How to Shut Up

An Old Devotion Quiets a Modern Mind

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...

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