I came to this task of writing about the rosary with some degree of trepidation. I'm hardly an example of prayerful piety-the course of my rosary devotion has been about as focused as the travels of a housefly: fit to short bursts of buzzing here and there and everywhere, at no one place for too long. On the other hand, my experience is hardly unique. And I can testify that rosary meditation is a powerful spiritual tool-even for someone with a scattered and inconsistent devotional past.
In my family, rosary devotion was practiced primarily by my mother, whose name, appropriately enough, is Mary. On Christmas Eve, she would gather us all together in front of the enormous Nativity scene my father had built out of scraps of barn wood. Before we opened our presents (which were abundant with nine people in our family) my father would lead us all in the rosary. This moment, one of the most peaceful in our house all year long, is a fond memory for me. The whole family was together, preparing for this great celebration by recalling the joyful mysteries and remembering first and foremost the reason for Christmas. I must admit, however, that while I was praying my thoughts would wander toward the presents waiting under the tree. Although I was fond of the rosary, I wasn't exactly a skilled meditator at the time.
My rosary devotion came and went through the years as I dipped into other religions, agnosticism, and radical feminism and experienced a variety of dark nights of the soul. I left my rosary devotion behind in my first year of college, when I lived next door to two southern "Bible-Belters" who convinced me with their dazzling recall of Scripture that I was surely no Christian because I was Catholic. They would look at the crucifix around my neck and say, "Haven't you heard? He rose from the dead-he's not on the cross anymore." Slowly but surely, out of my own ignorance and deficient religious training, I began to drop my devotion to all things Catholic.
For several years I faithfully attended Protestant churches and Bible studies, where I learned to pray the Scriptures. I knew the rosary to be a Scripture-based meditation, but I did not pray it during this period. The problem was that all of my prayers seemed fruitless. I couldn't quiet myself enough to pray. I lacked and longed for clarity of thought. I couldn't seem to penetrate my emotional-intellectual-spiritual fog long enough to reach those quiet, contemplative places where God had really spoken to me in the past. I ached in my heart for the simplicity of the times when I walked with and talked to the holy family while picking flowers behind my house.
I briefly picked up the rosary again following a pilgrimage I made during my first year of graduate school. But for the most part I only had fond, ever-dimming memories of saying the rosary with my family as a child. I had no real understanding of what the rosary was or what it could do for me.
Meanwhile, I spiraled downwards emotionally. I was ignoring much pain-pain from past abuses and past relationships, pain from my frustrations and anxieties in the present-and trying to forget. Most significant, I wanted to forget that I had been raped a number of years earlier and had never told anyone. It was as though my mind had flipped on a switch to a neon light that kept flashing through my brain, "That didn't happen." But what my mind tried desperately to forget, my body and spirit could not. I felt crushed, confused, soulless.
I couldn't pray in familiar ways. I couldn't write, which had always been my first form of prayer. So at first I just came to the chapel and sat and looked around. At the back of the sanctuary was a statue of Mary with candles at her feet to be lit as reminders of special intentions. Something about that little nook struck me, drew me in. I was comfortable there, in the warmth of those candles, in the gentle invitation of Mary's outstretched arms.
Then I started to pray the rosary--it was the only prayer associated with Mary that I remembered. It was easy and restful because I'd memorized the prayers, and that meant that I didn't have to think too much. In the beginning, I didn't concern myself too deeply with the meditations on the mysteries. Instead, I simply announced them and moved into the prayers of the decade. I was relieved by the rosary's simplicity and uniformity. As a former runner, I found the repetition of the prayers comforting. Something in that simple repetition lent itself to transcendence. It was like the runner's high I'd felt during long, hard workouts, when my brain could rest and my body could absorb itself in its strenuous task. The rosary silenced the craziness in my head and heart. I began to cling to it as a drowning person clutches a lifesaver without a lot of conscious thought. I even wore a rosary around my neck in an almost literal hope that it would keep me from sinking.
Little did I know that those beads held a transforming power. Little did I know that I was reaching out for the ultimate human intercessor. Mary, like any devoted prayer partner, would stand in the gap that loomed between God and me. And because "the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective" (James 5:16), Mary, so devoted and so close to her son, must surely have his ear.
Like so many who pray the rosary, I will never be able to explain it fully. I only know my own experience and the experiences of others I have learned about along the way, and I am honored to share them with you.
God's nature is mysterious. Not mysterious as in a puzzle to be solved, but in how he embraces us in our uniqueness. His mystery allows us to be still and rest assured that while we do not have all the answers, there is one who is greater than we are who does. In this way, the mysteries of the rosary have not been a source of befuddlement or estrangement or shame over my own inadequacy as much as a source of comfort, a place whereby I can measure my rightful place in the universe. That too is a mystery. Scripture tells me that I am simultaneously dust (Genesis 3:19) and the apple of my Father's eye (Deuteronomy 32:10). In that knowledge I can rest in peaceful awe and clarity, the goal of any meditation.