MOBILE, Ala. (RNS)--The time is the 11th century; the place, a rocky field.

In the course of a day's labor, a peasant's lips skip over one petition after the next. As he prays, he transfers pebbles from one pouch to another. With each one, he prays the "Our Father." By the time he empties one sack's contents, he may have beseeched the Almighty as many as 150 times.

Over the years, the prayers change. The "Hail Mary" joins the "Our Father," as does the "Glory Be." The devotion becomes known as the rosary, a noun describing a string of beads, a cross, and a medal, as well as the dozens of prayers it represents.

For generations, it provided a way Roman Catholic lay people could reach out to the divine for themselves, without a priest, at any time, in any place. Then, with the changes sparked by Vatican Council II in the 1960s, the practice subsided.

Someone once compared the rhythm of the rosary to a mother's heartbeat...and in very stress-filled situations, there was a certain comfort that you received from hearing these words over and over again.

Today, some say, Catholics are rediscovering the rosary as a means for meditation and contemplation.

"Someone once compared the rhythm of the rosary to a mother's heartbeat, and when you were in situations where you were very anxious, in very stress-filled situations, there was a certain comfort that you received from hearing these words over and over again," said the Rev. Edwin P. Beachum, pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Mobile, Ala. "One of the wonderful things about it is you can say a rosary in the airport, you can say a rosary while driving a car, and you can say a rosary when you're very upset, when you are overcome with worry.

"It's a wonderful prayer for hospitals when you have someone who is very, very sick and you're rushing to her side," Beachum said. "It's a constant reminder of God's presence. You can reach in your pocket and you feel it there, and it reminds you of God."

The practice was borne from monks' tradition of reciting the psalms--which number 150--as a suffrage for those in their orders who died. The oblation of the psalms, which dates back as far as 800 A.D., was limited to the educated, however; lay people did not have unlimited access to Scripture.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the practice of prayers to Mary, divided, like the psalms, into series of 50, 100, or 150, became popular among the laity who did not have access to the Bible but could feel they were imitating the practice of the more learned. By the 12th century, the practice was commonplace.

The traditional rosary contains 59 beads, each one representing a prayer. They're divided into five sections, representing the joyful, sorrowful, or glorious "mysteries of the rosary." The "Our Father" is said on each of the large beads; the "Hail Mary" is said on each of the small beads; the "Glory Be" after the three recitations of the "Hail Mary" at the beginning of the rosary and after each decade, or set of 10 small beads.

Today, those beads may be constructed of anything from plastic to the most expensive gemstones. But, practically speaking, neither the beads' style nor their substance matters.

"It's just an aid to prayer, much like looking at a religious artwork can be something that you can tangibly focus on," said the Rev. James F. Zoghby, pastor of Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Mobile. "Having the tangible feel of the rosary--that's sort of an aid for people to relax with."

The Rev. W. Bry Shields, president of Mobile's McGill-Toolen High School and associate pastor of St. Ignatius Catholic Church, said the rosary involves the heart, mind, and body.

"Prayer has to engage all of our senses," Shields said. "The beads are very helpful because, as I say, most of us are fidgety. Most of us are very prone to being distracted.... It gives you a way to calm the body down as well as just calming the mind."

With the mind stilled, devotees of the rosary say, it's easier to pray.

"The repetition of those prayers in the rosary actually has a calming effect on the mind, but at the same time, it helps to eliminate other distracting thoughts or feelings," Shields said. "It frees you to concentrate, really, on God."

Also, when believers are saying the words of one prayer, they're not just considering those petitions.

"You're actually supposed to be praying on two different levels," Beachum said. "You have the one part where people are holding the beads and repeating the prayers over and over again. At the same time, they're supposed to be meditating on biblical scenes, on instances in our Lord's life, things that the church teaches us about our Lord's life. This is where the real emphasis is. The prayers and the beads free us from distractions so that we can actually be meditating on our Lord's actions."

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