Read an Excerpt
By Gary Wills
Viking Adult ISBN: 0-670-03449-5
Introduction TIMELY AND TIMELESS
For Catholics who grew up before the Second Vatican Council, saying the rosary, privately or with others, was a regular part of our lives. But in recent years the rosary has come to be stigmatized, precisely, as "preconciliar"-as theologically retrograde, a bit of folk Catholicism, a thing to be dismissed. I think that is not only regrettable but surprising. In one way the rosary is both very timely and also timeless. Timely, because meditation is something many people feel a need for today, and the rosary has long filled that need. In bookstores we find volume after volume that tells us how to seek inner peace by contemplation, by regular time-outs from the press of worldly concerns, by exercises that collect oneself within oneself, that lift one's spirit toward a higher plane of consciousness. According to Pope John Paul II, the rosary has long answered this need for contemplation:
The West is now experiencing a renewed demand for meditation, which at times leads to a keen interest in aspects of other religions.... Much in vogue among these approaches are methods aimed at attaining a high level of spiritual concentration by using techniques of a psychological, repetitive, and symbolic character. The rosary is situated within this broad gamut of religious phenomena. (28)1
[1. John Paul II, The Rosary of the Virgin Mary, Apostolic Letter, October 16, 2002. All quotations from John Paul come from this apostolic letter, with the cited paragraph number.]
The rosary is timely because people increasingly long for quiet and regeneration.
A discovery of the importance of silence is one of the secrets of practicing contemplation and meditation. One drawback of a society dominated by technology and the mass media is the fact that silence becomes increasingly difficult to achieve. Just as moments of silence are recommended in the liturgy, so too in the recitation of the rosary it is fitting to pause briefly after listening to the word of God, while the mind focuses on the content of a particular mystery. (31)
But the rosary is also timeless-it uses an ancient and widespread aid to contemplation, the rhythmic repetition of prayers said on a string of beads (the very word "bead" comes from the old Anglo-Saxon term for prayer, bede). This practice is found in Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic prayer life, as well as in Christian history. The objection sometimes made to the rosary, that it is a mechanical exercise, misses the point of such bead disciplines. Changing the rhythm of one's life, freeing the mind to move in a different way, involves slowing down the tempo of thought, entering a stalled state. That is why religious ceremony of almost every kind involves incantatory, repetitious, stylized actions. It is true that the rosary as it was said in the past could work against contemplative patterns-when it was rattled off as a formula to be got over, was recited "to get the indulgence," or performed with others as a communal duty. But that was a distortion of the practice, which left its essence untouched. It is a form of prayer in which repetitions should be breathed in a relaxed state, as Saint Ignatius recommended. Pope Paul VI said, "By its nature the recitation of the rosary calls for a quiet rhythm and a lingering pace." (47)
[2. Paul VI, Marian Devotion, Apostolic Exhortation, February 2, 1974. All quotations from Paul VI are from this exhortation, with the cited paragraph number.]
The rosary is more complexly articulated than some forms of bead praying. It involves the saying of four prayers in a certain combination-creed, Our Father, Hail Mary, doxology ("Glory be ...")-and this combination can be orchestrated, as it were, in four different ways, reflecting four sets of subjects for contemplation (four sequences of gospel mysteries), each mystery dwelt on while one repeats the Hail Mary on each of ten beads (a decade). If this sounds complex in a printed description, it is very easy in practice-after all, Catholics of my generation learned to do it early in grade school.
The mysteries-the subjects of contemplation that one moves through as one says each subdivision of beads-are related aspects of Christ's life: five glad events, five sad events, five teaching events, and five glorious events. Catholics have sometimes (and sometimes rightly) been said to neglect the Bible. But contemplating the New Testament episodes while saying the rosary is a way of remedying that situation. Our meditations are meant to be not merely an escape from self, but an entry into the life of Christ. We Christians believe that we are incorporated into the risen life of Jesus, as members of his mystical body. The Spirit prays in us, through Christ, to the Father. Saint Paul says, "My life is no longer mine, but Christ's in me" (Galatians 2.20). And Colossians 3.3 says, "Secretly you live with Christ in God." The rosary invites us to retire into that secret of our deeper life in Christ, to reflect on his actions and their private meaning for us, and to do this at our own pace, seeking our own peace.
