Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. Nobody comes to the father except by me.” He identified himself elsewhere as a “door,” and encouraged us to knock on that door with persistence, like a friend asking for bread. “Knock and the door shall be opened.” Catholic tradition is deep–2,000-years old deep, and various approaches to spirituality are quite rich. How do we respond to the Lord? How do we approach Him? He’s promised to be with us until the end of the age; what insight does our faith give us to walk with Jesus more closely?
Meditative prayer, especially in the form of the Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is often a good approach to integrate into one’s walk with Jesus. Meditative prayer, also referred to by St. Teresa of Avila as discursive prayer, is a pathway to a deeper relationship. One uses one’s knowledge and imagination to ponder the teachings of God, the events of Jesus’ life, and open oneself to a deeper experience of the divine. Frequent fervent prayer of the Rosary is an exercise that can lead one to a rich experience, understanding, and practical application of the Gospel in our lives.
A Short History of the Rosary
Firstly, it must be said that the five-decade Rosary with which most people are familiar is one format among several, and is known as the “Dominican Rosary,” which St. Dominic de Guzman used to combat the Albigensian Heresy. There are other formats, such as the seven-decade “Franciscan Crown” Rosary which features an extended set of seven Joyful Mysteries, the Servite Rosary which has seven Sorrowful mysteries, and the Brigittine Rosary of the Carmelites which has six decades, adding one additional mystery to each set of mysteries. Different Marian apparitions have shown Our Lady holding different rosaries. Our Lady of Fatima appeared with a Dominican Rosary, and referred to herself as “The Lady of the Rosary.” She also appeared at Lourdes with a yellow Brigittine Rosary, and at Kibeho, Rwanda, with a black Servite Rosary.
The Bane of the Albigensians
In 1208, St. Dominic was complaining in prayer to Our Lady about his failure to reach the Albigensians. She replied to him, “Wonder not that you have obtained so little fruit by your labors; you have spent them on barren soil, not yet watered with the dew of Divine grace. When God willed to renew the face of the earth, He began by sending down on it the fertilizing rain of the Angelic Salutation. Therefore preach my Psalter [the Rosary] composed of 150 Angelic Salutations and 15 Our Fathers, and you will obtain an abundant harvest.”
To the Dominican Order, the Rosary was a tool which helped them emphasize the salvific significance of the Incarnation of the Son of God as a narrative to combat the prevailing teachings about the flesh. The prayers and meditations of the Rosary illustrate the coming of God in the flesh, and the events of His life inspire us to imitate Him. Just as the Incarnation narrative exposed the error in the Albigensian heresy, today it exposes the errors of the sensual and carnal secular culture of death.
The Rosary, presented to St. Dominic, is literally the presentation of spiritual “roses” to the Mother of God, emphasizing the Lord’s Prayer and the Angelic Greeting which began the miracle of the Incarnation. Those unfamiliar with the repetitive nature of these many “Paters” and “Aves” (which come directly from Holy Scripture) may see little purpose in what they perceive as “vain repetition.” In fact, this is a chief criticism of many in the Protestant world, who view the entire exercise as pagan “babble.” Nonetheless, repetitive prayer is a means of petitioning Heaven, just as Jesus taught us to persist in presenting our needs to God. But the reality is that, prayed properly, the Rosary does not just stop with vocal prayer. And that is the jump in understanding that requires some practice.
From Recitation to Contemplation
I once had the opportunity to include a Southern Baptist woman in a Rosary prayer group we had formed, and made sure that she had materials in advance so she’d know what to expect. I even used Mother Angelica’s touching biblical meditations for the Rosary as a way of further inviting her in. She was very willing to come and pray with us. Of course, I noticed that she vocally prayed the Our Father, but didn’t on the Hail Mary or the Doxology or the Creed. I was sad that she seemed so disconnected from that heritage. After the prayer session, I asked for her feedback and she said she appreciated the invitation, but it “didn’t do anything” for her. Beyond the obvious skepticism about the appropriateness of prayers to the Virgin Mary, I believe the issue was a failure to make the leap from vocal prayer to discursive meditative prayer.
