Saturday, December 20, 2008

Wrestling With the Rosary

Merry Christmas -- with apologies from a lapsed Catholic ...

When my mother died I inherited two Madonnas -- no, not the singer, which is what you get if you do a search online, but the one named Mary who gave birth to a most famous Son apparently in a rare case of parthenogenesis. These small statues, one of wood, the other ivory (before it was illegal!), were brought back from Europe as gifts for my mom when my father returned from fighting World War II.

My family left the Catholic Church when I was very small, so these figures never acquired religious significance for me. But in keeping them I find they remind me of my mother, and of my connection to both of my parents.

Another mysterious symbol I have always remembered from my childhood was my grandmother's rosary. She most emphatically did not leave the Church, and spent part of her time praying for those of us who had.

Whenever my sister and I visited her apartment one of the things we did was to explore her jewelry box to find the rosary she had stashed away in there. This mystical artifact, its purpose unknown to us, with its silver cross and beads of black cut glass, seemed to point to something beyond, and fascinated us.

In one of those bizarre coincidences that are not really uncommon in life, a rosary arrived in my mail recently, barely two days after I found myself remembering these things. (As always, there is a logical explanation: the local charity, Camillus House, had sent it out with an appeal for donations for the homeless. But that takes nothing away from the delight of the coincidence.)

So, as you must do when such an occasion lands in your lap, I decided to finally discover what the rosary was all about. I already knew by now that it was an aid to repetitious prayer, and that at least part of it involved the Hail Mary -- the one so widely known that it has become the name of a play in football where you just let loose with the long ball and pray for success.

Camillus thoughtfully enclosed a brochure of instructions for how to pray the rosary, so that's where I began. The title was "Praying the Rosary - An Easy Guide." I suppose it is easy enough, since the instructions were all in English (no Latin grammar required) and the steps were as simple as 1,2,3 ... 4,5,6,7,8,9, and 10. Here's where I took my first deep breath.

The rest of the instructions consisted of the text of the seven (seven!) different prayers to be repeated, and then a list of four sets of five (=20) Mysteries to be contemplated while engaged in the repetitions. First talk, then chew gum. Got it.

Setting the Mysteries aside for another day, I launched into the prayers. One of them, the Our Father, I already knew, thanks to several years of primary school in that simpler time when we began each day with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag (under God) and didn't even know it was bad for us.

Another one, the aforementioned Hail Mary, I almost knew -- and that was just as well, because I would have to repeat it a whopping 53 times, far more than any of the others, which I suppose is intended to stress the centrality of Mary in all this.

But before I could get on to these two old friends I first had to get past the Apostles' Creed, which I'd never seen or heard before. Right away I was troubled. This begins with the words "I believe," followed by quite a list: God (no problem there), Jesus (of course I believe he existed, it's well documented) (but that he was God's only son? Wasn't he telling us we are all children of God and should act accordingly?) (that he rose from the dead? -- books have been written about this) (and that he's coming back "to judge the living and the dead?" -- the same guy who challenged us to cast the first stone?) ...

But wait, there's more: the Holy Spirit (sounds fine), the Catholic Church (whoa), "the communion of saints" (need to look it up), forgiveness of sins (I certainly hope so), the resurrection of the body (do we really want our bodies back after they're dead? sounds macabre), and life everlasting (okay, but no dead body, please). So you see I had a few questions and issues.

And that was just for openers. At least it is only said one time. Then after a hop (Our Father), skip (3 Hail Mary's), and a jump (the Glory Be or Doxology), it was on to the first of the day's 5 mysteries. These are categorized and assigned to days of the week, but since there are 4 groups and only 7 days the Luminous Mysteries get short-changed and are only said once on Thursdays. The others groups are Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious. (Stop snickering back there with your Grumpy and Bashful.)

I confess (not in the Catholic sense) that I have not paid due attention yet to the Mysteries. They are all notable incidents from the Gospels, and certainly worthy of contemplation. But before I got to that page I stumbled across a typo in the "Let Us Pray" section of the Hail Holy Queen. There was a phrase that read "while meditation on these Mysteries," which was clearly intended to say "while meditating on" or "while in meditation on."

