I have a confession: I don’t pray the rosary. I know, I know. A Catholic who doesn’t pray the rosary? That’s like an American who doesn’t eat apple pie (a point of contention somewhere on the Internet, I’m sure). But yeah… I don’t pray it. I think, in the past two years, I have prayed the rosary six or seven times- of those times, I prayed it because I was at a pro-life event, participating in a parish retreat, or at a voluntary gathering with seminarians. Don’t get me wrong- it’s not like I don’t pray– I certainly do and make every effort for intentional daily prayer… but the rosary? Ugh… just not my thing.
For those who don’t know, the rosary is quite an honorable Christian practice- arguably dating back to the 13th century. The concept is simple: as Christians, we hold the Virgin Mary in high esteem, and thus are warranted to honor and venerate her among the highest of heavenly friends. Mary is the Mother of God, the Theotokos, etc. and so pray that she intercedes for us, leading us ever closer to her Son, Jesus.
Why I wasn’t I into the rosary? I’m not too sure if there was one strong reason besides the fact that I just found it repetitive, noisy, and too structured. My ideal type of prayer is sitting in front of the Blessed Sacrament in silence, speaking to God from my heart, and allowing His Presence to fill my soul. Sometimes I use words. Other times, I read Scripture and meditate. I have a little prayer corner in my room, filled with images of my favorite Christian devotion- the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
But the rosary? I avoided it like the damn plague. Until today… today was different.
Sunday Morning Blues
I direct/teach RCIA at a parish in the North End of Boston. Usually, I take an Uber. Also “usually”, I get to the church for mass like, five minutes before it begins. Today was different- I surprisingly woke up with plenty of time, so I requested an Uber, who got me at the church for 8:24 a.m…. when the mass didn’t start until 9 am.
I got out of the Uber and was greeted by a cold blast of wind. It felt like it was in the low 20s this morning. Hurriedly, I stepped inside the church.
When I walked in, there were only three other people inside. Two of them were older Italian women, conversing quite loudly in their native tongue. One man, probably in his 60s, was sitting in a pew with his head down.
I dropped my jacket and backpack in the classroom adjacent to the sacristy, and checked my phone. 8:26 am. Stomach growling, I figured this would be a good time to grab coffee/light breakfast at one of the nearby North End breakfast joints. Then, I realized two things- the first being the mandatory one-hour fast to be observed by Catholics prior to mass, and the second being the fact that it was pretty darn cold out. Disappointed, I went back into the church and slinked into a pew. I couldn’t exactly pray in my ideal way (silence in front of the Blessed Sacrament) because those elderly Italian women kept chatting. I looked around. The older man was just staring at the statue of the Virgin Mary. Begging for time to have flown like an Air Force One, I checked my phone for the time- 8:29 a.m.
I consigned myself to the fact that I, a techie/noise-obsessed Millennial who couldn’t even pray in his ideal way, was going to spend the next thirty minutes hungry, annoyed, and prayer-less.
Suddenly, the chatter stopped. The man picked his head up. I then heard the sound of pew kneelers clunking on the ground. In one motion, they all knelt. “In the name of the Father…”
“Great,” I thought, “now I’m stuck with the rosary.”
An Unexpected Gift
I’m not sure what happened next. Maybe it was the statue of the Sacred Heart in front of me. Maybe it was my Catholic guilt at not wanting to participate in such a “Catholicky” devotion. Whatever it was, I pulled down my kneeler and knelt in solidarity. After all, I didn’t want to look like an ass.
“For an increase in the virtues of faith, hope, and charity…” – “Hail Mary…”
Praying for an “increase” of the virtues of faith, hope, and charity implies that all three of these theological virtues can be an area of spiritual growth. I thought to myself, “How am I lacking in any (or all) of these?”
I started to think about my experience of the past week. I had a lot going on between school, work, family, and relationships. I got pissed and swore at a friend (-5 points in charity). Hope? With everything going on in our country, I confess that I haven’t been as receptive to this theological virtue whatsoever; I haven’t truly viewed heaven as my true home and this life as a pilgrimage. Faith? Hm.
My internal questioning continued. Was there any time during these past 7 days when I lacked faith? Hope? Love? What were my attitudes, actions and behavior- both good and negative- pointing to?
