A few months ago, a friend of mine returned from a vacation to Europe with a souvenir for me. She had been browsing in an antique shop in Verdun, France, and found a rosary that dated to about 1902–1910. Not long after the rosary was made, the Battle of Verdun raged during World War I.
Near where the antique shop is situated today stands the cathedral in Verdun, which dates to the twelfth century. The cathedral survived the battle, all but unscathed, despite the Germans' burning desire to destroy it. My friend is not Catholic, but she felt that this rosary, which could have been used to pray for the city of Verdun from within the cathedral during the battle, should be used again. So she bought the rosary and gave it to me.
If that isn't inspiration to pray the rosary, what could be?
I treasure the rosary I was given, and I have indeed used it to pray as my friend desired, but I have a difficult time praying "the rosary"—and, frankly, don't pray it very often at all. When I admitted to my personal difficulty praying the rosary on Facebook, I was chided for suggesting that it could be difficult to pray the rosary.
Let's begin by clarifying the terms. The sacramental my friend gave me is a beaded chain, fashioned into a circle, and used to keep track of prayers. It is called a rosary, the same name given to the prayers most often prayed using the beaded chain. Catholics use "a rosary" (the sacramental) to say "the rosary" (the prayer form), either alone or with a group.
A Brief History of the Rosary
Over a hundred years of spiritual turmoil and civil unrest had ravaged the twelfth-century French countryside. Heretics' rejection of marriage in particular had torn apart families and fostered vice. Dispatched on an urgent mission by the Spanish king, a young priest named Dominic Guzman (1170–1221) was moved by the suffering of the ordinary people he encountered on his journey.
Pious legend holds that the Blessed Mother appeared to St. Dominic in a dream. She gave him the beaded chain on which the prayers of the rosary were to be recited and told him that prayer and meditation on the life of her Son would defeat heresy.
Although this legend is a lovely story, the development of the rosary is more complex. The Blessed Virgin's psalter predates Dominic, though he and the Dominicans became its principal promoters. In its history of the rosary, the Catholic Encyclopedia recounts that in the early centuries of the Church monks would recite the Psalms as part of their rule of life. Since learning the Psalms was necessarily restricted to those who could read, a simpler prayer tradition was needed for the illiterate brothers. The Lord's Prayer was adopted for this purpose; the brothers would recite 150 Our Fathers to correspond to the number of Psalms.
Small stones were used originally to count the prayers. Later, beads were strung as prayer counters. In the early part of the second millennium, with the rise of widespread medieval devotion to the Blessed Mother, the Hail Mary developed and gained popularity and was inserted into the prayer tradition.
Between 1410 and 1439, Dominic of Prussia, a Carthusian, proposed to the faithful a form of the Marian psalter in which there were fifty Hail Marys, each followed by a verbal reference to a Gospel passage. The Carthusian idea caught on, and psalters of this type multiplied in the fifteenth century. The references to the Gospel grew numerous, at one point reaching 300, according to the regions and favorite devotions.
Bl. Alan de la Roche (1428–1478) did great work in promoting the Marian psalter, which during his lifetime began to be called the "Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary," thanks to his preaching and to the Marian confraternities he founded. The rosary was simplified in 1521 by Alberto da Castello, who chose fifteen scriptural meditations. (Nota bene: Pope John Paul II would add five more meditations in 2002, in his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae.) The short prayer at the end of the Hail Marys developed around this same time. The final, traditional form of the rosary was standardized during the pontificate of one of Dominic's spiritual sons, Pope St. Pius V during the Counter-Reformation.
A wide variety of prayer traditions have been attached to the rosary. The Franciscans developed their own form, which has survived into our time. The faithful have added other prayers to the traditional form. In the U.S., the rosary usually begins with the Apostles' Creed, while in other parts of the world it opens with Psalm 70. In some places, since the apparitions at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917, the prayer that our Lady is believed to have taught the young seers has been added after the concluding Gloria of each decade. Some end the rosary with the prayer Hail, Holy Queen; others add Pope Leo XIII's prayer for protection to St. Michael the Archangel or a favorite litany in honor of the Blessed Mother.
The Heart of the Rosary
The heart of the rosary is not the ritual prayers such as the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be; rather it is the mysteries that the faithful meditate upon during each ten-bead segment (called a decade). Four sets of mysteries, each dedicated to events in the lives of Christ and his Mother, are to be reflected upon by the faithful.
The Joyful Mysteries recount the infancy and childhood of Christ. They are the Annunciation of Christ's birth, the Visitation of the pregnant Mary to her pregnant relative, Elizabeth; the Nativity of Christ; the Presentation of Christ in the Temple; and the Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple.
