Still Life with Rosary
What is to be found in this set of beads?
I bought my first rosary in 1960. It was plastic, cost a dime, and was pink. Our Catholic school had mandated that all first-graders purchase a rosary from the principal’s office on a certain day. But when that day came, only three of us arrived at school with ten cents in our pocket. (Could it be that pernicious secularization was at work even then?)
The principal’s assistant had two kinds of rosaries laid out on her desk; pink and black. I thought the pink one looked much better.
“Sorry, but the pink ones are for girls and the black ones are for boys. You are required to take the black one.”
“But the sisters’ rosaries are all black!”
“Good point” said the principal who had just walked in. “This boy is in first grade. I think we can give him a pink one if he wants it.”
Clutching my new pink rosary, I remember skipping down the hall back to my class. (I don’t know what they would make of a boy skipping down the hall of a Catholic school with a pink rosary these days. But although they may have been less tolerant in those days, they also seemed less suspicious.)
If you want to know about the rosary I have in my pocket right now and how it came to be there, you’ll have to read after the fold.
Being a Modern Man, I like to fancy that my spirituality is evolving; it is showing “progress.” Whether it is in fact or not, it certainly has gone through stages. My first lessons about what a rosary was came from the hardscrabble ethnic Catholic world, primarily from working-class Irish and Italians. My primary Irish influence was my maternal grandmother, who began life as a peasant girl in Cork. My primary Italian influence was her best friend Lill, who lived in the apartment next door. (My grandmother claimed to have a deep prejudice against Italians, yet all of her closest friends were Italian. Attempting to embrace such contradictions played a big role in my early spiritual development.)
In the days of the Latin mass, people like my grandmother and Lill would pray the rosary during the service. Along with flipping through the missal or the latest St. Anthony Messenger or reviewing the hundreds of holy cards that old ladies accumulated from decades of wakes, praying the rosary was one of the approved things that one did to pass the time until the Eucharist was distributed. Since this was public prayer, the impressiveness of one’s rosary was an important thing. I thought my grandmother’s especially impressive. It was about three feet long and made of rhinestones so large that it seemed like it was built out of glass doorknobs. It had been handmade for her by her son-in-law, a convert from Lutheranism (perhaps, in retrospect, as a joke.) Grandma would let me hold it for a few minutes once in a while and it must have weighed three or four pounds. “I’m going to be buried with this rosary” she would always say, which would make me quickly hand it back to her.
I learned from my grandmother to treat the rosary as a sacred object. But her primary use of it was in adding to what she called her “spiritual treasury.” At Mass she would carefully pray through her massive collection of holy cards, meticulously tallying the indulgence days that they always contained. Then she would take out her rosary. (I can still remember the way that the sound of it smashing against the pew in front of us would startle everyone around us, not to mention the priest at the altar.) I asked her once how many days’ indulgence one got for saying a rosary, and all she would tell me was “plenary,” which sounded to me like a very high number. Then it would be time for the Eucharist and soon a satisfied walk back to her apartment, my grandmother confident that St. Peter had recorded a very large credit to her account.
The finer, more esoteric points on the rosary I got from Lill. Lill was a massive Sicilian widow with a booming voice and large flapping arms that she would crush me with every time she saw me. She was very, very devout. She liked rosaries so much that she wore two or three of them around her neck. Despite her weight, she claimed to fast on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I was fascinated by her small apartment, which seemed crammed with vivid Italian saint statues, all of which were bleeding in some way. She had holy water, lit candles, and (joy of joys) real relics. She tended to be a jolly person except when Jesus was mad at her and she had to atone for something. Even as a child I couldn’t understand why Jesus would be mad at her so much, since she never seemed to leave her apartment except to go to church. She was the one who told me that the rosary was a powerful weapon – very strong stuff – that without fail would cause the Blessed Virgin to appear at one’s side if one died with it in one’s hands. Praying the rosary was also like firing a spiritual A-bomb at the Soviet Union, which Catholics needed to do for world peace.
I was an impressionable child and found that I could not resist all this piety. So I would go to my grandmother’s secret stash of old rosaries, and under the principle “more is better” I would hang six of them around my neck. Then I would sneak into my uncle’s bedroom, close the door, and pray on my knees before a small tan plastic crucifix that he had hanging there.
“You were a damn strange little boy,” my late mother would later say. But my relatives tolerated this behavior (although they would have preferred that I was out playing baseball and torturing insects like my younger brother), because in those days this sort of behavior was believed to indicate that I might have a calling to be a priest — something that my grandmother believed our family desperately needed.
