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A prayer worth knowing by heart

Kate Barrett | Thursday, October 7, 2010

In the Catholic Church, today we celebrate the memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary. It’s worth spending a little time today, then, reflecting on a devotion that is at the same time beloved, scoffed at, and … well, ignored … by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

This past Monday night many families from our parish of St. Joseph gathered at a local funeral home to pray the rosary with a long-time member of our community whose husband died last week. Praying the rosary together at a wake is a long-held custom in the Catholic Church. Just before the rosary began, directly behind my husband and our children and me, a family sat down who had been very good friends of the new widow and her husband. I knew they weren’t Catholic and probably had little familiarity with Catholic devotional practices, and I found myself somewhat distracted by wanting to turn around and whisper to them, “Can I please explain to you why this is really neat, and very comforting, and not just as strange and nonsensical as you might be thinking right now?” I wanted to help them feel more welcome and more a part of the ritual that was about to unfold around them.

The rosary actually grew out of quite practical origins, as have many of our traditional Catholic practices. Many centuries ago most people, whether Christian or otherwise, couldn’t read at all, much less anything as complex as the Bible, so Church leaders sought alternative ways to teach and to share the faith. Stained glass windows and statues of saints and characters from the Bible, replete with particular symbols to identify each one arose from this desire to help people recognize and pass on, without words, the truths and people of our faith. The 150 Hail Mary’s of the rosary represent the 150 Psalms of the Old Testament, which the monks could sing, read and pray over in their daily prayers, but which most others, illiterate, could not. And each set of 10 Hail Mary’s begins with a specific moment from the events of the birth, ministry, death or resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So now that we can read, why has the rosary hung around as a prayer practice in the church? For me, it’s connected to a recurring phrase about the Mary herself prayed about Jesus from Luke’s gospel. When a momentous event would happen in Jesus’ life, Luke notes, “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” For one thing, the rosary forces you to slow down, to reflect on things in your heart. Even though we usually only pray 50 Hail Mary’s at a time, that’ll take a while, no matter how fast you can go. In a world in which Google can instantly report how many fractions of a second your search just took, in a world in which we tap our feet impatiently in front of the microwave waiting on a 30-second warm-up for our coffee, we can certainly benefit from a prayer which by its very framework takes at least fifteen minutes to complete.

As we sat in the funeral home, I tried to put myself in the minds of the family behind us, listening to this roomful of people of all ages repeating the same prayer ten times in a row, then after a brief interlude doing it again … and again. Over time, I have come to appreciate how repetitive, learned-by-heart prayers help us to focus our attention while not requiring all our attention. As our United States Bishops said of the rosary, “The gentle repetition of the words helps us to enter the silence of our hearts, where Christ’s Spirit dwells.” On Monday night as I listened to the Scripture stories about the beginning of Jesus’ life, praying “Hail Mary” and “Our Father” and “Glory Be” gave me the opportunity to reflect on the life well-lived of a man who had deeply touched many hearts in our parish community.

Can you remember the first time you tried jogging or biking, or the first time you took a spinning or Pilates class? You may have felt dorky or awkward or just plain exhausted, and wondered, “Who thought that was a good idea?” However, if you persevered, perhaps you discovered a surprisingly compelling attraction to your new workout, and even came to look forward to the next time you could participate. All prayer, but maybe especially prayers like the rosary, will grow on you like that if you give it the opportunity. Why not give the rosary a try? You never know where it might lead you.

P.S. Rosaries, and instructions for praying the rosary are available for you in the Campus Ministry Offices of the Coleman-Morse Center.


This week’s Faithpoint is written by Kate Barrett, director of the Emmaus Program. She can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.