Such a small thing, really. The kind of mistake that must have plagued the monks who spent their lives copying books by hand. But it reminded me of finding a similar typo in Stephen Hawking's book, A Brief History of Time. Somewhere in the first few pages, at the end of a dense and difficult paragraph, the sentence that summed up the gist of the paragraph -- what we used to call in English class the "topic sentence" -- stated the exact opposite due to the insertion of a single "not" (or the absence of one, I'm not sure which). Again, a tiny flaw in a wonderful manuscript, but one that might have caused some readers to decide that they would never be able to understand the remainder of the book if this paragraph meant the opposite of what they thought it said.

So here was a similar issue in a prayer, a carefully formulated string of words that was meant to be said properly, yet flawed with the potential of other errors that might be less apparent. What if someone learned to do it wrong?

Another example was the Glory Be to the Father, which was by far my favorite part: "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen." A strong and clear affirmation of divinity in all its forms, and recognition of the eternal -- what's wrong with that? Nothing. But the brochure seemed to say it was optional ... or it might have meant the next part was optional, again unclear. And what did it say about my affinity for all this if my favorite part was the only one considered optional and able to be omitted altogether?

By this time I had become curious where the tradition came from and how far back it went, because I was pretty sure it was not something that Jesus did or even talked about. I did some research online and learned that early monks from the first few centuries used strings with knots in them to keep track of their prayers, and that a principle practice was to recite the psalms of David. Well, they were into some good poetry and rich imagery then.

At some point beads began to be used in place of knots. In fact, the word "bead" comes from the Latin word "bede" for prayer. So you might say the word preceded the object as it did "In the Beginning."

The modern rosary only goes back to the 12th century when a monk who had been fasting and otherwise distressing his body fell into a coma. While unconscious he had a vision of the Blessed Virgin, who personally gave him the instructions he was to follow. Upon waking up he proceeded to spread the custom far and wide. Evidently visions from a coma were all the proof people needed back then.

If you know my scientific turn of mind you will be able to imagine the kind of sinking feeling that had come over me by now. But that was nothing compared to the further instructions I found on how to pray the rosary properly.

This online source, which I won't hold up for ridicule by name, stressed the importance of correctness in the process. You are supposed to imagine Jesus and his Mother standing before you. On your right hand your Guardian Angel (you do have one, don't you?) collects the roses you produce with each repetition and weaves them into a crown to adorn the heads of the holy duo. Since these are spiritual roses they will never die, but will continue to pile up. (Heaven must be loaded with them by now, though I would have thought Jesus had enough of the thorns while he was here among us.) But wait -- you mustn't forget that on your left hand is the Devil who is just waiting for your attention to wander so that you screw up one of your roses, and who then grabs it and "writes it in his book of death!"

Well, there you have it. That's as far as I got. Heaving a big sigh, and feeling sympathy for any children who are being frightened by this, I finally had to recognize that the same forces that drove my parents into Catholic exile were still at work in me, leading me to question everything, accept nothing on faith alone, and to find my own way in my own spiritual world. God, I feel sure, welcomes my earnest search for the truth no more or less than the earnest prayers, or attempts at prayer, of those who conform to the various rituals of their churches.

At meeting, we Quakers sit in silence and listen for the truth, whenever and however it may appear. That too is a ritual and can be done wrong, yet no one is ever threatened with death, and it is never implied that there is anything inherently better about the right hand than the left. Perhaps I will find myself contemplating a mystery there, whether it is one of the ones on the official list or not. I might even discover that the words of the Doxology or the Hail Mary are still with me, rosary or not.

But then again, maybe I'll just remember my grandma.


  1. Your "meditation on" these matters seems most appropriate for the season. And your concern about the problem of rituals performed incorrectly has a long history. The great Charlemagne was concerned about the matter, and appropriately so since in his day literacy was confined to a handful of monks. Once stated, the problem was obvious: If, say, the prayers for the dying were spoken incorrectly, what then the fate of your immortal soul? He decided to address the matter by inviting the most literate men in the world, irish and english monks, to his court in aachen. Predictably, those gentlemen found the latin spoken there a far cry from the original, thus the emergence of latin as a liturgical language separate from the vernacular proto-French in everyday use. The lesson? Perhaps it's that an insistence on rigorous standards for worship and ritual will drive these activities away from the culture's center?

    Anyway, please accept my wishes, vernacular though they may be, for a peaceful, joyous, and obamanistic new year.

  2. Anonymous6:14 AM

    Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

    This is my favorite rosary prayer as well, leaving out my objections to gender specificity. But it can easily be altered to "God," "His Children," and "the Holy Spirit."

    Have you done any research on Quaker ties to Pentecostals.

    Best from Mexico