I bought my first rosary in 1960. It was plastic and pink, and it cost a dime. 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. 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 skipped down the hall back to my class.
My first lessons about what a rosary was came from the hardscrabble ethnic Catholic world—largely 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.)
In the days before Vatican II, people like my grandmother and Lill would pray the rosary during Mass. 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 things one did to pass the time until the Eucharist was distributed. Since this was public prayer, the impressiveness of one’s rosary was important. I thought my grandmother’s especially impressive. It was about three feet long and made of rhinestones so large they looked like glass doorknobs. It had been handmade for her by her son-in-law, a convert from Lutheranism. Grandma would let me hold it for a few minutes once in a while. It must have weighed three or four pounds. “I’m going to be buried with this rosary,” she would always say. On hearing that, I would quickly hand it back to her.
I learned from my grandmother to treat the rosary as a sacred object. She used it to add 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. Then she would take out her rosary. I can still remember how the sound of it knocking against the pew 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 was time for the Eucharist and, after that, 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 of 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 crammed with vivid Italian-saint statues, all of which appeared to be bleeding. 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, that it 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. I couldn’t 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 plastic crucifix he had hanging there. “You were a damn strange little boy,” my mother would say years later. But my relatives tolerated this conduct (even if they would have preferred that I be out playing baseball and torturing insects like my younger brother), because in those days this sort of behavior was believed to indicate a calling to the priesthood—something that my grandmother felt our family desperately needed.
I outgrew, or rejected, all of this about the time I went to high school. I thought I was rejecting it for sound theological reasons. I could no longer believe 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. I had asked him how long souls remain in purgatory. He answered, “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe one day less than eternity.”) It was now the late ’60s, and the idea of firing things at Russia, even spiritual A-bombs, didn’t seem right. I still carried a rosary, a red plastic one that my grandfather had bought in Ireland years before. But it was now just something I had in my pocket, along with my wallet, keys, and a little can of mace. I gradually forgot the mysteries and the words of the Hail Holy Queen. The rosary was in rough shape and usually tangled up, but I was still attached to it as a souvenir. Years later, when I offered to let my aunt bury it 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 when I came to start praying again years later that I began to think about my rosary’s intended function. I was afraid that if I started praying the rosary again I would lapse into what I believed were childish superstitions. Besides, I was highly educated now; I needed something more sophisticated. Perhaps something baroque and Loyolan, or maybe something like lectio divina. But I couldn’t quite get these things to work. My Ignatian meditations tended to involve my 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 PowerPoint today. Kingdom. Kingdom. Come. I’ll kill us both. Kingdom Come.”
So I ended up running back to the rosary as an adult man in distress might run back to his mother. I struggled to relearn the prayers and mysteries and to pray them without expecting anything in particular, under the principle formulated by Fr. Herbert McCabe, OP: 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 say that this prayer was sterile, but it frequently seemed to me that I was just repeating endless Hail Marys, over and over. Eventually, though, it bore fruit: I felt a sweetness that is difficult to describe. Now I pray a couple of rosaries a day.
Why? 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 means that anything that helps remove the trash and the self-preoccupation as a barrier to God is prayer. There seem to be many, many ways to do this. What looked to me like the pious superstition of my grandmother was actually a way for her to focus on her prayer. By praying the rosary carefully she was able to get out of her own way. Lill’s practices, which to me almost resembled voodoo, were a way she could sanctify her entire environment—not to my satisfaction, perhaps, but to hers.
The rosary has become for me a form of meditation. My mind is usually moving at three thousand miles per hour, and I find it very hard to get my internal voice to shut up. I find that, for now at least, I’m just not disciplined enough in my prayer to engage in more freeform styles. The rote prayers of the rosary help me focus on God instead of myself. After ages of praying the rosary, I can now sometimes lose myself in it. The feeling is no more and no less than that of God suddenly sneaking up on me.
Years ago I spent a night in a Japanese Zen monastery on Mount Koya. A monk there 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?” someone asked, 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 one gets 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 repeat koans; I pray the rosary. But it is very interesting what happens on those occasions when you can get the voice to just stop.