Friday Forum: Reflecting on the Rosary
The Roman Catholic Church dedicates the month of October to cultivating a consciousness around a very popular, and very Catholic, Marian devotion known as the Rosary. My friend Rae tweeted quite a bit about the Rosary, so I challenged her to post some of her thoughts about the Rosary. In the exchange that followed, we agreed that we would both post something regarding our non-relationship with the Rosary. Since it is as good of topic for a Friday Forum space as any, I’m taking up the question this week.
The Rosary brings together 15, or 20 depending on how you account, different events for Christian reflection. In particular, the Rosary is known almost as a series of “Hail Mary” prayers dotted with some exceptions. Typically, people term the Rosary a uniquely Marian devotion with a high association with Roman Catholic practice. But I think my non-relationship with the Rosary stems principally from a lack of proper information regarding this devotional practice.
The Rosary is not simply about Mary; it is about the Gospel of Christ. Additionally, the prime function of the standard daily Rosary is not to string together 1 recitation of the Creed, 3 “Lord have mercy” prayers, 5 “Our Father”s and 50 “Hail Mary” exaltation wrapped up neatly in a bow with one set of closing prayers. Rarely do I tell someone how to pray, but I do think there is much more to this tradition than simply getting the numbers and the forms right. The strength of a devotion like the Rosary is to bring together a multitude of events in the Gospel through a common point of reflection. In this regard, the Rosary is a uniquely Marian form of prayer because the Christian tries to reflect on the events that the Virgin Mary witnessed. Yet, I would submit that we do not pray to Mary as if she were in front of us, rather we pray with Mary beside us.
The Rosary is fundamentally a Scriptural reflection. Consider the first 5 Mysteries in the West: 1) the Annunciation, 2) the Visitation to Elizabeth, 3) the Nativity of Christ, 4) the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and 5) the Finding of Christ in the Temple. In this regard, these first 5 Mysteries invite the Christian to journey through the first 2 chapters of the Gospel of Luke. Last year, I found a copy of the Jesus Prayer Rosary. This valuable book traces out the events of Christ’s life through providing Scriptures and additions to the Jesus Prayer to foster deeper reflection on the particular event remembered. Even the problematic “Hail Mary” prayer takes on new light against the backdrop of the full contents of the Rosary as it contains the words of both Gabriel and Elizabeth when they greet Mary in the Gospel of Luke. [Additionally, there is a modification of the “Hail Mary” prayer that states simply “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed are thee among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus, for you have born the savior of our souls. Amen.”] Really, the prayer is about walking through the Gospel.
But I firmly believe that it is okay that the Rosary isn’t everyone’s favorite prayer devotion. Keeping a prayer rule can be quite difficult. Perhaps all that seems reasonable to even commit to regularly is saying the Lord’s Prayer at morning, noon and night. There is nothing uniquely sacred about the Rosary just as there is nothing uniquely sacred about morning prayer. The cultivation of a prayer rule requires discernment and matching to your present context and circumstances. As a matter of fact, my personal staple with regard to reflecting on various aspects of Mary’s witness to Christ has been the Vespers of Our Lady of Walsingham.
Some of the issues regarding learning to pray the Rosary relates to packaging. So many resources I have seen gloss over the Mysteries entirely and offer much more insights into counting the number of times you have said a particular prayer. The prayer is just complicated enough when you start that it’s helpful to have a reasonable guide. My Western Rite Orthodox prayer book has a good section to support praying the Rosary. Additionally so-called “Scriptural Rosaries” can be a helpful resource; I only caution my recommendation as some of these resources take greater liberty with the observation that, as a form, the Rosary brings together 5 distinct Biblical passages rather than sticking to the traditional set of Mysteries.
The Rosary is a longer devotion, but I do think it’s important to try to stretch one’s prayer rule to seek disciplines that call us towards full reflection on the Gospel.