An objection naturally poses itself: If our meditations are on the life of Christ, why is the most repeated prayer in the rosary said to the Virgin Mary? The Hail Mary, as used while contemplating the life of Christ, is properly a prayer for assistance in understanding that life. Pope John Paul again: "Although the repeated Hail Mary is addressed directly to Mary, it is to Jesus that the act of love is ultimately directed, with her and through her" (26). Mary is a perfect model for this, since the gospel presents her as mystified by her own son, trying patiently to probe the meaning of his actions.
-When the angel Gabriel greets her as "Highly Favored," she is stunned (dietarachthe) and tries to puzzle out (dielogizeto) what it can mean (Luke 1.29).
-After the wondrous events surrounding Christ's birth, it is said: "She kept these things for inner scrutiny [syneterei], sifting them [symballousa] in her heart" (Luke 2.19).
-At the presentation of Jesus in the temple, when Simeon prophesies the mission of Jesus, Mary and Joseph "were astounded [thaumazontes] at what was being said about him" (Luke 2.33).
-Mary is not only surprised but hurt when the boy Jesus goes off for five days without telling her. She and Joseph are "dumbfounded" (exeplagesan), and she expresses her disappointment: "How, my son, could you treat us this way?" (Luke 2.48). When Jesus says he has a duty to a higher Father, Mary and Joseph "did not understand [syn¯ekan] what he told them" (Luke 2.50)-but "his mother kept all he said for close scrutiny [diet¯erei] in her heart" (Luke 2.51). Father Raymond Brown notes that the verb for "observe" (terein) used in 2.19 and 2.51 means "to keep a close or wary watch on."
-At the wedding in Cana, Jesus apparently rejects Mary's request that he help the people who have run out of wine: "Woman, why is your worry mine?-My time is not yet come." She does not know what he means. All she can say to the servants is: "Whatever thing he tells you, do that" (John 2.5).
-When Jesus refuses to receive Mary when she is asking for access to him, he says: "Who is my mother, who my brothers?" And looking over those seated all about him, he says, "Here is my mother, here my brothers. Whoever does what God wants, that is my brother, and sister, and mother" (Mark 3.31-35).
-When a woman cries out to Jesus, "Blessed the womb that bore you," he corrects her: "Blessed, rather, those who, hearing God's word, are its champions [phylassontes]" (Luke 11.27-28).
Jesus of the gospels was a continual affront even to his closest followers. Chesterton said that Christ moved about as in some higher weather system, breaking out in wraths and mercies contrary to the lower atmospherics. It could not have been easy being the mother of a walking spiritual thunderstorm. Mary had to make her way through the layers of this divine conundrum to its inmost meaning by the deepest kind of faith. We pray with her for the understanding she achieved by strenuous effort. She went before us in this quest. To ask her aid as we make the same journey is not to succumb to "Mariolatry." It is to rely on our fellow member of the mystical body of Christ. We rely on all the other members, our brothers and sisters, to aid us. Why not turn to the greatest of the seekers, the person closest to the head of our body? If we are members of that body, so is she-we have Saint Augustine's warrant for it (Sermon Denis 25): "Mary is part of the church, a holy member, an outstanding member, a supereminent member, but a member of the whole body nonetheless."
Devotion to Mary does not divert us from the path to Christ. In fact, her very title in the Hail Mary, Mother of God (Theotokos), was hammered out in the debates on the nature of Christ at the Council of Ephesus. Arians there wanted to deny her that title as a way of denying the divinity of her son. They would call her only Mother of Christ (Christotokos). The rosary is not an exercise in superstition, but has a solid scriptural and theological grounding-a grounding in Christ. In order to emphasize this, I shall quote at the beginning of each mystery the gospel passage to be dwelt on, with some of the theological reflections that have grown out of that passage over the Church's history of reflecting on it.
John Paul notes how the recitation of the rosary over the years gives a continuity to one's prayer life, an identity maintained in contact with God. Bits of our own life are strung like beads on the thread of our recurrent addresses to God in times of loss or happiness or struggle. "Thus the simple prayer of the rosary marks the rhythm of human life" (2). My own memories of saying the rosary run through most of my conscious life. I can remember our family saying the rosary together at my grandparents' house during Lent. In high school we said it during May (known as Mary's month). When I was at a Jesuit seminary in the 1950s, small groups of us would say it together while walking after dinner. But those shared experiences are not as vivid to me as the times when I said it alone-as when waiting for the delivery of our first child. Or walking alone at night in a strange city. Or jogging at 5 a.m. in Venice or Bologna. Or groping to disentangle beads from car keys in my pocket and breaking another (umpteenth) rosary.
