Reprinted with permission of U.S. Catholic
A good friend of mine, an Irish priest, makes a yearly pilgrimage to Lough Derg, a penitential site in the northern part of the Irish Republic. In the Middle Ages it was known as "St. Patrick's Purgatory." The pilgrim arrives at an island in the middle of a small lake and is immediately instructed to remove his shoes. He is to spend the next three days barefoot.
For the first day and night he performs a series of penitential and contemplative exercises--walking, kneeling, praying the rosary, confessing his sins--and he does this without benefit of sleep. During that first long night, if he begins to nod off, one of his fellow pilgrims pokes him awake. My friend has said that this fighting off of sleep is one of the most difficult and dramatic elements of the experience. "Sleep hunts you like an animal," he says.
The next day, the same round of practices is repeated, and, at the end of that day, the pilgrims are permitted to sleep. They leave the island the next afternoon, following a morning of prayer and fasting. Now there's some Celtic spirituality for you!
When I first heard a description of this process, I was a bit horrified by its severity, but I have to admit that I was fascinated at the same time. Part of my interest came from the surprising bodiliness of it. At the end of a Lough Derg weekend, you would know in your flesh that you had been through something. My friend confirmed this when he reflectehd on the curious practice of going barefoot: "Whatever happened to me during that experience," he said, "came up through my feet." It didn't so much "occur" to him or "dawn" on him; it invaded him bodily. And he would never have been so affected had he not actually gone to the place and walked the walk. He acted his way to a deeper truth about himself and God.
Dorothy Day said that everything a baptized person does should be either directly or indirectly related to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. I think what she means is that real Christian love has a form. It is not a bland abstraction about being kind or just, but rather a set of very concrete things to do.
Father Robert Barron is assistant professor of systematic theology at Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill. He is the author of "Heaven in Stone and Glass" (Crossroad, 2000).
Dorothy Day's challenge is to put a distinctively Christian form to such abstractions. Christian justice and peace looks like something: It is giving food to the hungry (yes, that hungry man you meet downtown) and sheltering the homeless (yes, that street person you see at your rectory door), and visiting the sick (yes, that disabled child on your block), and counseling the doubtful (yes, that student struggling with faith), and bearing patiently the troublesome (yes, that annoying person you would love to be rid of).
In the fall of 1993 I attended the Parliament of the World's Religions. It was a wonderful and colorful gathering of representatives from practically all of the faiths and spiritualities of the planet.
At one of the sessions, I found myself next to an exotic figure, a man swathed in the robes of a guru, his head covered with a hood, his forehead marked with the distinctive Hindu symbol of the circle, and in his hand, something like a rosary of prayer beads. When the talk was over, this mysterious figure raised his hand to pose a question. I turned to him expectantly, waiting to hear a mystic comment in the dulcet tones of India. Well, he sounded just like me. It turns out that he was an ex-priest from Cleveland!
I had to smile because, though I couldn't prove it, something told me that when that man was a Catholic priest, he wouldn't have been caught dead wearing a cassock or Roman collar or carrying a rosary. Somehow, distinctive clothing, bodily practices, concrete forms of prayer are OK when they're found in an exotic context--but they are hopelessly retrograde when found in our own religious settings.
How can I use this little anecdote as a justification for saying a word in support of the much-maligned rosary? First, the rosary is concrete, densely objective--it is something you hold in your hand. Second, the rosary is a way of disciplining what the Buddhists call the "monkey mind," the mind that leaps impatiently from branch to branch: "What's my next appointment? Why did she say that to me? What am I going to do about this? Do I have my tickets?" As long as that mind--skittish, superficial, obsessive--is dominating, we never move to the deeper realms of the soul. The rosary prayer, precisely like a mantra, is meant to dull and quiet the monkey mind and allow the depths to rise.