Ernest Skublics calls upon us to rediscover the Rosary as a way of cultivating our relationship with God by offering Him our time, and as a means of focusing our attention on moments in the life of Christ
A very old mainstay of Catholic devotion, the Rosary, deserves re-evaluation and an unapologetic come-back among Anglo-Catholics. Even among Roman Catholics, the popularity of the once much-loved ‘beads’ had a period of decline following the Second Vatican Council, not unrelated to a fundamentally healthy re-focusing on essentials, liturgically, devotionally, doctrinally The Rosary, to some extent, fell victim to this pruning, because it seemed to be the only extended prayer-form among the laity, so much so that it was even recited during Mass, in place of an intelligent participation in the Liturgy itself.
Purpose of prayer
Yet the Rosary, in some sense, is the archetypal model, a real case study, for all prayer, especially non-liturgical prayer. For all people, who have generally grown up with the idea (supported by most dictionary definitions and the etymology of the word) that prayer is about asking, a devotion like the Rosary is a most enlightening corrective.
For prayer is not primarily about asking. We may venture to say that it is not even primarily about going out to God in love and admiration, in recognition and thanksgiving (berakah – Eucharist) – though that comes much closer to the essence of prayer and is certainly central to it. But it is so only because prayer is primarily and essentially the conscious and loving cultivation of our relationship with God.
This relationship is already a given – by our creation and re-creation in baptism. We do not need to establish the relationship, but we do need to become mindful of it, cultivate it, deepen it, develop a habitual awareness of it that permeates all our life. And we can only do this if we spend time with God. The very same dynamic obtains in any relationship, between human beings, in a family, among friends. Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it does not deepen knowledge and love for each other; in fact, it accustoms us to being apart.
Prayer is a time spent with God. It need not be spent talking; ‘not in multiplying your words will you save your soul’. It may be in total silence; it may be in reading or hearing – and ruminating
on – the Word of God, or reflecting on some truth or dynamic in our relationship with God.
In our busy, restless, fidgety, utilitarian approach to everything, this type of prayer at first comes with difficulty. If we do not have anything to say, it strikes us as a waste of time. Interestingly, a wise master of the spiritual life once said: ‘If you really want to learn to pray, you first have to learn to waste time.’ There is a story of a busy priest who didn’t understand this. Rushing through his church on a weekday he repeatedly noticed a simple man spending time in a pew in the back. He had no book; his lips were not moving; he just sat there. One day the priest asked him what he was doing when sitting there. The man answered: ‘Nothing. I just look at Him, and he looks at me.’
Time for contemplation
Well, the Rosary, first of all, teaches us to waste time, just being with God, Jesus and Our Lady. Our time is itself a pleasing offering. The Rosary teaches us by a crucially important quality to any extended prayer: through its therapeutic monotony, which it shares particularly with the older and longer forms of the Divine Office, when as many as six psalms were recited or chanted before coming to a Lesson. It breaks down our fidgety, rushing, utilitarian approach; it gently loosens our grip on any particular agenda of our own; and it teaches us to allow God to carry us on the endlessly flowing river of the Church’s prayer.
And then, we find that we have been unwittingly introduced to contemplative prayer. For each of the fifteen decades of the Rosary (the Lord’s Prayer followed by ten Hail Marys, of which usually only five decades – or even fewer – are recited at a time) is dedicated to one or another ‘mystery’ or episode in the life, passion and glorification of our Lord. And while our fidgety fingers find something to do in counting off the prayers, and our lips recite the Angelic Salutation, our minds can stop and stare at, reflect on, think about a moment in the life of Christ, and the significance of that moment for our salvation and our daily life.
In the wake of that conciliar pruning, when Marian devotions saw a significant cut-back, I too had stopped praying the Rosary. In recent years, however, my old beads came out again, bored as I was with my daily walks, and I found it refreshing to resume the quiet and meditative recitation of the Rosary. I also find using the beads to be an effortless way of focusing, while I spend time in front of the Blessed Sacrament, or, certainly, when visiting a place like Walsingham. My walks have now deepened my understanding, aroused my curiosity, driven me to further exploration of the meaning of such mysteries as the Crowning with Thorns, the Ascension of Christ, or the glorification of Our Lady.
Prayer beads are common in many religions. They seem to appeal to our fidgety nature by being able to anchor it in a contemplative exercise, whether sitting or kneeling in a holy place, walking, or doing something that does not require much mental concentration. Turkish Muslims are commonly seen in the streets with their prayer beads, Byzantine-Slav Christians use them for the ‘Jesus Prayer’, and Western Catholics have used them ever since the Dominicans, Cistercians and Carthusians promoted the practice in the fifteenth century.
The Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary (7 October) was established in thanksgiving for the naval victory of the joint Christian fleet against the invading Muslim Turks at Lepanto in 1571, because the victory was attributed to the intercession of Our Lady, to whom the entire Church prayed the Rosary. Many saints have attributed significant victories, in their own lives and on behalf of others, to the faithful recitation of the Rosary. The whole month of October is traditionally marked by Marian devotions, and the praying of the Rosary. Perhaps it is time for us all to rediscover this wonderful way of praying.