Clark Strand and Perdita Finn explain how the Catholic rosary finds new purpose in interfaith gatherings.
A few times a week in cities and towns around the country, small circles of friends gather to pray the rosary in a group called the Way of the Rose. Few of our members are Catholic. Some left the Catholic Church ages ago in disgust, others from lack of interest. Still others are refugees from Buddhist communities plagued by sexual or financial scandal.
Our motto is “No Priests, No Property.” We have no dues or buildings to maintain. No experts or levels of mastery. Instead of lineages of power, we value circles of friendship. Our Woodstock, New York, meeting shares the little room we rent by the hour with any number of other groups, mostly 12-step programs. Like those in recovery, we gather to share our stories and, hopefully, to transform our lives.
But why the rosary? Why pray a Catholic prayer when most of us aren’t even Christian? Hasn’t the rosary been used to enforce conformity and adherence to religious dogma? Haven’t popes called the rosary a weapon in the battle against abortion? In the modern era, that has all certainly been true. But for most of its long history, the rosary was anything but a way of enforcing orthodoxy; it was, instead, a private folk practice of ordinary men and women. The rosary began as a set of prayers grafted onto an ancient devotion to the Goddess—a subversive “church within a church.”
The term “rosary” comes from a Latin word for the rose garlands that medieval people once offered to the Virgin Mary in the spring. But long before Mary, those same garlands were made as offerings to other goddesses by many other names. Roses were offered to Venus, the Roman goddess of love and fertility. Before that, they were offered to Isis and Inanna. And before that? There is no way of knowing how long humans have been offering rosaries to the Great Mother—or, for that matter, how long they have been praying with beads.
Beads take us back to our remotest ancestors. A 2007 excavation in Morocco found beads from over 100,000 years ago. While some have explained them as a form of tribal identification or even currency, the fact that beads are so often found in burial sites suggests they had spiritual significance.
And yet, bead devotions are very different from the meditative practices so popular today. Meditation has always been primarily a masculine discipline. One of the most interesting anthropological speculations on its origins suggests that it evolved from hunting behaviors—the need for focused awareness and absolute silence. Bead practices, on the other hand, seem to have evolved from the gathering behaviors of women as they collected seeds and nuts and berries. If the hunter is quiet and concentrated, the gatherer is a multitasker—chatting, muttering, moving about, and communing with others. Children could be tended, old people cared for, plants foraged for dinner, all while women stayed in conversation with one another … and with the Mother herself.
In the Middle Ages, when people brought their beads and flower garlands together to create a new devotion to the Divine Feminine, they began visualizing a story about the Mother of God as they recited their Hail Marys. That story was divided into 15 episodes they called “mysteries.” The use of that word was in no way random. The mysteries of the rosary were a retelling of the mysteries of Isis and Osiris and the Eleusinian Mysteries very thinly disguised as Christian. Those older mysteries told the story of a dying god and his lover (sometimes his sister or his mother) who resurrected him to renew the land in the spring.
No pope likes to think of his rosary as a pagan devotion, but the evidence suggests that it absolutely is.
Although most of its mysteries were drawn from the Gospels, the rosary reinterpreted the Biblical narrative in radical ways. The Bible told a punitive, linear story that
began with Eve, a woman whose sin caused the Fall of Man, and ended with a fiery apocalypse. In the rosary there wasn’t any apocalypse. Its central character was a teenage girl who defied patriarchal law by conceiving a child out of wedlock, birthed that child and guided him through cycles of growth, death, and regeneration, and became Queen of Heaven in the end. Only there wasn’t any end. Because after that, like the seasons, the mysteries start over and the story begins again.
At its most fundamental, the rosary is a story that invites us to tell our own stories. Just as close friends will sit around a table with a cup of coffee, exchanging their tales of babies being born, loved ones dying, and those strange, unexpected miracles they’ve never dared to share with anyone before, the mysteries follow a woman’s journey through pregnancy and childrearing, tragic suffering and loss, and, finally, to the wonders of rebirth and renewal. The rosary doesn’t lock us into one symbolic narrative—it frees us into narrative possibility. The mysteries change the way we experience the reality of our world.
At our Way of the Rose circles, we begin by sharing what is going on with our lives. Parents express their hopes and worries. Men and women alike begin seeking their joy.
We explore together what it means to bear witness to the suffering in the world without looking away, and how to move through sorrow to inconceivable resurrections.
A woman stuck in a dead-end marriage found the courage to reach for her happiness and ask for a divorce. Her story began with the realization of how miserable she was and circled back to long-forgotten dreams. A man who had struggled for his entire life to win his father’s love finally confronted him and claimed the intimacy he had always longed for. The mother of a chronically ill child began acknowledging everyday miracles and found the resilience to get her child the treatments she needed. The mysteries of the rosary ask three essential questions. Where does my joy come from? How do I move through sorrow? What does it mean to claim my glory?
The biggest transformations were sometimes also the simplest. A woman arrived in our meetings so traumatized by loss that she was barely able to speak. For months she listened as the others shared their stories, unable to offer a single petition as the group finished praying the rosary out loud together. Then one night, finally, the tape came off her mouth. No one could say why. But, then, no one was surprised. Listening to the dreams and hopes of others inspires us to claim our own. And yet, how seldom that happens in religious settings.
Most spiritual traditions privilege silence without even knowing it, and in privileging silence they end up condoning the silencing of individuals. Obedience becomes more important than self-expression, conformity more prized than creativity. The priestly sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic church show exactly where the silencing of individuals leads. But that is only one example. Buddhists have been silenced, too.
The circle we gather in to pray the rosary is the antidote to these problems, although it might take a while for the wisdom of that circle to sink in. Arrange the chairs so that you can see one another, talk to one another, support one another, and get to know one another, and it’s hard to preserve a hierarchy, much less a patriarchy. Circles are inclusive. Circles invite conversation. Circles privilege whoever happens to be speaking at the time.
The great thing is, you can’t get lost in a circle. The mysteries of the rosary embrace all of life. For the rosary doesn’t just go in circles, it shows us where we belong in those circles, and helps us circle in on what really matters.