I learned how to pray the rosary with the help of a nun. A Zen Buddhist nun. During my final year at seminary I was privileged to take a class in Zen Meditation. We gathered early every morning to sit in complete silence and stillness on the floor of the Social Hall. (Full disclosure: By the end of the semester I was sitting in a chair as I was outrageously pregnant with our first child. Had I persisted in sitting on the floor I might still be there like some sort of ridiculous living art installation depicting the pitfalls of being too proud to acknowledge one’s own limitations.)
One might (quite rightly) postulate that sitting still and being quiet is easy work. I promise you that it is not … at least not for me. My nose itched. I felt a constant compulsion to clear my throat. But most of all, I could not quiet my mind. I spent a tremendous amount of time thinking gorgeous thoughts about the virtues of not thinking. It was utterly ridiculous.
After a few weeks we were joined by a Zen Buddhist nun from a temple near our campus. She suggested that we each choose a mantra to aid us in our meditation. She taught us several Zen mantras and encouraged us to choose something from our own faith traditions to use. The purpose of the mantra, she taught us, was both to repeat something that brought us peace and also to occupy that part of our minds that requires constant stimulation so that we might acquire the ability to be truly present in the moment.
At the time, I was attending RCIA in preparation to be received into the Church. I chose the Hail Mary as my mantra. I must have said a thousand Hail Marys that semester. It is there — with the sunrise peering through the windows as I sat perched morning after morning upon a folding chair staring down at the wonderful roundness of this nun’s shaved head — that I learned something about the rosary. Peace, it occurred to me, is at the heart of the rosary. We pray the Hail Mary to occupy our minds with the most beautiful words we know — words of love and trust for Our Mother — so that our hearts can be unfettered and open to meditating upon the mysteries of the life, love, suffering, and resurrection of Our Lord, the Prince of Peace. The rosary is a Gospel we can carry in our pockets. Meditating on the holy mysteries it contains gives us peace that passes all understanding. And here’s the thing about that peace: it will not let you be still. It will not let you be silent. It beckons you to go forth and do scandalous things in the name of Love. (Consider yourself warned.)
Armed with the rosary
The rosary is a powerful means for personal and societal transformation. We pray it to welcome the peace of Christ into our hearts and we pray it to welcome that same peace into our world. In 1986, millions of Catholics flooded the streets of Manila in the Philippines. The Rosary Revolution (also known as the People Power Revolution) brought an end to the 20-year military regime of Ferdinand Marcos. When confronted by Marcos’ military sent to silence their demonstration, those gathered persisted in their nonviolent resistance by praying the rosary for four days. By the end of the demonstration military personnel sent to harass and intimidate the protesters joined their prayer, and Marcos was forced to leave office.
Last May, a group organized by the Dublin Catholic Worker took to the streets to pray the rosary in protest of Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ireland due to the long and troubled history of imperialism and oppression the Irish have endured. Those gathered held signs saying, “NO QUEEN, but Mary Queen of Heaven — single mum, refugee, role model for a revolutionary!” This year on January 10, 22 nuns and one Jesuit priest were arrested for praying the rosary for peace in front of the proposed site for a military base on South Korea’s Jeju Island. Every Friday the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas give pastoral care to undocumented immigrants who are being deported and separated from their families. They even travel to the last detention center the deportees arrive at before boarding a bus that takes them out of the country forever. The sisters pray the rosary as the people board the bus. They climb aboard to offer a blessing before the bus leaves. They try to be the face of peace and hope for those in despair. It is amazing what we might change, who we might help, and what we might become when we are armed with loving kindness, justice, and the rosary of Our Lady.
If you’ve never prayed the rosary, here’s the nitty gritty to get you started:
- The word “rosary” comes form the latin word “rosarium,” which means rose garden. Every time you pray the rosary you plant a rose garden in your heart in honor of Our Lady. In it the Prince of Peace is most happy to dwell.
- The rosary consists of a total of 59 beads, a crucifix, and a centerpiece, which usually features an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It should be noted that you don’t need rosary beads to pray the rosary. You have 10 fingers. As the mother of three small children with a propensity for snatching rosaries, I assure you that these work just fine.
- Trying using a “rosary map.” This will give you a list of the prayers said throughout the rosary, the mysteries of the rosary, and which prayers happen on each bead.
- Pray it with someone else or download an MP3 of the rosary. Following along with someone can be really helpful.
- In the words of Archbishop Fulton Sheen: “The rosary is the book of the blind, where souls see and there enact the greatest drama of love the world has ever known; it is the book of the simple, which initiates them into mysteries and knowledge more satisfying than the education of other men; it is the book of the aged, whose eyes close upon the shadow of this world, and open on the substance of the next. The power of the rosary is beyond description.”