Rosaries seem so simple to the senses, initially. Eyes find spheres in a circle linked to additional spheres and a crucifix. Ears hear what sounds like chanting. Mouths profess a collection of beliefs at the start, repeat the same three (maybe four) prayers in five successive and identical cycles, and finally hail an unseen queen at the end. Hands touch the spheres to mark progression.
Sensory experiences can comfort even the most faithless heart. The Rosary is no different in that respect. Security arrives in knowing what comes next. It is also always available for purchase (maybe even for free!) in a variety of makes and models. It takes about 15-20 minutes to pray from beginning to end. It appears perfect for a world that today values little more than pleasing as many senses as quickly and as cheaply as possible.
Yet ask a person who prays the Rosary daily about its true value. You’ll find that it transcends their natural senses, for the Rosary according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a meditative form of popular piety that “engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire” to “deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ” in order to bring “knowledge of the love of the Lord Jesus” and “union with him” (CCC, 2708). The full measure of its mysteries is found beyond its beads, by the soul that speaks with no words, directed totally to the source and summit of all life.
Blessed John Paul II termed the Rosary the “school of Mary,” a place where Christians walk in prayer with the Blessed Virgin to “contemplate the beauty of the face of Christ” and “experience the depth of his love” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 1). Since the 16th century the Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious Mysteries have awakened Catholics to a curriculum fully informed by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is such an awesome treasury of knowledge, in fact, that may seem daunting. Some may even find it impossible to pray without the Blessed Sacrament before them or Scripture beside them. Regardless, applying the mysteries beyond its beads begins with the Rosary itself, rightly and humbly understood, as a healthy habit necessary in our daily life.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography on John Adams, David McCullough recounted one Sunday afternoon in 1776 when the future president of the United States attended Mass at St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Fifth Street in Philadelphia. According to McCullough, the event proved “an experience so singular” for Adams that he “reflected on it at length” both in his private journal and in a letter to his wife. Among reviews about the homily, hymns, priestly vestments and objects in the sanctuary, Adams also expressed pity for “the poor wretches fingering their beads, chanting Latin, not a word of which they understood” (p. 84).
It is perhaps ironic that by his comments Adams was the one who did not understand what was going on. The simple piety of the common Catholic can bring unseen graces. So I encourage you this week to meditate upon the mysteries as you touch the beads, with the language of faith that understands what waits beyond its beads. And do so knowing that the grace of God works in amazing ways, even with the poorest and most wretched sinners.
Jason Godin teaches United States history at Blinn College in Bryan, Texas. You can find him on Facebook here.