Rediscovering the Rosary

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Not a rosary person? No matter your beliefs, you may be surprised at the power of this famous tool.

“Mary, she moves behind me / She leaves her fingerprints everywhere.”

—“Mary” by Patty Griffin

I grew up in a religious household, but I did not grow up praying the rosary—and I had no desire to learn. Nothing sounded more boring or pointless to me than reciting a bunch of Our Fathers and Hail Marys.

Yoga was the province of the beautiful Colorado hippies I aspired to be. The rosary was the spiritual weapon of the scrupulous, or so I believed. I had all kinds of stereotypes in my head about people who prayed the rosary and I was firmly “not a rosary person.” That is, of course, until I tried it.

Once I became a mother, I struggled to fall asleep at night after my kids were in bed. I found it hard to wind down. Having newborns who were poor sleepers trained me to wake all through the night.

I started praying the rosary in the evenings. Sometimes it helped me quiet my mind and connect to my heart. The rosary gave me something to worry in my fingers. It was tactile, something to occupy my breath. When you are speaking, you are breathing words like a mantra. And the biggest gift of all, the one that surprised me most, was that it gave me something to do with my imagination—the mysteries from the life of Christ that you imagine during each decade or set of 10 Hail Marys.

And it takes a while to pray the rosary—at least 15 minutes—which I thought, at first, was a strike against it, but it turns out it is a benefit because it creates the time necessary for me to settle into a calmer state before bed.

Before people had access to the written word, when books were still rare, the rosary was sometimes called the “poor man’s breviary” because it had all the major Christian prayers (the Creed, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, and the Hail Holy Queen) and took the person praying it through the entire life of Christ, one mystery at a time (the Baptism of Jesus, the Wedding at Cana, the Transfiguration, etc.).

A breviary is a book used by priests and religious containing prayers for the church year. The rosary grew as a daily prayer for illiterate believers who would never own a book. The prayers, recited by heart, became the book. The people became the book.

I love this. After meditating on each mystery, they become less like stories you’ve heard read aloud in a church and more like places you’ve visited in a dream. In any case, they’re a part of you.

Practices like the rosary connect us to our ancestors, who are a great source of strength and intercession. For instance, the last words of the Hail Mary—“Pray for us now and at the hour of our death”—were added during a different pandemic, the Black Plague. I feel connected to those who have gone before me when I take part in the practices that sustained them. I also feel connected to people around the world as every minute of every day someone in Nigeria or Belgium or South Korea is also praying a rosary. When Masses went underground or were outlawed, many Catholics would gather in secret to pray the rosary, so this can also be a resource for this time now when many churches are closed.

In the beginning, as you’re learning the prayers and their order, it feels clumsy and unnatural. But as the structure becomes familiar, the words fall away, and you move into a deeper sense of being with God, in God. The mantra or prayers become a backdrop, and your imagination can move and play within each decade.

The patterns differ slightly from place to place, but the basic structure is as follows:

  1. Begin with the cross; kiss it; and say the Apostles’ Creed and the Our Father.
  2. On the first three beads, say the Hail Mary (once for faith, once for hope, once for love).
  3. Then the Glory Be.

Then you move into the body of the rosary consisting of five decades of Hail Marys, before each set of 10 Hail Marys where you meditate on one of the mysteries of the Christian faith. If you’re doing the Joyful Mysteries, for example, you’re thinking about the Annunciation (the angel appearing to Mary), the Visitation (a pregnant Mary visiting her sister Elisabeth for support), the Nativity (the birth of Jesus), or Finding Jesus in the Temple (after losing him for three days).

With the words in the background, my mind is free to meditate on these stories, and, as a result, I feel connected to the Holy Family—but especially to Mary—in new ways. I could picture her terrified but determined to be the mother of Jesus. I could imagine her giving birth. I could imagine what it was like to not be able to find your child for three days. And I could extend compassion to myself when I similarly “lose” Jesus. Her struggles encouraged me in my own. The rosary and praying to Mary gave me a relationship with her.

Now, when I’m struggling to get through a hard morning because my mind is all over the place and I find that I’m having trouble giving myself permission to “waste time on myself” by exercising, I sometimes pray a decade of the rosary as I run. I like to dedicate my prayer for someone’s needs. I find that when I am thinking about one of the mysteries, like Mary and Joseph’s fleeing into Egypt, while praying the Hail Marys, I can go that extra lap, feeling less alone in life’s challenges. After that, I am centered and I can just run. The arguments I was having in my head with people on the internet or my co-workers have gotten much quieter or disappeared. I can see and appreciate the finches and the shadows the pine trees make across the gravel and the storm clouds in the sky that obscure the mountains this morning, and feel wonder and awe and gratitude for all of it—including my own body and life.

If I recite Mary’s Magnificat or another line from Scripture in my head as I run wind sprints, for example, all of a sudden there’s this space and peace that before was filled with chatter or just wanting to quit. I can’t explain it, except to say that there’s something about Mary and about repetition, which can often quiet the mind just as well—or better than—silence.

Keep reading: An interview with Clark Strand and Perdita Finn, authors of The Way of the Rose.

Wild Christianity

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