Praying the Rosary

We prayed the rosary as a family when I was very young. Not every night, but I think I remember praying the rosary daily during Lent. The seven of us knelt in the living room, facing the walls and using the furniture as a prie-dieu. My memories of it are pleasant – in my mind’s imagination, I picture a warm, rich glow surrounding us and enveloping our familial and devotional Catholicism.

My memories of the rosary in the car are less pleasant. On long trips, such as vacation drives across the country, Mom would announce that it was time for the rosary. I recall as a little tyke thinking, “We’re on vacation – can’t we have a vacation from Jesus too?” I wondered whether Dad wasn’t thinking the same thing – on the rote response to each Hail Mary he jumped the gun a bit, “HOOO-ly Mary, Mother of God…,” as if he wanted to get it over.

I suppose there isn’t a lot of reason for a monk to pray the rosary. The bread and butter of our monastic prayer is the psalms of the divine office. In the Middle Ages the rosary functioned as a sort of office for illiterate peasants, with its 150 Hail Marys in place of the 150 psalms. We have the ‘real thing,’ so to speak.

And I admit to theological misgivings about the seeming emphasis on Mary rather than Christ. It’s a mental balancing act: Are you supposed to think about the mystery of Christ or the words of the Hail Mary?

And then there’s Matthew 6:7, “Do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words.”

But the practice comes back to me as I get older. I say my prayers each night (when I remember) as I put my head on my pillow, and by unforced instinct the one Hail Mary repeats itself and becomes several. I nod off after 10, or half a dozen, or 3 repetitions. In moments of anxiety during the day – before a class session or committee meeting – the mantra of repeated Hail Marys is calming. I’m right back in our family living room, in a place of warmth and peace.

I’m not particularly adept at the various forms of centering prayer. I focus for about a millisecond, and then my mind jumps to a liturgy to be planned or Rahner or my next appointment. The masters say not to worry about this – just bring yourself back, gently, to the regular rhythm of your original focus.

As to the balancing act between Christ and Mary (“The first glorious mystery, the Resurrection. Hail Mary…”), I sometimes address Mary while picturing her viewing the mystery of Christ. But this is a bit complicated. Maybe this too is something not to worry about much.

My mother has shared with me that she prays the rosary each day with one decade for each of her five children. This is deeply touching. My praying of the rosary, or of several Hail Marys, connects me with her practice, and also with my first experiences of prayer as a little child.

As I get older, I’m less worried about the paradoxes and ambiguities of it all. Office and rosary, Christ and Mary, liturgical reform and traditional piety – all these can simply be accepted as a gift, without figuring out intellectually all the interrelationships.

Our manner of prayer changes and develops over the course of our life, with hills and valleys, times of consolation and periods of dryness. I’m grateful that my journey was begun with the customs my parents gave me. I hope I can be open to whatever the Spirit has in store for the rest of the journey.

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14 comments

  1. Thanks for this. The Hail Mary echoes in my mind, likely from my formation as a Roman Catholic. Now a Lutheran, I do nothing to suppress such echoes, but rather enjoy them. I also reflect back to carrying the censer, the processional Cross….and then more recent memories of presiding at the Eucharist in full vestments….the parish I help out in now insists on no clerical or vestments, but rather a long sleeved dress shirt and slacks….sheesh…..Come, Lord Jesus…..

  2. Thanks for posting, Anthony. I recognise and share most of the impulses here. I visit a German Benedictine monastery reasonably regularly. There is a very nice simple statue of Mary from the late medieval period standing alone at one end of a long corridor. On Saturdays they light a candle beside the statue. I’ve taken to doing that at home.

  3. I have a somewhat similar experience, but without the car trip rosaries. I have made efforts to pray the rosary as an adult, but I found it difficult to do correctly, that is, not to just recite the prayers, but to meditate on the mysteries at the same time. But in brief moments of anxiety, a few Hail Marys are a quick and effective go-to.

  4. View from the Pew
    Regarding: “…Are you supposed to think about the mystery of Christ or the words of the Hail Mary?”
    – The Hail Mary, and other prayers of repetition, allows for that fertile silence by which we might more humanly see, hear, and be near creation by which God can be discerned.
    – Riding a city bus inspires such praying.

