Kevin Orlin Johnson
From the May 1999 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine
Look at the times. Crime seems to be entirely out of hand, and nobody is really safe on the streets or even at home. Families are in disarray, too. The Sacrament of Matrimony is despised or at least no longer understood. People just couple at pleasure and then couple again with other partners, doing all that they can to avoid conception and leaving any children of their unions virtually to fend for themselves—or worse.
But these aren’t necessarily our times. These same things were going on around 999 in the England of St. Ethelwold, around 1099 in the Italy of St. Peter Damiano, and around 1199 in the France of St. Dominic. It was the same again in the France of 1699, in the time of St. Louis de Montfort, and even worse in 1799. The difference today is precisely that for so many people it’s unthinkable that the situation can be redeemed by prayer; in those days everybody assumed that prayer was the only way that it could be. In each of those cases, and in many, many more, the great reforming saints turned things around by encouraging people to practice meditative prayer—above all the Rosary, or its immediate ancestors.
Today, the Rosary is still the easiest way to acquire the ancient skills of meditative prayer, and it’s the most effective way to gain the graces that this most powerful way of prayer can obtain. But the ways of Christian prayer aren’t taught quite so much as they ought to be these days, and too many people seem to be put off by a few lingering misconceptions about what the Rosary is and how it works.
1. “It’s just for old people.”
Actually, the Rosary developed as a form of family prayer, centered not in the church but in the home. It was usually the way that children learned the Church’s basic vocal prayers and the key mysteries of Christ’s life on earth.
Pope John Paul II has often repeated the age-old call for families to pray the Rosary together. “World peace passes through the peace of families, the fundamental cells of the whole human family,” he says, and “praying together helps to make a family more united, serene, and faithful to the Gospel.”
And if the family takes the word “devotion” literally, the little ones will see that joining in the prayers is a privilege and a pleasure—and the parents will see that the Rosary makes better people of those devoted to it. It is morally impossible, the saints have said again and again, for children to go wrong when they have the chain of the Rosary linking their families together. Or, as Father Patrick Peyton, C.S.C., said, “The family that prays together
stays together.” He had the Rosary in mind when he said it.
2. “It’s boring.”
Not if you’re doing it right. Pay attention to the words that you’re saying; the words of vocal prayer are not meaningless—it’s a fault to babble them out without paying any attention to them (cf. Mk. 7:6), but words have meaning and, because the human mind operates in terms of language, words have the power to change the way you think. And, as St. Cyprian of Carthage asked back in the third century, how can you expect God to listen to you, if you’re not even listening to yourself?
In fact, this attitude is often a symptom of a deeper and more serious disorder of the soul. The whole desire to pray comes from conversion, the turning of the heart toward God. Sometimes conversion happens all at once, as it must have happened to those who heard Christ preach, or to St. Paul on the road to Damascus. Often it happens much more gradually. But sooner or later there comes a pivotal point in conversion, after which nothing can possibly be the same anymore.
Anybody who sees at last the goodness of God, anybody who comes to know the inexpressible joy of that supreme goodness, wants more and more to turn his
gaze to God in praise, thanksgiving, and simple adoration—that is, to pray. And a good many of these people who must look again at this world can do nothing other than offer the continual “sacrifice of the lips,” praying constantly in atonement for sin, and begging God’s mercy without ceasing.
Christ Himself wrote the Our Father, and the Hail Mary consists largely of Bible verses. The words alone are a fit subject for infinite meditation. And that’s what the Rosary really is: not just vocal prayer but meditative prayer. For the converted no prayer is boring, but meditative prayer in particular fascinates the mind as it enthralls the soul.
3. “It’s just repeating prayers over and over.”
There’s nothing wrong with repeating vocal prayers. Matthew 6:7, “use not vain repetitions,” in the King James version, is a warning against confusing quantity with quality. The best translation would be “don’t talk more than you need to”—the original Greek and the approved Latin editions use no word that indicates “repetition.” In fact, like pious people in the Old Testament, Christ Himself spent whole nights in prayer; He repeated what He said time and again (Mt. 26:44), and He said more than once that repeated prayers work even beyond the claims of justice (Lk. 11:5-8, 18:1-8; Jas. 5:16-17). Besides, He
taught us the Our Father to be the pattern for our prayer (Lk. 18:1). So the repetition of vocal prayers follows Christ’s own instructions and example. If you’re saying a prayer right, you can’t say it too often; and if you’re not, it doesn’t matter how often you say it.
Still, you’re not supposed to just repeat the prayers of the Rosary. This is meditative prayer, and the repetition of vocal prayers is basically just a way to focus your mind so that you can meditate. Without these meditations, Pope Paul VI reminded us, “the Rosary is a body without a soul, and its recitation is in danger of becoming a mechanical repetition of formulas.”
