When I moved to Woodstock, New York, I never expected to stay more than a couple of years. I’ve been a nomad most of my life, living by the ocean, in a city, on a mountain miles from nowhere, no roots, not a lot of stuff, but always with my rosary beads. When friends told me I’d fit right in to the mecca of unconventionality that is Woodstock, I assumed I’d find other seekers: Buddhists, Sufis, Hindis, clairvoyants, channelers, energy workers. But the odds of finding a rosary group that belongs to no church, has no doctrine, and not a single bona fide practicing Catholic among them seemed the same as the odds of hitting a hole in one—never.
I thought rosary groups were strictly Catholics only, yet when I began praying the rosary, I wasn’t a Catholic. I didn’t believe in God, or believe that the Virgin Mary was anything more than a teen who got pregnant out of wedlock, like myself. But then I began collecting Virgin Mary kitsch at yard sales, which gave me the idea to visit Virgin Mary apparition sites for an NPR documentary. There, people told me stories of how they’d hit rock bottom, began praying the rosary, were lifted up, and never looked back. “Pray the rosary,” they told me. “Pray it every day. It will change your life.” So, for the sake of the documentary, and with fear and trepidation (what if I turned into a believer?), I began praying the rosary.
Then I went on a silent fasting retreat in Bosnia, where Mary had been appearing for 30 years. My ego fell to pieces there, and stripped of pride and defenses, I surrendered. I made the choice to believe in the Holy Mother, and then I wrote Looking for Mary about it all. And the people were right! My life changed. After 11 years of development, a movie based on my first memoir was produced, propelling my book to the best-seller list. My son started talking to me after years of avoiding me like a nest of snakes. And I became a person of faith.
I discovered the Woodstock rosary group at a writers festival in town when I spotted a woman scanning the packed room for a chair. She looked like the friendly, talkative type and I pointed to the empty one next to mine, even though I wasn’t in the mood. The woman sat, thanked me, and said, “I’m Susan.” When I introduced myself, she exclaimed, “Oh, my God. I love Looking for Mary. I came just to hear you.” Then she told me about her nondenominational rosary group, and I felt I must be dreaming; it was what I’d been looking for all these years—the Virgin, the rosary, and friends to pray it with, only without having to be Catholic, or Christian, go to church, or follow a doctrine. “You should come,” she said, then leaned in close and, dropping her voice a little, added confidentially, “There’s been an apparition.”
I wasn’t too surprised. I’d met other apparitionists who don’t make their experiences public. If they did, half the world would flock to them and the other half call them nuts. Yet even though I’m convinced Mary appears to many, I never thought I’d count one of them as my friend.
Clark Strand seems an odd choice for Mary to talk to. A 58-year-old former Buddhist monk, he’d never prayed a rosary in his life—until one summer night four years ago, when he awoke to find a young woman kneeling beside him, right at eye level, as real as you or me. Like one of those child visionaries from the 19th century, he didn’t know who she was in the beginning. Bernadette Soubirous initially referred to the shining figure she witnessed at Lourdes as Aquero! (“That!”) Clark told me that after 10 weeks of feeling her presence continuously, and actually seeing her on several other occasions, he still wasn’t clear about who she was. But when she woke him one evening with the words “If you rise to say the rosary tonight, a column of saints will support your prayer,” then he knew.
“I wasn’t Catholic,” he told me. “But I also wasn’t stupid. There was only one figure I’d ever heard of who invited you to pray the rosary and made promises based on whether you accepted that invitation or not.” For some reason he could never account for later, he’d purchased a secondhand rosary at the local flea market that morning along with a little instructional pamphlet. He got up to say the prayers.
He didn’t know what the words “column of saints” referred to at first, but within a few weeks he began to realize where Our Lady was headed. Nearly every person he mentioned the rosary to told him they’d like to learn to pray it. Most weren’t Catholic or even Christian. Soon he was surrounded by people who, though they might not have looked saintly, were the kindest, realest people he’d ever met. Later, when he looked back on her promise, he realized a column of saints supported his prayer. And his life was truly lifted up.
The apparitions were kept quiet for just shy of four years. Outside of the rosary group, nobody knew. Then, this spring, Clark came out of the closet with a “gospel” Mary gave him to deliver, which he published as the final three pages of his latest book, Waking Up to the Dark. The message is basically this: the world as we know it cannot be sustained. In the next few decades, the world will experience drastic changes, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. “Sometimes it is necessary to destroy the things you seem to love but secretly hate,” she told Clark. He told me she was talking about our modern way of life.
Our Lady doesn’t pinpoint precisely when everything will change, and meanwhile life goes on—meanwhile, every Thursday night in the basement of the Dutch Reformed Church in the middle of town, a dozen of us light candles, close the door, and pray the rosary at breakneck speed. I thought I was the only person in the world who prayed that fast. Then, in turn, we make our petitions: report what’s going on in our lives, speak our desires, and in so doing reveal our fears, trying to have faith that Mary will address them; and we thank her for all the blessings in our lives, which often include this rosary group and what we’ve asked for and then received.
