Anthony Bell on Medjugorje, the Rosary and the discipline of prayer

I FIRST ENCOUNTERED the Rosary as a dynamic form of prayer at Medjugorje. Here the recitation of the whole fifteen mysteries form part of the daily evening liturgy incorporating the Holy Eucharist and the apparition visited upon the visionaries. There is something noble and compelling in the experience of a packed congregation intent on this meditative offering, each person giving voice in his own language.

Apart from the English inhibition against overt devotion to Our Lady which stems from the controversies of the reformation including the punitive discouragement from even private acknowledgement of her universal motherhood, the most common criticism of the Rosary focuses on the ten-fold repetition of the Hail Mary. Fr. Robert Llewelyn, who has had more influence than any other single person in restoring confidence to both Roman Catholics and Anglicans in the use of the Rosary beads, has in his book A Doorway to Silence used simple illustration to point out the inaccuracy of such criticism.

For instance, “Is it vain repetition?” No, for an action is vain if it does not achieve the end for which it was intended. If you give ten hammer blows on a nail and it does not penetrate the surface, then your action is vain. But if with each blow there is penetration your action is useful and is not vain.

“Is it mechanical?” No, for there is a mechanical element in everything we do, even in walking down a road, but each step in walking is purposeful. Walking is not merely mechanical. Further the physical touch of the beads engages the attention of the mind as well as the body, and stays thought from wandering. The beads and the words can be regarded as the firm support for our devotion.

We live in a fast moving world in which we are no longer accustomed to long periods of inactivity. This makes for an acute restlessness of mind and thought. The enduring strength of the Rosary as a personal and corporate devotion, facilitating meditation on the life of Our Lord through Holy Scripture, lies in its capacity to encourage a spirit of calm and quiet reflection to prayer which so often eludes us. For it is the constant repetition of a clear mantra which guides the thought and gently but firmly keeps us on track, as the banks of a stream contain and guide the flow of the water.

In Medjugorje and other parts of the Catholic Balkans, the Rosary is a favoured form of family prayer, which also can take different local forms. It has the advantage of simplicity and from a very young age children can be encouraged to join in and quickly gain the hang of the beads and the spoken prayers. It also teaches them the value of being still and quiet. In the materialist culture of northern Protestantism where for many generations prayer has become for the most part internalised and in personal prayer in the home people are both unused to and suspicious of set forms of words, other than the Our Father; it is far from easy to initiate a regular Rosary prayer group. My wife and I began four years ago when we retired, and have found that with perseverance the Rosary has become an anchor for a quiet time with God each week for a small group.

It is not without significance that the Rosary flourishes in those shrines in many countries throughout the world where apparitions of Our Lady have given rise to powerful witness to the truth of the Incarnation and attract pilgrims in large numbers. Lourdes, Fatima, Guadeloupe, Loretto, Czestohova (in Poland) and, in our own country, Walsingham spring to mind; and there are many others less familiar.

The icon of the Madonna and Child Jesus exemplifies the bond between Our Lady and her Son, a bond which gathered strength throughout His incarnate life, to His passion, and continues through the resurrection and Pentecost into the life of the universal church. Recognition is thus given to the universal motherhood of the Blessed Virgin Mary, doctrinally expressed in the Eastern observance of the Dormition or Falling Asleep and in the Western feast of the bodily Assumption. In the Councils of the early Church formal acknowledgement was given to the universal motherhood in the title Theotokos – Mother of Him who is God – conferred at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. There is much scepticism expressed today about the nature of Christ and the mode of the Incarnation; theologians question the validity of the early councils which thrashed out the doctrines enshrined in the Nicene Creed, and even suggest that the propositions eliminated as heretical can be regarded as equally admissible. This comes close to claiming that Revelation should take second place to Reason.