But don’t be fooled by the word “meditation.” Christian meditative prayer is exactly the opposite of the Oriental meditation, which is thinking about nothing, simply emptying the mind of all conscious thought. Christian meditative prayer is thinking about something, about God or something related to God. Oriental meditation can achieve a natural trance-like state, but it doesn’t involve the soul. Christian meditative prayer calls upon your whole mind, your whole heart, and your whole soul. It demands the right use of reason, and requires you to know as much as you can possibly learn about the mysteries, those
crucial episodes in the lives of Jesus and Mary.
10. “There are too many rules and too much to memorize.”
There’s a kind of prejudice against the discipline of prayer these days—Jesus is my best friend, and that’s not how I talk to my friends, some people say. But prayer, the Catechism reminds us, “always presupposes effort” (no. 2725). That means that you can learn how to pray, which is why the apostles themselves asked Christ to teach them (Lk. 11:1). It also means that there are right ways to pray, and wrong ways. And while there’s nothing wrong with spontaneous prayer, it’s definitely a mistake to go through life without growing in the whole spectrum of skills that prayer at its best demands.
There are hundreds of good books about the skills of prayer that help the soul climb up to God, many written by great saints. No matter when they were written, though, they’re all remarkably consistent. You can hardly tell, from what they say and the way they say it, whether a saint wrote in the fifth century or the fifteenth, the first or the last. That’s because the skills of Christian prayer, and the techniques that Christians use to acquire them, haven’t changed since the beginning.
These skills become habitual with practice, and they open up whole new horizons of understanding—and whole new levels of intimacy with Christ—that you can’t really get otherwise. And as you get better at prayer, as the graces that you ask for come down more abundantly, you gradually become a better Christian. Looking back on the person who picked up those worn rosary beads when they were new, you might not recognize yourself at all. No matter how you look at it, learning the skills of prayer is definitely worth the effort.
5. “It takes too long.”
You’d be surprised. Repeating the vocal prayers thoughtfully while meditating deeply on the mysteries doesn’t take all that long, by the clock, once you get the knack of quickly putting aside the busyness of the day and getting down to the business of prayer.
On the other hand, people who get really good at meditative prayer can lose all track of time. “The hours glide past like minutes,” St. John Vianney used to say. A soul transfixed in its meditation on God’s goodness never wants to turn its gaze away from Him and back into this world. In fact, bells were invented in the West in about the fourth century for calling monks and nuns out of recollection. The word “bell” is from the Anglo- Saxon bellan, to
bellow, and the bellow of the bells has regulated the times of Christian prayer ever since.
The quietest and most effective way to regulate personal meditative prayer, though, is simply to count the vocal prayers that lead you into meditation. The earliest monks and nuns found that while their hands automatically tossed away a certain number of pebbles, their attention stayed focused on the words of the prayers that they were addressing to heaven, to the exclusion of the world around them, while their minds stayed free to meditate on God’s goodness. Later, people started using strings of beads, which eventually took the form of the rosary beads we know today. Passing a bead through your fingers at every repetition helps ensure that you don’t get lost in hours of meditation, and running out of beads gives you a gentle signal that it’s time to get back to another kind of daily prayer, the prayer of work.
6. “The beads are just superstition.”
Only if you use them incorrectly. Rosary beads are perfectly acceptable sacramentals—material aids to prayer. By drawing us to more and better prayer, the proper use of sacramentals offers actual graces, protection from evil spirits, health of body, and material blessings. Through the constant prayers of the Church, those who use sacramentals properly can also obtain forgiveness of venial sins, as well as remission of temporal punishment. But with any sacramental the power to do good is in you, not in the sacramental itself.
Superstition would pay too much attention to the material object itself. “One set of rosary beads is no more influential with God than is another,” St. John of the Cross reminds us. “I saw someone . . . who prayed with beads made out of the bones from the spine of a fish. Certainly, his devotion was not for this reason less precious in the sight of God.”
And you don’t really need the beads, anyway. None of the Church’s official texts about the Rosary mentions beads: The Rosary is a set of vocal prayers that accompany meditative prayer. Besides, God designed us with a rosary included; and a good many people use their own ten fingers to pray a Rosary whenever they have to wait in line or are stuck in traffic. Still, rosary beads have stood the test of time as the best way to free your mind from mechanical tasks like counting, so that you can concentrate on the meditative prayer itself.
7. “It’s not in the Bible.”