The Luminous Mysteries, added to the rosary by St. John Paul II, are dedicated to Christ's public ministry. They are the Baptism in the Jordan; the Wedding at Cana; the Proclamation of the Kingdom; the Transfiguration of Christ; and the Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. (Nota bene: Those who find the Proclamation of the Kingdom to be too abstract for meditation could substitute Christ's Sermon on the Mount, during which he proclaimed the kingdom.)
The Sorrowful Mysteries are the events of Christ's passion and death. They are the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane; the Scourging at the Pillar; the Crowning with Thorns; the Carrying of the Cross; and the Crucifixion of Christ.
The Glorious Mysteries invite the faithful to meditate upon the events following Christ's return from the dead. They are the Resurrection; the Ascension of Christ into heaven; the Descent of the Holy Spirit; the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin into heaven; and the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin as queen of heaven and earth. These last two mysteries are not explicitly mentioned in Scripture, and so occasionally others are substituted for those who prefer to meditate on explicitly scriptural events (e.g., the Second Coming and the Final Judgment).
Praying and Meditating
Those new to praying the rosary oftentimes ask how to both say the ritual prayers and meditate on the mysteries at the same time. Learning the prayers and how to move around the string of beads is simple enough; it is the meditation on the mysteries that can be difficult. Sometimes it can seem as challenging as the old brain exercise of patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time.
There's no simple answer to this particular challenge—trust me, I've been looking for one for nearly twenty years now. But you can adapt your style to whatever works best for you. Some people read short written meditations before the start of each new decade; some pause between prayers. Others, like me, simply announce the mystery, say the prayers, and trust the Lord to know we're doing our best to participate in the rosary in some way. A fortunate, graced few, such as the late journalist James Foley, seem to have found a way to combine prayer and meditation seamlessly:
I began to pray the rosary. It was what my mother and grandmother would have prayed. I said ten Hail Marys between each Our Father. It took a long time, almost an hour to count 100 Hail Marys off on my knuckles. And it helped to keep my mind focused. [A colleague] Clare and I prayed together out loud. It felt energizing to speak our weaknesses and hopes together, as if in a conversation with God, rather than silently and alone.
Other Uses for the Rosary
Of course, one nice thing about the beaded chain is that this sacramental does not need to be used solely for praying the prayers of the rosary. It can be used to keep track of any appropriate prayers you prefer to pray. In fact, those who pray the Divine Mercy chaplet use a standard rosary for keeping track of the chaplet's prayers. Shorter prayers and no expected meditations make the Divine Mercy chaplet popular with Catholics who dislike praying the rosary.
One of the popular questions the apologists on staff at Catholic Answers get is whether the rosary, which is oftentimes large enough to be draped around the neck, can be worn as a necklace. Let's first look at what canon law has to say:
Sacred objects, set aside for divine worship by dedication or blessing, are to be treated with reverence. They are not to be made over to secular or inappropriate use, even though they may belong to private persons (canon 1171, Code of Canon Law).
Essentially, sacramentals such as rosaries must be treated with respect, particularly if they have been blessed. Reverence is the attitude of awe or respect that is most often given to sacred things. By its very definition, it is an interior disposition that usually cannot be determined by onlookers by appearances alone. A person may be wearing a rosary as a statement of faith, to keep it handy for praying throughout the day, or to avoid losing it. Those reasons would be indicative of reverence and would not interfere with the canon's directive that sacramentals must be treated reverently.
Ordinarily speaking, then, if someone is spotted wearing a rosary, he should be charitably presumed to be wearing it for just reasons. Only if the rosary is being put to an objectively sordid use can we be sure that the rosary is being treated irreverently (e.g., a rock star is using a rosary as a prop in a music video, obscenely contrasting the symbolic purity of the rosary with the immodest or immoral actions of the performers).
At Ease with the Rosary
I haven't entirely become at ease with the rosary myself, even after having been a Catholic for nearly twenty years now. But one thing that keeps me returning to the prayers of the rosary is to avoid focusing too intently on how it "should" be prayed.
For example, I love beautiful rosaries like the one my friend gave me, but sometimes I just tick off a decade on my fingers, figuring one reason God gave us ten fingers is so that we always have a "rosary" at the tip of our hands. I also don't worry about the opening prayers or closing prayers—primarily because I am always mixing up the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed. My go-to prayer tends to be the Hail Mary, and I often just say a few Hail Marys without bothering to keep track of the number.
If the rosary is your favorite devotion, and it is easy for you to pray, thank God for the grace he gave you and pray it often. For the rest of us, I like to think it can be enough to pray what we can when we can, and trust that the Holy Spirit makes up for any lack in our technique (cf. Rom. 8:26).
"I'll pray for you."
"That's very kind of you."
"I can't spare you a whole rosary, you know. Just a decade. I've got such a long list of people. I take them in order and they get a decade about once a week" (Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited).