosary enables us ideally to share life with Our Lord and the one most dear to Him, His Mother. Beginning with the Annunciation of His coming in human form, we follow the sacred events of their life, the mysteries, through their joy and sorrow to their culmination in glory. We think all these things, we are present at them in mind and are moved to love and adoration. That is truly to share their life.
The Rosary is not just a very attractive form of devotion. In principle it is to begin on earth the sharing of the divine life which will continue forever. Not to understand this is to fail to understand the central idea of the Rosary.
It follows from this idea of the Rosary that we must have a method of praying it that is really a sharing of its events, which we call its "mysteries." It is at this point that most of the difficulty of the Rosary is met and most complaints made. How can you pray the "Our Father" and ten "Hail Marys" with attention and at the same time meditate on the mystery? And what is meditation anyhow ... and how do you do it?
There are genuine and not unusual difficulties. They concern two points of great importance, attention and meditation. A misunderstanding of both or either does not make it easy to pray the Rosary. On the other hand, to understand them changes everything and makes everything easier and surprisingly so.
If a number of people were asked: "What must you do in order to be attentive at prayer?" Most people would probably say: "Think of what you are saying." It cannot be said that this answer is wrong, as far as it goes, but we may call it a "hard" answer. There is a better, and easier, and a more necessary answer. It is: "Do what you always do and must do in ordinary conversation with another, and must do before you can say a word. You must see someone there, and to see you must look. And you must keep looking all the time the conversation lasts."
It is the great secret of attention to prayer to look at the One we are praying to. The hard way is to try to "screw up" the mind to the words. That causes strain and breaks down easily. Look first at Him and the words will come better and more easily as time goes on; and all the time, whether the words come or not, we are in His company and that is everything. The whole mischief with our prayer is that so often we just recite words and do not look at Him.
Our Lord taught St. Teresa of Avila how to pray this way and she taught her nuns in words to be remembered: "I want you only to look at Him."
With this understanding of attention we can now settle the question of meditation because "prayer-by-looking" settles it. When she had explained that the real way to be attentive is "just to look at Him," St. Teresa went on to say that there is no difference between vocal prayer said in this way and meditation. All prayer said while looking at Him is by that fact meditation or mental prayer. Because while we look at Him our prayer is deepened, its words bear in on us, and it goes deeper than ordinary vocal prayer, as heavy rain goes deeper than a passing shower.
Our method of praying the Rosary should be based on this understanding of attention and meditation put into operation. It will help us to consider its application to one of the mysteries.
Let us take the Agony in the Garden. Imagination can present the scene to us: the garden, the kneeling figure, the desolation, the words of agony, the sweat of blood, the total offering to the Father. Simply to look and think of this will stir the heart and move it to share the agony by deep compassion. It will be found that it is not necessary to form detailed thoughts. Simply to look, simply to be aware, simply to be there will fill the heart. And all the while the words of the "Our Father" and "Hail Mary" will flow, but always secondarily to the intentness of the mind.
This method of praying the Rosary was given to Lucy by Our Lady. She said: "Keep me company while you are meditating on the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary." That is the method: to be in company with her and her divine Son ...
Now, what will it be? Will you be with them in Galilee, in Bethlehem and Nazareth? Will you listen to Him by the Lake and on the Mount? Will you be with Him in the Garden, and at the Judgment Seat (of Pilate), and on the way to Calvary and to the end?
Then, let your lips be opened to pray the Rosary, and your heart be stirred to love it, and let its sound be heard again in your house and home and in the land.
Pray the Rosary. Pray it well. Pray it every day and you will go to heaven.
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