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Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Let Us Not "Say" the Rosary

by Basil Cole, O.P.


Fr. Basil Cole provides an excellent introduction to praying the Rosary.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, October 2009

When I was a novice, the rule of the novitiate was clear. In addition to praying the entire Divine Office in common (1960), we had to pray the Rosary three times a day. After a month, many of us were very disappointed with this seeming waste of time due to a plethora of distractions. No one could really concentrate on the meaning of the mysteries. One day however, I decided to break the habit of attending or listening to my distractions. I brought the Bible with me to choir, opened it up randomly to a New Testament author. As the Rosary began, I would read a chapter of Sts. Paul or James, or one of the Gospels. My argument was simple: which is better to have—a multitude of distractions during prayer time or read the Word of God while "saying" the Aves, Paters, and Glorias? And it worked. I began to see links between what I was reading and the particular mystery we should have been meditating on or contemplating! It was a delight as well because I received new insights into the mysteries of the Rosary, or better, the mysteries of faith.

For years as a priest, I have received numerous complaints about the dullness of the Rosary due in large part to the fact that few have been adequately taught how to pray it. People will sometimes use the sentence: "Let us say the Rosary." Very few will think they are praying the Rosary, in part because when they were growing up as children, their devout parents would force them to "say" it every night, with little or no guidance about the meaning of the mysteries.

Many think that the Rosary is simply a devotion to Mary. It is that, but it is also more. It is a devotion to the hearts of Jesus, Mary and even Joseph, drawing our gaze to their gifts and virtues. As that takes place, one slowly assimilates the faith into one's understanding and tries to practice or live its meaning. The more one understands that the faith is a unity of truths and not a series of unrelated categories, the more can one intelligently love God and the things of God and fulfill one's mission in life.

While the Rosary is a vocal prayer, it is so only in part. It is primarily a meditative/contemplative prayer, as conceived by the early Dominicans who propagated it throughout Europe. It has a body and a soul, as it were, and most are simply at the level of its body. While it is meritorious simply to pray fifty "Hail Marys," that is not the purpose of the Rosary, or there would be no joyful, sorrowful, glorious and luminous mysteries of faith, which are like infinite gold mines for the mind to feast upon. In part, the joyful mysteries are antidotes to the problem of the boredom of the daily grind and the ordinary events of family life. The sorrowful mysteries help to overcome the perception of suffering as a complete waste or as outside of divine providence; we learn the purpose of suffering by looking at Christ. Finally, the glorious mysteries are about the final goal of the Christian life, namely, the beatific vision and its accompanying joys beyond our comprehension in this life.

The body of the Rosary
First of all, the body of the Rosary is the fingering of the beads, which is meant to calm one's emotional state. People who knit or smoke use their fingers a great deal and it releases energy. The former was used to help shell-shocked soldiers to calm down after World War I, similar to a tranquilizer. Secondly, the repetition of the "Hail Marys" is similar to a mantra or perhaps a method of self-hypnosis. This too is meant to eliminate "worrisome" thoughts from the mind, to help one be ready to listen to the meaning of the mystery and to remember what Christ did for our salvation.

The soul of the Rosary
The soul of the Rosary, then, is to intellectually feast upon aspects of the faith that surround the mystery and see their relevance to one's own personal life. For example, if we look at the first joyful mystery of the Rosary, the Annunciation, we can focus on a number of aspects of the event. We can look at Mary's prudential decision to accept her role as the mother of God, saying yes to the angel's request. Would that we did the same with the many actual graces or inspirations of the Holy Spirit that come our way and do God's manifest will in the daily grind of life. Second, we can also evoke an attitude of thanksgiving that Mary said, "Let it be as you say," because in doing so she represented all of us in welcoming the first major step in saving mankind from sin and death. In that sense, she began her motherhood of us as well as of her Son. Third, we can think of her immaculate nature, her conception without sin and her plenitude of grace, which prepared her to welcome God into her womb as an embryo. From there, we can hope that we would live more and more by the grace of God given to us at baptism and after confession of our sins, and welcome the presence of the Holy Trinity in our souls. Or, if we are preparing ourselves for receiving Holy Communion, then we can think about Christ coming into our bodies and filling us with grace for our minds and hearts as he filled Mary's womb. These are some of the slices of supernatural reality of the first joyful mystery, but not all of them.

