Rediscovering a ‘Beautiful, Ancient Prayer’
Apr 30, 2019
October is the month of the rosary, but there is good reason to focus on the rosary in the month of April as well.
The last day of April is the feast day of St. Pius V, A Dominican pope who was very much devoted to the rosary and was the eventual cause for the feast day of Our Lady of the Rosary on October 7th, and the patronal feast of our diocese.
The rosary is perhaps the most common of the Catholic devotional prayers. Up until recently it consisted of 15 decades of “Hail Marys” with each decade proceeded by the Lord’s Prayer and followed by a doxology, accompanied by a meditation upon the life of Christ called a mystery. A few years back Pope John Paul the Great introduced five more mysteries, making the complete rosary twenty decades. This is the first substantial change to the rosary in nearly 500 years.
When the whole rosary is prayed, it is a virtual epitome of the liturgical year and the Gospels, though ordinarily only five decades are prayed at a time.
Pious tradition states that the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Dominic and gave him the rosary. Though Dominic and his order really are responsible for popularizing this form of prayer, in fact the rosary pre-dates Dominic by at least 100 years. In reality, the rosary had a slow development.
It is a form of prayer that did not come from church authority but from the faith of the common people. Many monasteries at the time would pray all 150 Psalms every day. Though it was impractical, many lay people wanted to imitate this form of prayer. Eventually the normative practice became quoting 150 short Scripture passages, hence the fifteen decades. Through time, the passages became regularized as quotes from the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel: the words of the Angel to Mary, “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28), and the words of Elizabeth to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42).
It should be clear to anyone at this point that for the most part the rosary is little more than simply quoting Gospel passages in prayer. Anybody who does not have a problem praying with the Scriptures should not have a problem praying the rosary. For this reason, it is unfortunate that it is primarily only a Catholic prayer.
Although the mysteries of the rosary also had a slow development, they were pretty much accepted in their current form by 1483. In 1573 St. Pius V established the feast of “Our Lady of the Rosary” in honor of the defeat of the Turkish Muslim fleet at Lepanto on October 7,1571.
Because so many different religious traditions have used beads to help them in prayer, the word itself is actually synonymous with prayer; the Old English word for “prayer” is “bead.”
There is nothing magical about the beads. They are simply a mechanical device to keep track of where you are in the prayer. With so many repetitions of different prayers, the beads become almost necessary; they themselves should never be the focus but in fact should help us to concentrate on the prayer.
To pray the rosary appropriately we almost should ignore the beads. People who go out of their way to find the most beautiful rosary may in fact be missing the point; the beads should very much be of secondary importance.
Although the rosary is not a mantra in the strict sense, it certainly can act as one. Mantras, mostly a part of Hindu prayer, are a continual repeating of words to “get in the zone” of prayer, to make the prayer as natural as the breath you are taking. Saying the same prayers over and over again certainly lend themselves to acting as a mantra, all the while meditating on the life of Christ in the mysteries.
It is an unfortunate reality that so many non-Catholics have a problem with the concept of praying a rosary. There is no reason to shy away from this prayer anymore than there is reason to shy away from the Gospels. The rosary quotes the scriptures and traces the entire life of Jesus in prayer and meditation.
Catholics, too, should be more accustomed to praying this beautiful and ancient prayer.
I often will tell parishioners to pray the rosary often enough so that it will not look out of place in their hands in the casket.