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.