How then is one to use the traditional mysteries, the joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries, in a fruitful and helpful way ? for as soon as the Rosary is absorbed as a permanent constituent of devotion, the limitation of the mysteries becomes apparent. Fr. Roland Walls in 1990 published a chaplet consisting of the key events of the life and ministry of Jesus as Royal Mysteries. He singled out the Baptism, the Temptation, the Transfiguration, the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the Institution of the Holy Eucharist as fully demanding consistent spiritual reflection. It is hard to say whether they have met a real need. Perhaps it is truer to say that their purpose is to create a need, that is to widen or to deepen the Scriptural focus of the devotion.

Fr. Slavko Barbaric, spiritual director to the visionaries at Medjugorje, has sought to widen the focus of Rosary meditation in personal devotion. In his book, “Praying with the Heart;” he includes a Rosary for Peace, and points the way to incorporating incidents and parables from the ministry of Jesus, by treating at length the Walk to Emmaus. (Luke 24, 13-35.)

I believe that this issue is important for Anglicans who are attracted to the Rosary; many will feel ambivalent or unhappy to include the last two Glorious Mysteries – namely the Assumption of the Virgin and Mary as Queen of Heaven. This may seem perverse to those who have been nurtured in the tradition, but it is wrong to deter a fruitful way into contemplative prayer for the sake of two mysteries whose biblical basis so many sincerely reject. Fr. Llewelyn has suggested that for the two Marian mysteries may be substituted the Holy Trinity and the Communion of Saints, for these two mysteries take us to the heart of heaven in a similar way.

I find that the Rosary is an excellent aid to intercession. Each decade can become the focus the offering to God of a particular situation or an individual; in our personal devotion each bead can be offered for a different person who is close to our heart. In a group it is especially helpful to decide at the beginning on an intention which has the agreement of all; and then each member can contribute by leading the recitation. One needs patience for most people are not used to praying aloud, and they need to be come accustomed to the course of the prayer before their are ready to lead with confidence.

So we come to the substance of the prayers themselves. The Apostles Creed, the Our Father and the Gloria Patri will be universally acceptable. But what about the Hail Mary? This comprises the angelic salutation at the Annunciation to Mary combined with Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary at the Visitation. Both texts emphasise the place of motherhood at the heart of the Incarnation. The sticking point for Protestants comes with the invocation which follows -“Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death.” It is important to see Mary in this context as the representative of the Church that has passed beyond the grave. For she it is who is the first fruits of the Resurrection. The prayer of the Rosary has a special relevance for women, since it kindles or enhances the deep springs of motherhood with which the womb of every woman is endowed.

Fr. Llewelyn in a graphic phrase refers to the Rosary as “spiritual dynamite”. He uses this expression to remind us that in prayer God enlists us in the struggle against the cosmic powers of evil. In our everyday actions we are engaged with symptoms, whereas in prayer we come to grips with the causes of evil which lie behind. The seer of the book of Revelation writes of “war in heaven”. It is in prayer that we encounter that conflict in which the angels are engaged. In invoking Mary we are calling to our aid the whole company of heaven.

The appeal of the Rosary is surely always to be found in its simplicity, accessible to men and women, boys and girls of all cultures and of all social and educational backgrounds. It is the most egalitarian of all prayers. Like the Jesus prayer of the Orthodox tradition it draws the attention away from distractions to a quiet absorption in the person of the Lord, and his abiding love for all human life. A deep contemplative involvement in prayer may well result, for to take away the words is to leave the soul in silence. But even if contemplative silence does not follow, the careful and regular recitation of this little office in a family or with a group where two or three are gathered together, can open the heart to the activity of the Holy Spirit with a dynamic effect upon our everyday lives.

Try it and see !

For further study:

Robert Llewelyn Doorway to Silence. 1986 DLT.

Roland Walls The Royal Mysteries. 1990 DLT

Slavko Barbaric – Pray with the Heart 1990 Parish Office 88266 Medjugorje.

Anthony Bell is a retired priest living in Charlton Mackrell, Somerset