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A prayer that incorporates both body and soul

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Jeff Cavins

The rosary is one of the most popular prayers among the faithful. One reason is that it is a quick way to enter the world of Jesus and meditate on the greatest Gospel mysteries, from the Annunciation to the death and resurrection of our Lord, concluding with the crowning of Our Lady.

In Pope Paul VI’s “Marialis Cultus,” he said the rosary is a “compendium of the entire Gospel.” It is an orderly and gradual unfolding of the way God entered human affairs.

The entire rosary consists of 20 sets of Hail Marys, referred to as decades, with an Our Father prayed at the beginning of each decade. During the praying of each decade, one of the central mysteries of the Gospel is meditated upon.

Each prayer is coupled with — mark this — vocal prayer (at least a movement of the lips). Why the insistence on that? Because the whole prayer is about the drama of the Word made flesh, not the Word made thought. So we “enter into the spirit of the prayer” paradoxically, with our bodies, just as Jesus entered into our salvation with his body.

This “incarnational” aspect cannot be stressed too much. You and I are created in what may be called a “dynamic unity.” We are spirit and body. The rosary reflects this dynamic unity by incorporating both spirit and body in the mysteries and the beads. It involves the body in the fingering of the beads just as it involves the spirit in meditating and praying about the mysteries of Jesus Christ. Head and heart, soul and body therefore participate in the rosary.

The rosary is also a practical prayer. As we count with the hands, the soul is freed from the practical distraction of counting. The physical involvement of the body, coupled with the physical formation of the words, keeps the body at the disposition of the soul. Prayer can be tiring, but there is something about the touching of the beads that keeps our bodies focused.

I like what one author, Maisie Ward, once said: “The beads are there for the sake of the prayers and prayers are there for the sake of the mysteries” that one is meditating upon.

Mary’s world view

One of the things I appreciate most about the rosary is its flexibility. No matter how simple or complex we are in our life with Christ, we can grow with the rosary and never exhaust it.

It has been said that the rosary is shallow enough that an ant can wade in it and deep enough that an elephant can drown in it. If you are just beginning your walk in Christ, the rosary will offer you the simplest walk through his life. But if you are like St. Paul and you have been walking with Christ for years, you still will not exhaust the mysteries of Christ. It’s a very flexible way to pray.

St. John Paul II once said, “The rosary is my favorite prayer, a marvelous prayer; marvelous in its simplicity and marvelous in its depth.” He added that the rosary “beats the rhythm of human life.”

What does he mean by that?

If you think about the way the rosary is put together, no matter what condition or circumstance you are in, you can find yourself in it.

And so, no matter where we are in life, we can find ourselves somewhere in the rosary. As St. John Paul II also said, “At the same time our heart can enclose in these decades of the rosary all the facts that make up the life of the individual, the family, the nation, the Church and mankind. Personal matters and those of one’s neighbor, and particularly of those who are closest to us, who are dearest to us.”

Repetition and the rhythm of life

Some Christians will object that, according to Scripture, Jesus was against repetitious prayer. However, Jesus warned against meaningless repetition, not meaningful repetition. Meaningless repetition is indeed not God’s will. Merely rattling off prayers like a parrot will not move the hand of God. But not all repetition is meaningless.

Romano Guardini wrote in “The Lady of Our Rosary”:

“Repetition can have a real meaning. Is it not an element of life? What else is the beating of the heart but a repetition? Always the same contraction and expansion, and yet it makes the blood circulate through the body. What else is breathing but a repetition? Always the same, in and out. By breathing we live. And is not our whole being ordered and sustained by change and repetition? Ever anew the sun rises and sets. Night follows day. The round of life begins in the spring, rises, reaches its summit, and sinks. What objection can one raise against these repetitions and so many others? They are the order in which growth progresses. The inner kernel develops and the form is revealed. All life realizes itself in the rhythm of external conditions and internal accomplishment. If this is so everywhere, why should it not also be so in religious devotion?”

That’s the beauty of it. God enters the mundane and repetitious with his power. The divine intersects the mundane! So if I find the rosary boring, it’s probably because I’m not entering into the rosary. I’m just repeating words and not entering into it and meditating on the life of Christ through the eyes of Mary. That’s why I like to think of each bead as the heartbeat of Jesus, and my goal is that my heart would beat in unison with his.

As soon as the person begins praying the words of the creed, Guardini says, “He has built for himself a home by his speech.” Think of the endless possibilities to experience intimacy with the Lord. We can pray on the way to work, transforming traffic jams into a meaningful time of prayer. We sit down in the doctor’ s waiting room, take out our rosary and we build ourselves a home, a sanctuary in time.

There is no place or situation which we cannot erect a place of pondering. We need such a place of holy tranquility. We need a place were we can go to get away from it all, where the breath of God pervades, and where we can meet the great figures of the faith: Jesus, Mary, and the Apostles. It’s not some task that we busy Americans have to accomplish, but a lingering in the world of Mary whose essence was Christ.

Praying the rosary

  • Make the Sign of the Cross.
  • Holding the Crucifix, say the Apostles’ Creed.
  • On the first bead, say an Our Father.
  • Say three Hail Marys on each of the next three beads.
  • Say the Glory Be
  • For each of the five decades, announce the Mystery (see below), then say the Our Father.
  • While fingering each of the 10 beads of the decade, next say 10 Hail Marys while meditating on the Mystery. Then say a Glory Be.
  • After saying the five decades, say the Hail, Holy Queen, followed by this dialogue and prayer:

V. Pray for us, O holy Mother of God.

R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Let us pray: O God, whose Only Begotten Son, by his life, death, and resurrection, has purchased for us the rewards of eternal life, grant, we beseech thee, that while meditating on these mysteries of the most holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we may imitate what they contain and obtain what they promise, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Mysteries

The Five Joyful Mysteries are traditionally prayed on the Mondays, Saturdays, and Sundays of Advent: The Annunciation; The Visitation; The Nativity; The Presentation in the Temple; The Finding in the Temple.

The Five Sorrowful Mysteries are traditionally prayed on the Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays of Lent: The Agony in the Garden; The Scourging at the Pillar; The Crowning with Thorns; The Carrying of the Cross; The Crucifixion and Death.

The Five Glorious Mysteries are traditionally prayed on the Wednesdays and Sundays outside of Lent and Advent: The Resurrection; The Ascension; The Descent of the Holy Spirit; The Assumption; The Coronation of Mary.

The Five Luminous Mysteries are traditionally prayed on Thursdays: The Baptism of Christ in the Jordan; The Wedding Feast at Cana; Jesus’ Proclamation of the Coming of the Kingdom of God; The Transfiguration; The Institution of the Eucharist.

Source: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops


Cavins is director of evangelization for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. He is the founder of the Great Adventure Bible Study Series and director of the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute.