For all good Protestants, myself included, Mary is the ultimate stumbling block on a journey into full Catholic communion.
This wasn’t so for the first 1,500 years of Church history. Martin Luther one of the earliest Protestant reformers held strong and fast to Marian doctrine even doctrine, like her perpetual virginity, which couldn’t be strongly backed up by his sola scriptura theology.
I didn’t have such a hard time with Mary. Thankfully I was introduced, early on in my journey, to Dr. Scott Hahn’s book Hail, Holy Queen, a fulsome academic treatise on Mary as revealed by the Old Testament. It was fascinating—Hahn is a masterful biblical theologian—and with the help of, I believe, the Holy Spirit, a lot of those tough theological barriers that most Protestants come up against with Marian theology crumbled.
So I thought Mary was alright and most of what Catholics said about her sounded right too. What I realized about Mary was exactly that: What Catholics were saying was right. The problem was, Protestants weren’t saying anything about her. Far from a genuine academic argument about the Mother of God, Protestant scholars simply weren’t touching the issue, which is interesting in and of itself.
But, anyway, that was Mary and what I want to write about is the Rosary, which concerns Mary but, which I’ve realized (and it’s blown my mind), is about so much more.
Foreign and Frightening – Even European!
For me, Mary was okay, but Marian devotions and rituals like the Rosary were wholly foreign and frightening. The Rosary felt so European, like something Italian grandmothers would cling to in the back pews of dusty churches. The Rosary felt complicated, inaccessible, and unnecessary; I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t know all the rules—I had no idea where to begin.
So I got a book. I got a book that talked about Mary, a fairly pedestrian text after already reading Dr. Hahn’s book, but there, tucked in the last few chapters, was a detailed explanation of the mysteries of the Rosary.
I’m genuinely surprised, at this point in my journey, when something can still completely shock me. I’ve read so much, I’ve learned so much, and as my beautiful wife likes to joke, I know more about Catholicism than most Catholics. She’s probably right, so it’s surprising when I bump into something that completely shocks me, like learning about the Rosary.
But my shock about the Rosary revealed two things to me. First, it showed me that I’ve learned a lot but I still have a lot to learn. I thought I knew the basics of Catholicism and I thought I knew about the Rosary. What I thought I knew made it seemed foreign and complicated but I knew about it nonetheless. When I actually read and learned about it I was shocked by the incredible power of what I found. Second, the shock I felt at learning more about the Rosary revealed to me that I have my own share, still, of anti-Catholic prejudices hanging on for dear life.
This is what happened.
I knew about the Rosary largely from bits and pieces of things I’d picked up over the last year or so of seriously reading my way into the Catholic Church. But I didn’t know a lot. I knew enough to know that the “Hail Mary” was a biblically-based prayer that asked for Mary to pray for us and acknowledged her incredible position as the bearer of the Christ child. It’s a powerful prayer and after studying and understanding it’s origins (and the theology of the Communion of the Saints) it made sense to me.
A Bible Study on a Necklace
I knew that the Hail Mary made up the large part of the Rosary and I knew that somewhere in there faithful Catholics also meditated on certain “mysteries” from the life of Jesus. I didn’t know or understand what those were, or what that meant, and that was the inaccessible and complicated bit. Catholics I knew just seemed to know them and have memorized all this difficult stuff. When I came to understand the mysteries of the Rosary, just recently, the whole practice of the Rosary took on a new life in my mind.
It turns out that the practice of the Rosary is like a complete Bible study on a necklace. When I learned this, it blew my mind. When I learned this, I realized that I’d been so skeptical of the Rosary. I know, in my intellect, that Catholics don’t worship Mary, but I worried that the Rosary somehow skewed the role of Mary and placed, upon her, too much emphasis. I was wrong, forgive me, because the Rosary is awesome and the Rosary is firmly, and rightly, Christ-centred.
