Beads On Call

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August 15 is the feast of the Assumption. According to Catholic tradition, at the end of Mary’s earthly life, she was assumed body and soul into heaven. In the spirit of the day, this article looks at a form of prayer traditionally associated with Mary.

Many people find comfort in praying a daily rosary. No matter what else changes in their lives, that circle of beads is a regular, dependable, soothing part of their normal routine.

I am not one of those people.

It’s not that I dislike the rosary. On the contrary, it’s been the catalyst for some of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my adult life. But though I’ve tried to make it part of my regular routine, somehow I can never quite keep it going. That could be a failure on my part — of imagination, or dedication, or timing — but I think it’s more likely that the rosary is, at this point in my life, simply filling a different role. It’s not my daily prayer practice, but something equally essential to spiritual health: the ritual I turn to in times of crippling fear, anxiety or grief.

In other words, it’s my twenty-four hour crisis helpline.

As a kid, I had no real sense of the soothing power of the rosary. At my Catholic school, each student got a blue rosary for our First Communion. Mine was poorly made — there were thin tags of plastic around the circumference of the beads — but I adored it. I wasn’t crazy about praying it in class, which I found boring, but I loved holding it by the crucifix and letting the beads settle slowly into my open palm. Though I didn’t pray it after graduating from eighth grade, I saved it in a shoebox at home for many years, a beloved artifact of my childhood.

It was in graduate school that I next handled a rosary. When I saw several sitting in a basket at the Newman Center, there for the taking, I snagged a bright green one. It seemed like a useful thing to have on hand, like safety pins or something. I tucked it away and didn’t think about it for a few years.

Then, on September 12, 2001, I took it out.

Something to hold on to

In the candlelit semi-darkness, with the calming repetition of Hail Marys, my breathing gradually slows, and my heart does, too. Fears and worries swirl to the surface of my consciousness, and I can skim them off and put them aside.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks, I, like the rest of the country, felt utterly disoriented and helpless. Living in California, I was far from the taste of ash and the smell of smoke, but I was haunted by the TV images of flames and twisted metal. I wept at the desperate fliers posted around Ground Zero, a nightmarish quilt, each square another family’s tragedy. There was nothing I could do besides pray, but just talking to God did not soothe me. I was not sure what to say to him, or how to put my own feelings, cramped around a core of fear, into words. I needed to be taken out of myself; I needed prayers that I knew by heart and could say without fumbling. So I found a box of Kleenex, sat cross-legged on the bed, and prayed the rosary, for the first time in nearly fifteen years.

It didn’t erase the grief and the terror, but it did blunt them. It moved me out of my sense of terrible helplessness. I finally felt peaceful enough to sleep, with the feeling that I’d done something concrete to mitigate my fear.

That was the first of many experiences of the rosary as a lifeline. In the years since then, I’ve prayed it often in times of professional and personal crisis, and I’ve learned that it always helps. I believe that God hears all our prayers, even the wordless inarticulate ones, but there is something about the rosary that helps me, that takes the teeth out of my fear. In the candlelit semi-darkness, with the calming repetition of Hail Marys, my breathing gradually slows, and my heart does, too. Fears and worries swirl to the surface of my consciousness, and I can skim them off and put them aside. I love the feel of the rosary, too; I often wind the beads around my hand and pull it tight, feeling the tension. Literally and figuratively, it’s something to hold on to.

Some might call my rosary a security blanket, but it’s far more profound than that. It connects me to a strong but tensile community of other people throughout time who have also turned to their beads in moments of stark need. When I pray it I am losing myself in the best possible way, losing myself in something ancient and larger than my circumstances. And by meditating on the key events in the lives of Jesus and Mary, I’m reminded of the God who became man and the mother who loved him: two reasons I’ve never left this faith, even in moments of rebellion or doubt.

Will the rosary ever become part of my daily routine? Maybe someday it will. I’ve learned that a prayer life changes over time, and that there’s always a virtue in reevaluating what works. But for now, what works is to keep the rosary in my nightstand, mostly undisturbed but always on call. In those occasional moments when anxiety rises and threatens to overwhelm me, I head down the hall and open the drawer. Out comes the green rosary; off goes the light. In comes the peace, building slowly, bead by bead.