Both co-authors and a couple, Clark Strand and Perdita Finn sit down with S&H to explore how the rosary can help recover a relationship to the Sacred Feminine—even if you’re not religious.
Clark Strand and Perdita Finn are cofounders of The Way of the Rose, an inclusive fellowship of rosary friends dedicated to the Earth and to the Lady, “by any name we wish to call Her.” Strand is the author of numerous articles and books on spiritual practices, including Seeds from a Birch Tree: Writing Haiku and the Spiritual Journey and Waking Up to the Dark: Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age. Finn is a children’s book author and former high school teacher. They live with their family in the Catskill Mountains. Their latest book, The Way of the Rose: The Radical Path of the Divine Feminine Hidden in the Rosary was published in November.
S&H: What does a non-sectarian rosary fellowship entail? Tell us what that looks like.
Clark Strand and Perdita Finn: “Nonsectarian” means that we are not affiliated with the Catholic church or any other religious organization. People need to know that right from the start. We have no dues or fees, no buildings to maintain or fundraising campaigns. There are no priesthoods or levels of mastery. Instead of lineages of power, we value circles of friendship.
We sit in a circle at our meetings and share what’s going on in our lives. Then we say the prayers of the rosary out loud together. People change a word or two of the traditional prayers as needed, but, somehow, we always manage to harmonize. At its most fundamental, the rosary is a story that invites us to tell our stories. And that’s what we do—bringing to the circle our joys, our sorrows, and also our miracles. We give each other permission, as does Our Lady, to acknowledge our hearts desires and to ask for them—and we explore this path of prayer together.
Our members come from every imaginable spiritual background. We have lapsed Catholics, practicing Catholics, and plenty of Protestants eager to recover a relationship to the Sacred Feminine. But we also have Buddhists and Jews and yoga devotees and Wiccans and lots of people who aren’t at all sure what they are anymore.
There seems to be a growing resurgence of interest in the Virgin Mary/Mary/Our Lady/The Divine Feminine. What do you attribute this rediscovery of Mary to?
As women have found their voices, devotion to the Lady—call her Mary, call her the Great Mother, call her Kali-Ma—has surged. Or maybe it has only returned to what it once was. In the history of our species, devotion to the Great Mother is not the exception but the rule. The past five thousand years of patriarchy have been an anomaly. In the face of climate change, species extinction, violent misogyny, and a host of other problems, human beings are simply coming back to their senses.
The silencing of women and the silencing of Earth has brought so much misery into the world. To heal the earth, we will need to heal our relationship to the Sacred Feminine. The rights of women and the rights of the earth are one.
Clark, as a former Zen Buddhist monk, can you compare/contrast the use of beads in prayer among the different religions?
Beads are universal. Something about reciting prayers while holding a circle of beads seems wedded to the spiritual impulse as surely as a baby is attached to its mother by an umbilical cord in the womb. That’s why nearly every religious tradition around the world uses beads for prayer.
Those traditions have two main things in common. First, they evolved from an older custom of weaving flower garlands to honor a divine figure (usually the Goddess). We find traces of this in the names our ancestors gave to their beads. The Sanskrit word japamala means “muttering garland,” while rosary comes from the Latin for “rose garland.”
Eventually, as folk religion gave way to organized religion, those garlands were replaced by beads and people offered mantras to the Lady instead of flowers. That’s the second thing that all bead traditions have in common—the repetition of a sacred name. In the ancient world, such names were virtually always used as a kind of “summoning spell.” You uttered the name of a divine being in order to evoke his or her actual presence.
What makes the rosary different from other bead traditions is that its prayers reenact a narrative. The old expression “telling the beads” is quite literally true in the case of the rosary. Its prayers follow an episodic story of birth, death, and renewal that mirrors the regenerative cycles of Nature. The rosary is a crash course in spiritual ecology that draws upon deep reserves of indigenous wisdom from our ancestral past—which makes it perfect for the age we are living in now.
Perdita, you’ve written children’s fiction. Can you share what you learned going from fiction to writing about spirituality?
Some of the greatest spiritual writing can be found in children’s literature where there is no need to subsume the magical and the miraculous to a modern skeptical sensibility. My British mother raised me on a steady diet of books about animals and trees that could talk, stones and statues that could grant wishes, and forgotten beings of all kinds who just might help us save the world. What I know of pagan spirituality was cultivated by those stories.
The most important thing I learned from writing for children myself is that they will not tolerate fancy, literary prose if there isn’t a good story to tell and the author doesn’t have something to say. Kids are honest, and they keep us honest. Any spiritual idea that doesn’t make sense to a child might not be as important as we think.
You’ve had a robust tour for this book. Was has been the response to The Way of the Rose? What do you hear most often from audiences?
Early on we began asking people what drew them to our book and to our events. The stories they have told us could make a book of their own. Everywhere we’ve gone we have discovered ordinary people having extraordinary experiences of the Lady—experiences they finally feel they can talk about.
A man told us that he had been an angry Buddhist atheist—until one night, when he was cleaning up the trash in the alley near his house, he reached for a piece of cardboard through a chain link fence ... and on the back was a simpering, sentimental portrait of the Virgin Mary. He didn’t even like the picture. But he couldn’t throw it away. He brought it inside. And he still couldn’t throw it away. Finally, he made an altar for her and eventually taught himself the Hail Mary. That was years ago, and he told us he wasn’t angry anymore. “Because she answers all my prayers, you know?”
People want permission to tell their stories. People want permission to love Her again.
What is it about Mary/Our Lady that feels so calming for so many of us? How is it that she seems to soothe people regardless of their religious affiliation—or lack thereof?
Our first instinct as babies is to hold on to our mothers. Our mothers are our source of nourishment, comfort, protection, and love. Their bodies are our first home. Their breasts our first food. Their lips our first kisses. To hold on to the Mother of All Life is to connect ourselves with that primal sweetness and consolation.
Our Lady of Woodstock’s first teaching about the rosary captures that experience of intimacy and comfort.
The rosary is My body,
And My body is the body of the world.
Your body is one with that body.
What cause could there be for fear?
What is it like writing a book as a couple? Was that challenging or natural for you?
The rosary is an alchemical devotion combining prayers to both the Mother and the Father. We always knew we’d have to write this book together and bring to it both of our sensibilities. But alchemy is often explosive. “Stop fighting!” our kids would shout, coming into the dining room where we work. “We can’t! We’re writing!” we’d answer.
At the end of the day, it was often impossible to know who had written which sections or even which sentences.
We love being together, talking together, writing together, fighting together, laughing together. And we love celebrating when we finally find a way to say something just right. We are already working on our next book!
What, if any, action do you hope readers take after enjoying your book?
Most of all, we want people to reach out and hold on to the Lady. If they extend their hand, She will do the rest.
Whatever is coming to our planet in the coming decades, we will have to let Her lead us and guide us. To do that we will have to be holding Her hand.
Read “The Power of Mothering,” an excerpt from Clark and Perdita’s The Way of the Rose.