At the heart of the Rosary are meditations on particular scenes from the gospels. This is what makes the Rosary a mini Bible study. This is what made the Rosary so popular for catechesis in the Middle Ages. There are four different sets of mysteries and the Church recommends that they’re prayed on different days of the week. Each set of mysteries—the Joyful Mysteries, the Luminous Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries, and the Glorious Mysteries—contains five sceneswithin them for meditation.
The scenes from the Luminous Mysteries, for example, are:
- The Baptism of Jesus
- The Wedding Feast at Cana
- The Proclamation of the Kingdom of God
- The Transfiguration
- The Establishment of the Lord’s Supper
The goal of the Rosary is to meditate, prayerfully, on these scenes. As a participant in the Rosary you become a prayerful participant in these biblical scenes.
There are lots of ways this is done but here’s an example as far as I understand.
The Rosary begins with a Sign of the Cross, an ancient prayer custom which has traditionally begun prayers for thousands of years, followed by the Apostles’ Creed, one of the oldest Christian creeds in existence, the Lord’s Prayer which Jesus taught in the New Testament, and then three “Hail Mary’s”. In the Hail Mary, we call Mary blessed, like she said we would in Luke’s gospel, and acknowledge that what’s more blessed is the fruit of her womb, Jesus Christ. Then we ask Mary to pray for us.
Next, we pray the “Gloria Patri” prayer, a beautiful, ancient doxology proclaiming the power of the Trinity.
And then the Bible study begins in earnest.
If I’m praying the Luminous Mysteries I begin, for the first mystery, with the Baptism of Jesus. I announce this mystery and then pray a decade, that is ten, Hail Mary’s. What I am doing is joining my spirit, my mind, and my physical being to the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River two thousand years ago. My goal, with the Rosary, is to meditate on that scene, while I pray, while I move the beads, and while I aspire to be like Jesus, and his mother, who said, “Yes,” to God and changed the world.
I’ve tried, and it works, and it blew my mind.
And the incredible thing about Catholic prayer, which I’d never heard of in my Protestant circles, is that I can pray with certain intentions. The Rosary is meant to work this way, too. As I begin to pray a later Luminous Mystery, maybe the fourth mystery, the Transfiguration, I can begin that decade of the Rosary with those prayers for the intention of, say, my life to be transfigured to reflect, more clearly, that of Jesus Christ. As I then go about praying ten Hail Marys, reflecting on the scene of Jesus’s glorious Transfiguration, the words I’m saying, the position of my prayerful spirit, is towards the intention of praying for transfiguration in my own life.
Each decade of the Rosary ends with the Gloria Patri. Each mystery begins again with the Lord’s Prayer.
I said it was a bit complicated, right? Well it is. What surprised me was how quickly I could memorize all twenty mysteries, and the rotation of the prayers. Are you still following?
The Depth of the Catholic Prayer Traditions
Dr. William Marshner, a Catholic convert from Lutheranism and a professor of theology, remarked in an interview that it’s easy to be overwhelmed, to be blown away, by Catholic prayer traditions. There are lots of them, from thousands of years of tradition. That’s a good thing, to be sure, but it’s overwhelming too. For the Rosary alone there are likely thousands of ways to pray and reflect on the mysteries. The way I’ve described is one way I’ve learned and when I learned it I thought, “I need to share this!” Because it’s amazing.
Yes, there is the stuff of Marian theology in the Rosary and, yes, it’s something to be overcome and, God willing, fully understood, but at it’s core I’ve learned that the Rosary is a wholly Christ-centred practice in so much as Mary, the Mother of God, always points directly to Jesus. In so much as the bulk of the Rosary, the point of its meditations, is like an incredible living Bible study. While it’s certainly true that many, maybe most, Catholics don’t know their Bible as well as evangelical Protestants do there’s deep Bible study in the Rosary.
As we ask Mary, in her special role, to pray for us. As we mediate on the seminal events in the life of Christ and His Church. As we slip the beads through our fingers and find that quiet, contemplative rhythm, we orient our whole selves and our whole lives towards the will of God and prayerful life in Jesus Christ. That sounds good to me—that sounds incredible to me—and, like learning about the Eucharist, when I learned the real deal about the Rosary it blew my mind.