Yes, it is. Devotional prayer of this kind is as old as Christianity—as old as Judaism, in fact. The present form of the Rosary developed directly from the practices of the apostles, who gathered to say psalms at certain hours of the day or night (Acts 3:1; 10:9, 30; 16:25). This is really just a continuation of Jewish practice, as you can see in passages like 1 Kings 10:5 or Psalm 119:164, or the prescriptions for the services of the Temple in Exodus and Deuteronomy. There is no time in the memory of Christianity when Christians did not do this.
Gradually, as distinctively Christian ways of life took shape, this practice became the “Liturgy of the Hours,” sometimes called the Divine Office or the Great Office. Since earliest times, this prayer was obligatory for clergy, and it was embraced eagerly by the laity. The most popular and most effective form of this devotion was the “Psalter of the Blessed Virgin,” and “the Rosary is . . . a branch sprung from that ancient trunk of Christian liturgy . . . by which the humble were associated in the Church’s hymn of praise and universal intercession,” Pope Paul VI recalled. Its roots are intertwined with those
of every other Christian devotion, reaching all the way back through the New Testament to Genesis, by way of the prophets and Psalms.
In fact, because the Rosary consists of meditations on the chief episodes of the lives of Mary and Jesus, it can’t be understood at all apart from the Bible—the Gospels that preserve the best accounts of those mysteries, the prophecies that explain them, and the epistles that show you how to apply their meanings in your daily life. Indeed, the constant practice of the Rosary is one of the best ways to gain a more thorough understanding of the Bible.
8. “Vatican II got rid of all of those things.”
No! The Council urged a renaissance of the Rosary in Lumen Gentium, and the popes since Vatican II have unanimously urged us to take up our beads and learn again the skills of meditative prayer. Pope John XXIII wrote lovingly of the Rosary, and he declared for the record that he never failed to pray it himself, every day, in its entirety.
Pope Paul VI continued the campaign. “Following in the footsteps of Our predecessors,” he wrote, “We call upon all of the Church’s sons and daughters . . .to pray ardently to our most merciful mother Mary by saying the Rosary,” which he commended as the prayer “most pleasing to the Mother of God, and most effective in gaining heaven’s blessings.”
No pope in history has been more persistent in this than Pope John Paul II, the “Pope of the Rosary.” He has written urgently about the Rosary, calling it the “privileged instrument for avoiding the peril of war and obtaining from God the gift of peace,” and noting that “in these years as we prepare for the third millennium, Our Lady’s Rosary helps us ask God for reconciliation and peace for all of humanity.” He has also recorded reflections on each of the mysteries for distribution as tapes and compact discs—in seven different languages! Clearly, after Vatican II the Rosary is still the Church’s foremost devotion.
9. “It helps if I say the Rosary at Mass.”
Absolutely not! “It is a mistake to recite the Rosary during the celebration of the liturgy,” Pope Paul VI warned, “although unfortunately this practice still persists here and there.” The Rosary is a pattern of devotional prayer, and the Mass—the Sacrament of the Eucharist—is the highest form of liturgical prayer, and liturgical prayer outranks devotional prayer. If you say the Rosary at Mass, you’re turning your attention from a higher form of prayer to a lower—from the Presence of Christ, in fact. There’s no better place to pray than before the Blessed Sacrament, but no devotional practice should ever
divert you from the Mass, and none should ever usurp the Sacrament’s rightful place.
10. “I can be a perfectly good Christian without bothering with the Rosary.”
Strictly speaking, that’s true. But you can’t be a perfectly good Christian unless you pray often—daily and many times a day (see e.g., Lk. 18:1; 21:36; 1 Thess. 5:17): So if you pray daily, and if you make the effort to improve your skills at prayer, sooner or later you’ll want to advance to meditative prayer. Of all spiritual exercises, meditative prayer is the most profound for the learned, and the simplest for the unlettered, wrote Luis de Sarriá,
known today as Ven. Luis de Granada. And the Rosary is far and away the easiest way to attain that skill.
In this light, Ven. Luis quoted St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “To meditate on these things has been my wisdom, and here I have found everything that was necessary or profitable for me to know. . . . I always bear these mysteries in my mouth and always preach them, as you know; I am always meditating on them in my heart, as God knows. And of these things I always write, as everybody can see. For this is and always will be my loftiest philosophy: to know Jesus, and Him crucified.”
What else is there to say, Ven. Luis concluded, but to ask all who truly desire to advance in the spiritual life to use this holy practice, and to ask all masters and teachers of the spiritual life to require it of those subject to them?
The foregoing was condensed from Rosary: Mysteries, Meditations, and the Telling of the Beads by Kevin Orlin Johnson, Ph.D., Pangæus Press, P.O. Box 670127, Dallas, TX 75367.
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