I outgrew all of this — or, I should say, I rejected all of this — about the time I went to high school. I believed that I was doing so for sound theological reasons. I couldn’t believe any more that prayers were added to a celestial bank account from which one could purchase time off Purgatory. (A Jesuit had rocked my world once with an offhand comment. “Father, how long do souls remain in Purgatory?” “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe one day less than eternity, I guess.”) It was also now the late sixties, and the idea of firing things at Russia, even spiritual A-bombs, didn’t seem right.
I still carried a rosary in my pocket; a red plastic one that my grandfather had bought for probably sixpence in Ireland years before. But it was now just something I had in my pocket along with my wallet, keys, and my little can of mace. I gradually forgot the mysteries and the words to Hail Holy Queen. The rosary was usually tangled up on itself and it got very beaten up. I was still attached to it as a souvenir, however. Years later, when I offered it to my aunt to be buried with my mother (after all, it had been in the family for years) she said, “No offense, but I can’t let your mother lie there with that piece of…that thing wrapped around her fingers for all eternity.” I was secretly glad she let me keep it.
It was only years later when I came to start praying again that I began to think about my rosary’s intended function. I was still quite afraid that if I started praying the rosary again I would lapse into what I believed were childish superstitions. And besides, I was highly educated now. I needed something more sophisticated to meditate on. Perhaps something baroque and Loyolan or maybe something like the Lectio Divina. (“What do you do on the train ride to work?” “Who, me? I frequently pray via the Lectio Divina, meditating on a single word or short passage from Scripture while I wait for the Holy Spirit to inspire me. Ommmmmmm.”)
But I couldn’t quite get these things to work. My Ignatian meditations tended to involve me imagining myself at the Crucifixion, with Christ looking down at me from the cross and saying “Hey everybody! Look who’s here! It’s unagidon!” Lectio Divina was no better. “Thy Kingdom Come. Thy Kingdom. Come. Kingdom. Come. If that bastard. Kingdom. Come. Shows me another damn Power Point today. Kingdom. Kingdom. Come. I’ll kill us both. Kingdom Come.”
So I ended up running back to the rosary like a distressed adult man might run back to his mother. I have related in another blog post my struggles to relearn the rosary and to just do it and not expect anything from it, under the principle laid out by Herbert McCabe that goes something like: “Prayer is like love; you won’t really begin to understand it until you actually do it.”
So for a long time, I just did it. I won’t exactly say that this prayer was sterile, but it frequently seemed to me that I was just repeating endless Hail Marys, over and over and over.
Eventually, however, it bore fruit in the form of a certain “sweetness” that I have described elsewhere (and in the end, you will really just have to trust me and find out about it for yourself).
But what I will talk about is why sophisticated, rational, educated me, to my enduring astonishment, tries to pray a couple of rosaries a day now.
I have a theory (of course). If God is everywhere at all times, then we are not really “summoning” God when we pray. The thing that actually stands between God and ourselves is….ourselves. We get in our own way, because we can’t easily remove ourselves from our thoughts about ourselves and all the trash that constantly runs through our minds. This may mean that anything that facilitates removing ourselves as a barrier to God is prayer. There seem to be many, many ways to do this. Many roads lead to God. What looked to me (and perhaps would still be for me) like the pious superstitions of my grandmother in her prayer was actually a way that she could focus on her prayer, on praying it carefully and removing herself by concentrating on this. Lill’s practices, which to me now resemble almost a form of voodoo, were a way she could sanctify her entire environment — not to my satisfaction, but to hers.
The rosary for me has become a form of meditation. My mind is usually moving constantly at three thousand mile per hour and I find it very hard to get the internal voice to shut up. I find that right now, at least, I’m just not disciplined enough in my prayer to engage in more free-form styles. The rote prayers of the rosary help me focus on God as I focus on the prayers. And now after ages of doing it, this prayer can cause me to get into a sort of groove, where sometimes I can lose myself. The feeling is no more and no less than the feeling of God suddenly sneaking up on me.
Years ago I spent a night in a Japanese Zen monastery on Mount Koya. It was certainly to me a foreign and (formally) non-Christian environment. A monk spoke about meditation.
“You have to still the voice in your head in order to really see or experience the world.”
“But what about koans?” asked someone, referring to those paradoxical riddles that some Zen sects use as an aid to meditation.
“We’re not that kind of Zen. One can lose oneself in a koan, but what often happens instead is one starts thinking, ‘Here I am trying to lose myself in a koan.’ And then they get distracted.”
“So what do you think about when you meditate? What do you focus on?”
“Sitting up straight” replied the monk. “Of course, you are likely to think, ‘Here I am trying to meditate by trying to sit up straight’ and get nowhere. But sooner or later, if you keep it very simple, you can learn how to sit up straight and you may also silence that voice.”
Well, I don’t sit, I walk. And I don’t think on koans, I pray the rosary. But it is very interesting what happens on those occasions when you can get the voice to just stop.