The staple devotion of pre-Vatican II Catholic life certainly was the Rosary. While the priest silently mumbled his Latin prayers at the altar, the faithful in equal silence fingered their beads in their pews. May and October devotions and most parish novenas were comprised of hymns, litanies, the rosary and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Father Payton’s rosary crusade was nationally quite successful. Crystal rosaries for women were treasured keepsakes. A vest-pocket rosary featuring very small beads helped the well-dressed pious Catholic man to avoid any bulge in his attire. Men and women religious on the other hand wore over-sized beads at their waist as an integral part of their congregation’s habit. The moderately devout Catholic groaned inwardly when the priest appeared at the funeral parlor knowing that the mandatory rosary would drag out his or her respects to the deceased another fifteen minutes. To this day, it is very rare to see a lay Catholic prepared for burial without a rosary draped around the deceased’s folded hands.
The latter part of the twentieth century did indeed experience an eclipse of pious devotions in general — and possibly even an eclipse of private prayer in general. The Roman Catholic liturgy was experiencing a genuine and sorely needed renewal rightly mandated by Vatican Council II. The dialogue Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, the various sacraments, even the reading of Scripture (remember Bible vigils?) became increasingly important facets of Catholic spiritual life. Yet the rosary’s enduring history within Catholicism merits this devotion a deeper and wider look.
Prayer is a universal human experience. Buddhist monks in their monasteries, pious Jews at the Holy City’s Wailing Wall, the Islamic world bent over their prayer rugs, native peoples entranced around a fire, secularists taken up with yoga and “mindfulness,” are all, in their own way, lifting their minds and hearts to God or to the gods. All cultures know vocal prayer (incantations), mental prayer (meditation), and contemplation (inner peace). Sometimes these natural forms of prayer can be very beneficial. They can enhance joy and they can soothe sadness. But sometimes these natural forms of prayer can degenerate into superstition – witchcraft, sorcery, even Satanism. Once again, as with the seven sacraments, Christianity raises what is innate to human nature to a supernatural level. Vocal prayer, mental prayer and contemplation become not just sources of human strength but genuine bonds through Christ in the Spirit to the Father. The Rosary, for all its simplicity, conjoins all three elements of natural prayer (vocal, mental, and contemplative) into a single, supernatural experience that honors God and strengthens the believer.
The Rosary consists obviously and abundantly of vocal prayer. The repetitious Our Fathers and Hail Marys are indeed an incantation meant not to dull but to soothe the mind and heart, putting the soul into a reflective mood. The Paters and the Aves are almost a lullaby, easing the mind and calming the pulse to ponder deeper things. The deeper things are of course the Joyful, Sorrowful, Illuminative and Glorious Mysteries. The calmed soul enters more deeply into the mystery of Christ and his Truth. Meditation on the mysteries is integral to the rosary. The rosary’s lulling spoken prayers and the rosary’s inspiring mysteries should well lead to contemplation, a lasting sense of inner peace and Divine Presence. Alas, once the final Glory Be and Hail Holy Queen are said, most devout Catholics get up from their knees and go about their business. But it is when the incantations and meditations have ceased that real prayer (contemplation) is just beginning. It is then that the earnest believer comes closest to God, senses God, and enjoys God. Such an encounter should be prolonged, never curtailed.
St. Luke, as he so often does, records in this Sunday’s Gospel passage that Jesus “was praying by himself.” Jesus was not just saying prayers or thinking pious thoughts; Jesus was contemplating. Jesus was enjoying the nearness of God, the presence of God, union with God. Jesus’ night in prayer went beyond words and beyond thoughts and led to a true sense of God’s closeness. The rosary, uttered piously and pondered devoutly, can similarly lead to a prolonged enjoyment of the presence of God, a presence to be savored regularly and thus fruitfully.