What does it mean to contemplate?
What is religious contemplation? It has many facets but it boils down to thinking lovingly about an aspect of our faith, which in turn inflames our hearts with an increase of divine love or a desire to serve God even more willingly than we have already. What does the Catechism of the Catholic Church say about contemplation?

2715. Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus. "I look at him and he looks at me": this is what a certain peasant of Ars in the time of his holy cure used to say while praying before the tabernacle. This focus on Jesus is a renunciation of self. His gaze purifies our heart; the light of the countenance of Jesus illumines the eyes of our heart and teaches us to see everything in the light of his truth and his compassion for all men. Contemplation also turns its gaze on the mysteries of the life of Christ. Thus it learns the "interior knowledge of our Lord," the more to love him and follow him.

2716. Contemplative prayer is hearing the Word of God. Far from being passive, such attentiveness is the obedience of faith, the unconditional acceptance of a servant, and the loving commitment of a child. It participates in the "Yes" of the Son become servant and the Fiat of God's lowly handmaid.

2717. Contemplative prayer is silence, the "symbol of the world to come" or "silent love." Words in this kind of prayer are not speeches; they are like kindling that feeds the fire of love. In this silence, unbearable to the "outer" man, the Father speaks to us his incarnate Word, who suffered, died and rose; in this silence the Spirit of adoption enables us to share in the prayer of Jesus.

Does this mean contemplation excludes Mary? If so, would it exclude the Holy Spirit or the Father, or the angel Gabriel, or even Joseph? Not at all, since the Word of God has an economy of salvation or a plan. The faith is a unity, not a diversity of unrelated notions or truths. Mary being the mother of God is intrinsic to the incarnation of God. So, pondering the faith mysteries of Mary, we are gazing at God's actions in her.

Different ways to contemplate
Another approach to take with each mystery of the Rosary is to contemplate the various virtues found in Mary, Joseph and Jesus himself. Mary's faith in the truth of God's word can be found in the first joyful mystery. Mary's hope and trust can be found in the second mystery, when she is reminded that God can do the impossible because he is omnipotent. She is a virgin, yet pregnant, and Elizabeth is beyond childbearing age, and yet is pregnant as well because of the infinite power of God to change created being according to his purposes. Mary's love can be found in the third joyful mystery at the birth of our Lord, who became a baby for our sakes. Mary's spirit of prayer, obedience and adoration can be found in the fourth mystery, when she and Joseph offered their child to the Father according to Jewish law to remind us that our going to Mass on Sunday is also an act of prayer, obedience and adoration to God. Finally, Mary and Joseph's search for the lost Christ in the fifth mystery reminds us of the virtue of perseverance in seeking God's presence and will for our lives.

Keep in mind that the more one loves and lives a particular virtue, the more one hates the sins that undermine the virtue. So, each mystery can be offered as reparation for sins committed. Looking at the Annunciation again, this mystery can be offered as reparation for the sins against faith, such as heresy, apostasy and doubting God's truth, or sins against the teachings of the Church, such as radical dissent. The second mystery can be reparation for the sins of despair or presumption, thinking that either God cannot or will not solve the problems we face, or that we do not really need his help since we are saved no matter how we live. The third mystery can be offered in reparation for the sins of abortion, contraception or wrongful use of human embryos, such as embryonic stem-cell research. The fourth mystery can be offered in reparation for missing Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation. The fifth mystery can be offered in reparation for complaining against divine providence's plan when God seems to be absent from our particular difficulties and problems.

