Not too long ago, one of my staunch Presbyterian friends received a rosary in the mail as part of a charitable solicitation. He teased me about it, asking whether I had arranged for it to be sent—and I teased back telling him that God clearly intended for him to learn to pray it. It’s probably my imagination, but his laugh seemed a little nervous in response. For many Protestants, my friend among them, the rosary is their very definition of vain, repetitious, and hence, ineffective prayer—not to mention the problems they have with invoking the Blessed Mother. It’s one of those “Catholic things” that is viewed askance, if not with outright suspicion, and is almost always a hurdle to a convert in coming to Catholic worship.
It didn’t take me long to find out that it isn’t just in Protestant circles that praying the rosary is viewed with skepticism. Many cradle Catholics have abandoned the practice as old fashioned, or avoid it because of unpleasant memories of being forced to pray it as a child.
More’s the pity. It was through the rosary and the Blessed Mother that my relationship with Jesus really began to grow. But, as with so many others who come into the faith as adults, it took me a while even to take up the practice.
Mind you, my husband and I got rosaries shortly after starting RCIA classes, and they hung on the posts of our bed for more than a year after we were received, as though having a rosary were an essential part of Catholic identity, even if we didn’t use it.
I don’t recall what moved me to pick it up and start praying it. In all likelihood it was because I needed to teach something about it in RCIA class, the jump-start for so many of the spiritual practices that now form my life. It might have been the example of my friend Judy, whose constant witness that the rosary is powerful prayer finally got to me. All I know is that one afternoon, I took my beads off the bedpost, printed instructions from the Internet, sat down in a rocker in a quiet corner, and set about learning to pray the rosary.
I now am careful to explain to my students that the rosary is indeed, powerful prayer. Even though it seems simple, it took me months to learn to pray it. I was completely befuddled by the process of praying one thing, thinking another and keeping up with it all on a string of beads. Add to that the fact that nearly every resource I looked at has a slightly different twist to the prayers and you have some idea why it takes a while to reach a level of comfort.
Some instructions include the Fatima prayer, others not. Some add a Hail Mary for the Pope at the end. Some conclude with a litany of the saints. Some conclude with an additional prayer of supplication. And that’s not to mention the challenge of keeping straight the 20 Gospel mysteries, each in its own set and order.
I finally ordered a CD and retreated to the confines of my car, praying the rosary on my way to and from work. Slowly I internalized the prayers and found that I could not only meditate but also add my own intercessions as the Spirit moved me and as the repetitive vocal prayers kept me focused. Over time, I found myself weaving relations among the mysteries, finding lessons that never occurred to me before. When my CD announced the individual mysteries of each group together, I’d find myself, ever the scientist, trying to find a thread that connected them together in a single message. I became attuned to any mention of these mysteries in homilies and meditations, hoping at first just to have something to think about for the duration of ten Hail Marys, then finding great depth and splendor in what initially seemed such simple and familiar events.
Without my realizing it, the Blessed Mother became a part of my daily life. As she did, I found that, just as I could vocalize one prayer and think another, I could pray in the course of my daily activities, and the admonition to pray constantly became a little more understandable, a little more possible. Just as we ask at the conclusion of the rosary, and just as she always does, the Blessed Mother pointed the way to Jesus for me. Bits of the Gospel would rise unbidden into my consciousness, usually when I needed them to remind me of God’s love or nudge me with His purpose. I’d never had a regular prayer life before, and now, I really did find myself praying, if not constantly, at least daily and often, and spontaneously.
One of the reasons, I tell my Protestant friends, that I am a liturgical Christian is that I am absolutely incapable of religious spontaneity. Liturgy provides me words when spoken words fail, which for me is most of the time (honest). Praying the rosary provided me content when I had no idea how to approach either Mary or Jesus. The repetitive prayers of the rosary launched me into a world of conversation with God that I had never managed to experience before.
Before long, I found I could put my arms around a friend who had just been diagnosed with cancer, and ask God’s help and comfort right in the middle of the lobby of an office building. I could pray with a student who was wrestling with understanding a difficult doctrine and ask for light and understanding. I could tell someone I’d pray for them, and I really could. I’d pray in the car on the way home, while jogging, or washing dishes, or sweeping the floor. When I’d wake in the middle of the night, instead of worry, prayer would come to mind.
Praying the rosary then became a way to communicate my faith to others. I started receiving rosaries in the mail too, and I’ve given all of them away: to a sick friend, to several fallen away Catholics, to my RCIA and confirmation students. Even if they hang on the bedpost for a while, I am hopeful that those rosaries will draw my friends, as my rosary did me, into relationship with Jesus and His Church.