  5. iGreat post. In terms of reflection, It helps to pause and reflect as the spirit directs you. If I suddenly am connecting one of the mysteries of Christ to something happening in my life, I don’t resist it. Nothing says you have to keep to a “pace”. It also helps to add a little clause after “thy womb, Jesus” which stands in for the mystery. Such as “thy womb, Jesus , crowned with thorns” during the 3rd Sorrowful Mystery. As suggested by St. Louis de Montfort. I especially liked the following from your post: “As I get older, I’m less worried about the paradoxes and ambiguities of it all. Office and rosary, Christ and Mary, liturgical reform and traditional piety – all these can simply be accepted as a gift, without figuring out intellectually all the interrelationships.” Bingo.

  6. This is a great reflection on a common prayer experience of many. I too remember the scenes in my childhood, kneeling in the living room, but the 4 boys with their head nod on the word Jesus is very prominent. We were told if we prayed hard enough, Russia would change.

    I think what connects me the most to the tradition is the use of my grandfather’s Rosary with the feet of Christ worn down by the constant rubbing of that place during his prayer. My mother would tell me that he would use that Rosary in the bunkers during WW I.

  7. We prayed the rosary as a family every Sunday afternoon. Church in the morning, then a late breakfast, always bacon and eggs because it was my dad’s favorite, then the rosary. I have to admit I found it extremely boring, especially after being subjected to Sunday mass, although at least that had music.

    As an adult, I’ve had periods in my career where I’ve had to travel fairly frequently on business, and I’ve found praying the rosary while wedged into the economy-class seating to be calming – I’m a bit of a nervous flyer. I’m never smart enough to pack an actual rosary – I use the fingers of my hands to keep track of each decade. I’ve also never quite memorized the new regime of days of the week and mysteries inaugurated by St. John Paul II, so I pray the mysteries from the older cycle, which I can usually just about remember. Or sometimes I choose whichever set matches my frame of mind.

    We have a couple of rosary groups at our parish. One or maybe even two who get together before daily mass – I think one group gathers as early as 6 am. And there is a Tuesday night group. It’s all organized by the parishioners – to the best of my knowledge, the extent of support provided by the parish staff is permitting the group to unlock the church doors and turn on on the lights. They do more than the rosary – they do the chaplet of divine mercy, too, and maybe other things besides. Whether this is all organic, or they’ve been influenced by EWTN, I never can tell.

    1. “Whether this is all organic, or they’ve been influenced by EWTN, I never can tell.”

      Does it matter? They’re praying. Would that every parish had 5 people like that who prayed so faithfully.

  8. Bill Storey’s, The Complete Rosary: A Guide to Praying The Mysteries, (Loyola Press, 2006) is an excellent practical guide to some of the questions raised in this excellent post.

    For those who don’t know, Storey was a beloved Liturgy prof at Notre Dame, specializing in the Liturgy of the Hours. He is the author of several wonderful Loyola Press Catholic devotional books, many with new translations that he did himself. He also put together an excellent novena book for Guadalupe in English and Spanish, published by LTP.

  9. They pray all the psalms in a week, two weeks, or four weeks. Those who get them prayed in a week are usually those with the full round of seven or eight offices a day: some Cistercians, the Monastery of the Holy Cross in Chicago, the Episcopal community of St. Gregory’s Abbey in Michigan, for instance. St. Gregory’s follows Schema A (all psalms in a week, according to the Rule of St Benedict) in Thesaurus Liturgiae Horarum Monasticae, the current (since 1977) Benedictine liturgical guidelines that replaced the Breviarium Monasticum. A survey showed Schema B (also all the psalms in a week, but distributed differently from the pattern in the Rule, not so much in numerical order) is the most-used of the four schemas, especially in Europe, notably abbeys in the German-speaking regions. Cistercians at New Melleray Abbey in Iowa have a two-week plan; the monks at Saint Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana have a four-week one (and pray Vigils, Lauds, Midday, Vespers, and Compline, no Terce or None). So yes, some modern Benedictines do still pray all 150 in a week, some in two, some in four. Oops, I should certainly mention St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, where I believe it’s still a four-week psalter distribution.

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