If you’re Catholic, you probably have one—maybe the big clunky (tacky, if we’re being honest) one you received as a First Communion present. Maybe one of the plastic ones that you got in Kindergarten (and if you were really cool, you had the greenish-white glow-in-the-dark kind. Yeah, that one). Maybe one’s hanging from your rear-view mirror. Or maybe your grandmother’s, each bead lumpy and worn with use with a beautiful crucifix blackened with age.
Even if you’re not Catholic, you might have seen a rosary before—those loops of beads with the cross attached, involving something about praying to Mary. Well, it’s more about praying with Mary, but other than that, you’re not wrong.
What is The Rosary?
The loop of the rosary has five sets of ten beads, with larger beads separating the sets. The crucifix is attached at a point along this loop (usually designated by a medallion or portrait of Christ or Mary) by a string of three smaller beads and one or two larger beads. And boy oh boy does it involve Mary. No less than fifty-three Hail Mary’s are prayed during a rosary, in addition to six Our Father’s and six Glory Be’s.
Okay, so what’s it all about? Certainly the rosary isn’t just about praying Hail Mary’s over and over again; that can get boring really fast. The deeper purpose of the rosary is to meditate upon scenes from the life of Christ and Mary, which we refer to as “mysteries”. There are four series of these mysteries: the Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful, and Glorious mysteries. Each of these series has five mysteries within it, each corresponding with one set, or decade, of ten Hail Mary’s.
For example, if I were to choose the Joyful mysteries to pray today, the first decade of ten Hail Mary’s (including the Our Father that opens the decade and the Glory Be that closes it) would be a meditation on the Annunciation. The second decade would be a meditation on the Visitation, and so on.
Look carefully at the chart above for a moment. This isn’t just a collection of scenes from the Gospels chosen randomly or at specific intervals. Rather, these are the central moments of our faith. Christ’s salvation works through His incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, and the mysteries reflect all four of these events. Saint Pope John Paul II says, “The Rosary, though clearly Marian in character, is at heart a Christocentric prayer. In the sobriety of its elements, it has all the depth of the Gospel message in its entirety…” 1.
Certainly other things happen in the Gospels aside from what’s mentioned in the mysteries, but these are the most crucial scenes from the lives of Christ and Mary that call out to us for our consideration and meditation. The saving message of the Gospel is derived from what happens in these events.
What do I mean by “meditation”? The Catechism says that “meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire” (2708). This goes a bit deeper than just saying the words of the Hail Mary. When we meditate upon a mystery, we use all of these abilities to envision the scene and, in a sense, to make it our own. This can involve, for example, imagining the Nativity scene, or focusing in on a particular detail such as the child Jesus, or the Wise Men. It can involve wondering how Mary must have felt during the Annunciation, or allowing ourselves to feel something of the pain Jesus felt during the Agony in the Garden.
There are so many aspects of each mystery for us to meditate upon that we literally cannot run out. That’s why they’re called mysteries–they’re not mysterious in the sense that we can never come close to understanding them, but in the sense that we can always come to deeper and deeper understanding. We will never run out of new things to ponder or discover for ourselves when we meditate upon these mysteries. There is always more to be known.
But Why Mary?
Okay, so why do we bother with saying all of these Hail Mary’s while we’re also trying to do this meditation on the Gospel?
For starters, as mentioned above, the rosary is a meditation on the whole of the Gospel message with Mary. That’s right: when we pray the rosary, we’re praying to Jesus with her. Why Mary? Well, who else was present for nearly the whole of Christ’s life? She’s present in every mystery save for the Agony, the Transfiguration, and the Institution of the Eucharist. Who knew Jesus better than His own mother, who stood by His side His entire life? When we walk through the Gospel with His mother, the person who knew Him best, we are praying to Him with the one who was closest to Him.
Imagine someone you know whom you can see is very close to God. Imagine them telling you that they’d prayed for you earlier that day, or imagine praying beside them. There’s a certain joy and peace to be found in the experience of having someone pray for and with you, especially with someone whom you know is in a good relationship with God. Mary is in the ultimate relationship with God as His mother and closest human companion. And when we pray the rosary, she prays with us and intercedes for us, just as we ask her to when we say, “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”
So the Hail Mary’s unite our meditation with Mary–but still, that seems a little mentally taxing, doesn’t it? Meditation is a pretty intense effort if we let it be so, and piling the Hail Mary’s on top of that might seem overwhelming. It certainly seemed that way to me when I first started praying the rosary.
Here’s a way to think about it. Have you ever prayed while going about your daily business? Maybe you’ve said a brief prayer when you’ve heard an ambulance, or maybe you’ve said a quick thank-you to God for something really awesome, or maybe you’ve asked God to help when you feel like you’re in danger or in trouble (if you haven’t done any of those things, I highly recommend it). We can pray while we’re otherwise occupied with other things–and our prayers still work! It’s certainly good to put as much focus and attention as we can into our prayers, but sometimes the situation doesn’t allow for that. God still listens. It’s sort of the same way with the rosary, only this time, instead of praying with our mind focused on our daily business, we pray while our mind is focused on imagining and pondering the mysteries.
So don’t stress too much about having to balance attention to the words with the act of meditation. The words are still important, and you can certainly focus on them if that’s where you feel you pray best, but the rosary is primarily a meditative tool. The formal prayers of the rosary make up the skeleton, but the meditation is the meat.
So dig out that old rosary, even if it’s a glow-in-the-dark one from 1999. Take it off your rear-view mirror and walk through the life of Christ with Mary. Ask her to show you the life of her Son, such that you may know Him better.