The rosary is the oldest and most popular of all private Catholic devotions, and one that has been strongly promoted by the church since the 15th century. The origin of bead circlets used to aid in prayerful meditation is lost in ancient Eastern customs—the Chinese Kwan Yin statue in my living room wears such a circlet of beads—but they were certainly used in the early middle ages by Christian believers, who counted them praying the Our Father, Hail Mary and the Glory Be as they meditated. Not until the 13th century, however, at the height of European Marian devotion, was such a circlet called a rosary, making it a spiritual bouquet named for Mary’s flower.
When most Christians were illiterate and when books, including bibles, were unavailable except in monasteries, a string of beads or seeds provided a simple means for the faithful to re-create their attachment to the events of the Gospel as they prayed the prayer that Jesus taught and repeated the words of Gabriel and Elizabeth to Mary. By the 16th century the mysteries were standardized and minimized to the l5 we all know: the Joyful (the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation and the Finding of the child Jesus), the Sorrowful (the Agony in the Garden, the Scourging, the Crowning with Thorns, the Carrying of the Cross and the Death of Jesus) and the Glorious (the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Descent of the Holy Spirit Upon the Apostles, the Assumption and the Coronation of Mary).
But in 2002 Pope John Paul II put his imprint on the rosary as he has on so much else, bringing it to the front pages when he added a fourth set of mysteries: the mysteries of light, or “luminous” mysteries. These focus largely on Christ’s life related to the sacraments of the church: the Baptism of Jesus, the Wedding Feast at Cana, the Proclamation of the Kingdom of God, the Transfiguration and the Institution of the Eucharist. Teachers, rosary societies and the faithful in general are now mulling over the meaning of these additions. Tentatively they seem to balance an over-emphasis on Marian devotions in the first l5 mysteries. This is interesting from a pope who is so devoted to Mary, and perhaps suggests that he sees her as the Second Vatican Council did, firmly within the community of the church.
But except when it is said in groups and at official functions, the rosary remains a private devotion, aimed at meditation. And as such, for many 21st-century believers, it poses some problems. Is it in fact possible both to say the prayers and to meditate on the mysteries? Some are able to say the words as they move their fingers on the beads without concentrating on them as a kind of mantra that frees the mind to focus on the mysteries. From my own experience and observation, many people cannot. The majority no longer pray the rosary as their mothers and grandmothers did. It is still taught in Catholic schools, particularly in October and May, Mary’s months, but not automatically included in daily prayers, as it was in my childhood.
For those seriously interested in meditation today, many books and meditative paths are available. And it is no secret that a great many serious practitioners of contemplative prayer do not say the rosary, for it blocks the simpler, higher prayer they have learned to engage in. Here, for instance, is the confession of a doctor of the church, Thérèse of Lisieux:
When alone (I am ashamed to admit it) the recitation of the rosary is more difficult for me than the wearing of an instrument of penance.... I force myself in vain to meditate on the mysteries of the rosary; I don’t succeed in fixing my mind on them.... I think that the Queen of heaven, since she is my MOTHER, must see my good will and she is satisfied with it. (Story of a Soul, ICS Publ., pp. 242-3)
Nevertheless, the rosary has served many purposes and many different sorts of people over the centuries and contines to do so. Like most such devotional aids, it can be reduced to rote or become a springboard to the conversation with God it aims to induce. It is still widely used in regular prayer sessions, in groups and, in whole or in part, by many Catholics in time of danger, worry or grief. Though I share Thérèse’s difficulties and seldom pray a whole rosary, at trying times I frequently reach out for my mother’s beads—given her as a wedding present by my father—and gain some degree of perspective as I return to the old habit.
The rosary is a far more complex and multipurpose devotional aid than its simple history and this short description suggest. To be able to hold a real object while praying is not only comforting; it connects me physically and psychologically with the reality of the Incarnation. It is an objective reminder that Christ is present here and now, within me and without. And when I can connect mentally with either the words of the individual prayers or the mysteries, I am also brought into contact with the life and message of Jesus and his followers. Such an experience is very Catholic, very Christian and truly human.