Those just beginning to say the rosary will not have that backlog of associations. But the devotion's benefits are enough in themselves, and the added richness of repeated use will come in time. This aspect of the matter may sound too inner-turning or even self-centered, a charge that is made about other forms of contemplation where wholeness of the self is an aim. But Saint Augustine maintained that the search for God must take place inside one. God, he says in the Confessions (3.11), is "deeper in me than I am in me" (intimior intimo meo). Since we are made in God's image, our own diversity-in-unity reflects God's tri-unity. The rosary is one way of entering into oneself, where he awaits us.
In order to say the rosary, one does not need to know much if anything about the history of the practice. It was for a long time shrouded in legend. But it may help one's devotion to know what deep roots the practice has in the biblical, conciliar, and ecclesiastical past. Awareness that one's prayer continues that of a long line of saints and scholars may bring increased appreciation of what it means to be one member of the mystical body of Christ praying with so many other members.
1. History of the Rosary
According to a legend once endorsed by popes and celebrated in famous paintings, the Virgin Mary appeared to Saint Dominic, the founder of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), and presented him with the first rosary. That was in the thirteenth century. Modern research has found three things wrong with this story. First, early biographies and paintings of Dominic-along with early documents of his order-do not connect him with the rosary. The legend is not mentioned for two centuries after his death. Second, the saying of repeated Our Fathers or Hail Marys with the help of beads long predates Dominic. Third, the linking of contemplated gospel mysteries with the recitation of the prayers-which we consider essential to the rosary-long postdates Dominic.
The medieval roots of the rosary lie in the effort of lay-people to have their own extended prayer, an equivalent to the Divine Office said and sung by monks and friars. The office was a complex set of biblical and hagiographical readings, of prayers and of hymns, each part keyed to a different time of the day in the different seasons of the year. A briefer form of this, a breviary, was created for itinerant (mendicant) orders that did not have a monastery to keep the eight different hours of the full office. All Western Catholic priests were required to say the breviary until after the Second Vatican Council. For laypeople, something simpler was required. Books of prayers for certain little hours were invented, but even these were suitable only for the educated and (usually) the wealthy-a fact attested by the beautiful illustrations in the Books of Hours that are the pride of museums today. The problem of supplying a "lay office" continued. To avoid the complexity of different combinations of different kinds of prayer, the straightforward recitation of all 150 psalms was tried. When this proved too long or trying a task, the psalter was split into three parts, so fifty psalms were recited at any one time. These numbers-150, 100, and 50-would be important to the development of the rosary.
The recitation of the psalms was still a complex matter. For ordinary Christians it was important to have a prayer that could be said without using a book. Instead of reciting 150 psalms, why not just say the Our Father (Pater Noster) 150 times-shortening that number, if necessary, as the psalter had been shortened, to 100 or to 50 repetitions? The Our Father was the one prayer all Christians were supposed to know; it was in the Bible (Matthew 6.9-13), and instruction in it was part of the ancient baptismal discipline. Though the psalms were no longer being recited, the canonical numbers (150 or 100 or 50) gave this exercise the name the Pater Noster psalter, and it was later called the Pater Noster rosary. Saying the same prayer over and over required a counting device, which is what the beads provided. A set of such beads was itself called a Pater Noster, and artisans created them in workshops like those along Pater Noster Row in London.
The Hail Mary (Ave Maria) did not exist in its current form until the fifteenth century. But when it became popular, it too was said to the beads 150 (or 100, or 50) times. Soon the Ave Maria rosary became more popular than the Pater Noster rosary. But this exercise, like its forerunner, was still just a matter of repeating one prayer over and over. The idea of articulating the parts of the rosary to consider different episodes in the life of Christ was explored in the fourteenth century.
But it was not till the early fifteenth century that a rationalized scheme for such contemplation of Christ's life became well known. The innovator was Dominic of Prussia (1382-1460), a Carthusian monk and author who was born in Poland and died at Trier.
In keeping with the psalm-based numerology of all these exercises, Dominic proposed fifty events in Christ's life for contemplation. He claims to have had a vision in which a tree had fifty leaves, each devoted to a single gospel episode. This was perhaps suggested by the "visual New Testaments" of the middle ages-paintings that portrayed the life of Christ in a series of separate panels. (Duccio's famous altarpiece in Siena devoted sixty-two of its seventy-five panels to the life of Christ.)
Excerpted from The Rosary by Gary Wills
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