I was musing on my responsiveness to God’s grace so deeply that I completely missed the fact that we were on the Second Sorrowful Mystery- the “Scourging at the Pillar”: Our Father…
I put my head down. Among the many images of Jesus, Him being scourged at a pillar is not one that I am very fond of. I can even tolerate the image of Christ Crucified more than I can stand His scourging at the pillar. The cross is such a common image- people have it around their necks. It’s found in every single Catholic church. Heck, even my home city has a massive cross which illuminates the night sky.
But the scourging is different. The scourging reminds me that Jesus was actually tortured. His very flesh was torn and ripped apart by a whip with leather thongs, bits of sharp bone attached to the tip of each one. No one has an image of this around their neck. Urban Outfitters cannot sell a shirt with this image as a design. The scourging reminds us of Jesus’ actual pain and suffer-
“O my Jesus, forgive us our sins…”
Holy crap! We just hit the Fatima Prayer. “What have I been doing all this time?”, I wondered. Then, silence filled the church. My head was still bowed down, but my curiosity got the best of me, so I picked my head up and opened my eyes. One of the older ladies who was leading the rosary was walking towards me, smiling. When she got to my pew, she asked, “Would you like to lead the next one?”
“Sure,” I responded. (Meanwhile, I’m kneeling here wondering if I even remembered the structure of the rosary so that I didn’t commit any devotional faux pas)
“Do you have a rosary?”
Looking down at my bare hands, I shook my head ‘no’.
“Would you like one?”
I stared blankly at her, painfully aware that I was wasting her and the other two people’s time. But I felt… stuck. I mean, what the hell else am I going to say to a 70+ year old Italian lady in church on a Sunday morning? “No, I don’t want you dumb rosary?”
“Uh… sure,” I reluctantly responded.
She handed me this plastic rosary which looked like it was held together only by a flimsy string and hope.
Clearing my throat, I began.
Mary, Prayer, and Me
The Hail Mary is such a lovely prayer. The opening line echoes the Angel Gabriel who came to a teenage Mary to announce God’s plan of salvation. We begin the prayer by greeting this woman who is so “full of grace”… a woman who is blessed above all others, for she was the one chosen to bear God’s Son, Jesus.
Then, we pray for her to lead us to her Son. We implore her intercession for us to model her radical discipleship, her loving submission to the will of God. Then, finally, we ask her to watch over us and pray for us both at the current moment, and during our last breath.
Each “Hail Mary”, I prayed as if Mary herself was standing in front of me. I acknowledge her strength, her dignity, her beauty, her special-ness before God. I acknowledge her Son, who saved me from my sins. I ask her to pray for me and those around me.
Eventually, my turn ended, and it went to someone else to finish the 4th and 5th Sorrowful Mystery. By now, though, I was in the ‘zone’. I was comfortable, at least as comfortable as someone who had avoided the rosary like an annoying inconvenience could be. It was nice. Peaceful. It required a certain discipline on my part (remember, I was hungry and a techie-obsessed Millennial)… but anytime I started drifting in my thoughts, I felt a bit restless… as if someone was in the room and I wasn’t giving he or she my full attention. “I can eat & play with my phone later,” I reasoned. Now, I’ll offer this to God. And onto the next prayer, and the next, and the next. I began to see time as a gift, the debit card in my wallet as a gift, my loving family friends as a gift- everything became seen as a gift, a gift that was given to me by God and given to me so that I can return it all back to Him. How could I give so little to my Lord? Where am I in these meditative scenes of the Sorrowful Mysteries? Do I actually believe He suffered and died… for me? Me, insignificant John, was in the presence of God and His Mother, offering my time and energy to meditating on the mysteries of salvation as mediated through the life of Christ and the intercession of His Mother. This is why we have the rosary- not to simply rattle off a “to-do” list of prayers, but rather to participate in a rhythmic hymn of petition, veneration, praise, contrition, hope, and healing. As a student of theology, I of course “know” about God, Jesus, Mary, the saints, and the like. But now more than ever, a quote by Padre Pio rings true: “Through the study of books one seeks God; by meditation one finds him.”
About ten minutes later, we finished up with our last “Hail Mary”. Making the Sign of the Cross, I picked my head up, only to find the once-empty church now filled with congregants. I got up from my pew, and went into the sacristy to speak with the Franciscan pastor before mass began. On my way there, I greeted that older woman who gave me the rosary. I thanked her, and she smiled. She invited me to help lead the rosary next week- same time, same place. I’m not sure what happened this morning, but I’ll say this- that little, plastic rosary is now hanging on my car’s inside mirror, a reminder for me not to be so reluctant about talking to Mama Mary.