I’m not a joiner; I’m rebellious, antiauthoritarian, and cannot abide by rules, yet I feel at home in this group. Partly because there’s no leader, the only rule is that everyone is welcome, and we disagree about so much: Instead of “Our Father who art in heaven,” some pray, “Our Mother...” All but four of us refuse to say the Apostle’s Creed, which begins every rosary. We all believe that Mary is the current incarnation of all the goddesses who preceded her, and some believe that she is really Mary Magdalene, Jesus’s wife and apostle, whose hagiography was conflated with Mary’s, the mother
Now and then, Mary entertains questions from the rosary group and answers through Clark, who mumbles and nods and sometimes doesn’t understand what she’s saying and has to ask her to explain.
When I asked if I should buy a home in Woodstock, she answered, “Do you want a home in Woodstock?”
Even though I’d been looking at houses on the Internet for months, I wasn’t sure. Partly because I never stay in one place for long and partly because I didn’t dare want something I couldn’t get. I’m a writer with a ridiculously erratic income, who made a whopping $25,000 last year and less than that the year before. No bank on earth would lend me money. Still, from Mary’s responses to people’s questions in the group, I’ve learned that prayer is all about knowing your heart’s desire and asking for it. The most surprising thing I’ve learned is that Mary specializes in manifesting the inconceivable—maybe to strengthen our faith. One man owed back taxes for over five years, which he asked Mary to help him pay, even though, short of winning the lottery, for which he had never bought a ticket in his life, he could not imagine how he’d accomplish this. After a year of praying, he received a letter from the IRS deeming the money officially “uncollectable” and forgiving the debt. A woman in the group recently woke in the middle of the night in a fit of anxiety about her career, past mistakes, deadlines, responsibilities. She took out her rosary beads to pray and calm herself, and a beam of moonlight landed on her heart. The anxieties departed, replaced by a blissful sense of peace.
I tried not to be anxious. I told myself that I didn’t have to know how I’d get a bank to lend me the money; all I had to do was have faith and leave it to Mary. Months after I asked Mary if I should buy a home in Woodstock, as I finished my petitions one Thursday evening, almost as an afterthought, I surprised myself by asking, “Oh, and Mary, would you please get me a house?” The next day, on an Internet real estate site, I found the perfect place. It had been bought to flip, its interior completely redone: new floors, windows, paint, appliances. It’s a small three-bedroom house on one floor, near town, and shockingly inexpensive.
I approached four banks. Finally, the last one, after I agreed to a substantial down payment, granted me a 30-year mortgage.
I moved into my home almost a month ago now.
The statues and paintings of Mary I collected at yard sales 20 years ago look down at me from walls and shelves and bookcases. I remember, back near the turn of the millennium, the excitement I felt at those first apparition sites, at the possibly there might be a mother god, who listens and responds and cares. People were terrified that in the first seconds of the 21st century computer systems would fail, causing banks, markets, planes to crash. Mary’s image began to appear everywhere, on a Washington State billboard tying up traffic for hours, in picture windows, on tree bark, in taco shells. You can still see her three stories high on the facade of a glass-and-steel office building in Clearwater, Florida. Back then I hypothesized that people saw her all over the place because a mother god, an uberMom, made them feel safer. For the sake of the documentary I was making about it, I prayed the rosary to see what would happen. In addition to the professional perks and restoring my relationship with my son, it made me feel a peace I never dreamed possible. I even became a Catholic for a time; for three years I lived as a lay Carmelite hermit.
Systems didn’t crash and burn at the turn of the new century. But the next year saw 9/11, and the world has been a very different place ever since. At times it’s difficult to believe in the existence of a goddess who actually speaks to us—even while I do not find it difficult to believe the messages she imparts through Clark. Nor is it difficult to believe in the power of prayer and of the rosary—especially when praying it in a circle of friends. It’s as though I’m held by a wave rolling through the ocean. Sometimes this feels miraculous; always I feel grateful.
Grow Your Own Rosary Group
The rosary is a self-taught mystical practice, a do-it-yourself devotion that is not subject to oversight by any priest or religious authority. It grows from the bottom up, like an oak from an acorn. Its beads are like a seed packet. Ordinary life is the soil.
Nothing could be more practical from a spiritual point of view. The rosary teaches us to listen to our hearts and trust them—and in that way find happiness and inspire others to do the same. Put a bunch of people like that together in a room to pray the rosary and they create a healthy spiritual community—intimate, local, and right-sized.
In Woodstock, we gather each Thursday night for a few minutes of informal chitchat, followed by half an hour of “spiritual-but-not-religious” group discussion. After that we recite the rosary together out loud.
When we have said the final prayer, our members voice their petitions. These are usually very simple and straightforward: “Mother, help me with the job interview on Monday.” “Mary, bring me a soulmate!” “Lady, help me to be more direct and honest about my needs.”
Sometimes our prayers become a form of personal exploration, a way of getting down to what we truly need or want: “Help my wife to forgive me—no, that’s not right. Guide me to one action I can take each day to repair the damage I have done.”
The person speaking indicates the end of his or her prayer petition by saying the words that begin the “Hail Mary,” and the group joins in to complete the rest of the prayer. It’s our way of saying we’ve heard your prayer and we will remember it.
That act of remembering comes in handy, because from week to week people’s prayers tend to get answered. It feels good knowing that others are aware of our dreams and struggles. For many of us, church used to be our spiritual community. Now we have Thursday nights.
Beverly Donofrio is the author of three acclaimed memoirs: Riding in Cars with Boys; Looking for Mary (or the Blessed Mother and Me); and Astonished, a Story of Healing and Finding Grace. beverlydonofrio.com