Even a Catholic can find themselves getting caught up exclusively in the vocal prayer, especially in a group setting. Achieving a meditative state while praying vocally is something that knowledge, practice, and a lot of patience can remedy, ultimately yielding great spiritual fruit. Perhaps understanding what we mean by discursive or meditative prayer would be a good place to start. Meditative prayer is using the imagination and the intellect to mentally review the particular event in Christ’s life which is being honored in the mystery being prayed. Many in fact insert themselves into the “scene” as it were, taking an active role or being a passive observer in the “theater of the mind.”
Imaginative Prayer in the Rosary
For instance, praying the First Glorious Mystery, “The Resurrection of Our Lord,” a person might imagine running with Peter and John to the tomb. They may consider the feel of the sun and the wind as they ran across rocky ground in the early morning, and what shock they must have had when seeing the empty tomb with the face cloth neatly folded on the stone. One might silently stand next to the angels as they greeted Mary that early Easter morning, or gazed upon Christ’s face as his eyes first opened upon rising. Reflections such as these, with the repeated request for Mary’s intercessory prayer for us, builds one up spiritually and matures one’s grasp of what happened and what it means in one’s life.
It is even possible where the grace of God showing down upon us may approach a contemplative or unitive state through which God grants sweetness and consolation, inspires an important idea, or answers a question. Those are moments which come exclusively from God at his pleasure, not by anything we can do to elicit. Its important to understand that last point, because many confuse the contemplative experience with forms of “centering prayer” that essentially seek to manipulate God into producing those gifts through a kind of mantra or repetitive mental exercise. The Rosary has is repetitive qualities, and can result in those kinds of experiences, but it is always at God’s discretion.
A Few Reflections
I have noticed that as one progresses through the Mysteries of the Rosary, starting with the Joyful Mysteries and ending with the Luminous Mysteries added by Pope St. John Paul II, one experiences the journey of conversion and faith. In the Joyful, one can see the consent and obedience of Mary, the sharing of that joy with Elizabeth, the culmination of a birth, a consecration to God in the Temple, and finally a devotion to God. This set of mysteries seems to suggest that sweetness and joy we experience upon first knowing Jesus–both our illuminative stage and the consolation that comes with being a Christian.
In the life of a Christian sacrifice and suffering are a common element, since what we believe contradicts the Devil, the flesh and the world. The suffering of Christ in the garden reminds us of the pain of separation from this world. Christ’s scourging and crown of thorns can represent the abuse and mockery we receive as Christians when we aren’t silent and don’t acquiesce to the world. His journey down the via Dolorosa (way of sorrows) carrying the cross is a reminder how we are joined with him in the daily struggles to be a faithful Catholic, and his crucifixion and death show us that detachment from self, obedience to the Father, and concern for others, even in the face of hatred and opposition, can be a radical sign of contradiction in the world.
In the Glorious Mysteries, through the eyes of Mary we see the Christian triumph, the overcoming of Death and rising to new life in this world and the next. We experience the supernatural in Jesus’ ascension to Heaven and are filled with the hurricane of God’s breath through the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. As we will experience at the Resurrection, Mary was caught up by God and taken body and soul into Heaven and crowned Queen of the Universe because of her goodness and faithfulness. It’s a scene right out of Revelation 12.
Lastly, we experience the glue that holds us together in this life–the light which we follow when our eyes are fixed on Jesus–in the Luminous Mysteries. His Baptism and affirmation given by the Father, His first miracle at Cana, His preaching and ministry to which we are all called, His Transfiguration–which is our ultimate goal of sanctification and personal holiness, and lastly the source and summit of faith: the Eucharist. It’s like a spiritual picture book of those sights we will see along the way that grant sweetness and sanity in a world full of evil.
A Call to Prayer
Pope St. John Paul II had a lot to say about the Rosary, especially in his Apostolic Exhortation Rosarium Virginis Mariae published in 2002. I urge you to read this document to get a very rich treatment of the Rosary, well beyond what we cover in this article. I leave you today with the Holy Father’s own words from the concluding paragraphs of his letter:
“I look to all of you, brothers and sisters of every state of life, to you, Christian families, to you, the sick and elderly, and to you, young people: confidently take up the Rosary once again. Rediscover the Rosary in the light of Scripture, in harmony with the Liturgy, and in the context of your daily lives.”