From another point of view, praying the Rosary can lead one to contemplate the mysteries of the Godhead and his attributes. Our faith teaches us that our knowledge of God's inner essence is quite limited. St. Thomas explains that we know more of what God is not than what he is because our knowledge comes through our finite, limited senses. God, on the other hand, is above and beyond all limitations. His essence is to exist. Again, looking at the joyful mysteries, we can begin with the first mystery and think of an all-knowing God deciding the best way to save mankind by appealing to our sense experience in becoming a baby within a family. In the second mystery, we can ponder God's omnipotence in being able to give a child to an infertile couple. In the third mystery we can contemplate Christ's humanity as a baby without losing sight of his infinity as God. In the fourth mystery, God shows through Mary and Joseph that we are dependent upon his creative act at all times. In the fifth mystery, we can meditate on God's hiddenness and transcendence even as the beautiful things in his creation hint at his closeness—he hid from Mary and Joseph for a while.

Since God is both one and triune, we can ponder an individual person of the Godhead in each mystery according to our inclination. No one divine person is independent from the other. But each person is unique and we can think of each person's properties as being that which renders him distinct from the others; this can help us understand each one's contribution to a particular mystery. So—and the following are merely suggestions, not hard and fast rules—in meditating on the first joyful mystery, we may choose to think of the Father's plan for our salvation, since God the Father is the origin without origin and communicates that plan to the Son and Holy Spirit from all eternity. In the second mystery, we can contemplate the Son as giving grace of the Holy Spirit to St. John the Baptist when John leaps in Elizabeth's womb during her meeting with Mary. With the third mystery, we are able to think of the Holy Spirit, who miraculously brought forth from the womb of Mary her Son. Likewise in the fourth mystery, we can think of God the Holy Spirit again as gift of the Father and the Son, enlightening both Simeon and Anna about the reality of the Holy Family. Finally in the fifth mystery, we may think of the Holy Spirit prompting Mary to ponder the event and the words of Christ when she and Joseph find Jesus in the temple.

One final suggestion that can keep interest in the Rosary high is to beg God through Mary to grow in certain virtues that may relate to the events of the mysteries. So, for the Annunciation, one can beg God for more humility to accept one's role and vocation in the life of the Church. In the second joyful mystery, we can ask to grow in the apostolic spirit and in helping others without having to be asked. In praying the third mystery, we can ask for the grace of true motherhood or fatherhood in accepting and raising one's children. With the fourth mystery, we can plead for the gift of authentic prayer that not only speaks to God but also listens to his requests of us. Finally, the fifth mystery can be the occasion of asking for the grace of contemplation and right thinking about our faith, so that we will not be led astray by the feelings of the moment.

The Rosary can be integrated into other devotions. For example, during a Holy Hour with the Blessed Sacrament exposed, one can easily correlate the mysteries with the purposes of Holy Communion. Each event of our Lord's life was something historical and at the same time enfolded into eternity, so that its reality in some way still exists. Moreover, each mystery of the Rosary has its own special grace, and when it is prayed in the presence of Jesus in heaven and in the Eucharist, meditation becomes much easier and graces are given to those open to them. The same is true with devotions to the Sacred Heart, the Precious Blood and the Holy Face of Jesus. They all come down to the Incarnation. From a certain perspective, the Rosary is even liturgical, but that is another article.

Finally, some people may become inspired during the Rosary to simply contemplate the infinite love of the Triune God whose love circulates in all the mysteries. Others may become enkindled, spiritually speaking, by pondering the infinite mercy of each person of the Trinity. Others may begin to think of the suffering and love of Christ, both of which are superabundant, and to realize that every sin has been objectively atoned for and forgiven.

I could go on to the other mysteries of the Rosary but such an article would become too large for this magazine. It is up to the individual Christian to use his and her imagination and mind to ferret out the various meanings of the mysteries and learn to rest in them. When that happens, then the events of one's daily life become integrated with one's relationship with the Triune God through Jesus Christ and the heart of Mary. As one slowly remembers what the God-man accomplished, a deeper sense of gratitude emerges, making it difficult for someone to turn away from God by gravely or seriously sinning. Sins of weakness, however, are always with us.

Rev. Basil Cole, O.P. is a professor of the Pontifical Faculty at the Dominican House of Studies, Washington, D.C., and author of The Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood: The Contributions of St. Thomas Aquinas (Alba House). His last article in HPR appeared in March 2007.

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