Praying the Rosary
The purpose of the Rosary is to help keep in memory certain principal events or mysteries in the life of Jesus, to meditate on them in gratitude and wonder. Traditionally, there are twenty mysteries reflected upon in the Rosary, and these are divided into the five JOYFUL MYSTERIES, the five LUMINOUS MYSTERIES, the five SORROWFUL MYSTERIES, and the five GLORIOUS MYSTERIES.
The Rosary as spiritual practice is designed to occupy the mind through repetitive rote prayer so that one’s imagination and affect can focus on the events of Jesus’ life and ministry that are the object of meditation. Traditionally a set of beads, known as “Rosary beads” are used. The beads are divided into five groups of 10, separated by a slightly larger bead. Each bead represents one “Hail Mary” while the larger bead represents a “Glory be.” As a spiritual practice, before beginning each “decate” of beads one reflects on the mystery being proposed (see below.) Then for each bead, one recites a “Hail Mary” – “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.” Between decates is the “Glory be” – “Glory be to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.”
As with many ancient spiritual practices, the theology might appear outdated. The key is not to reflect on it, but to focus on the repetitive nature of the prayer, and eventually let it pray itself, as it were, while you focus on meditating the mystery being proposed.
The rosary probably began as a practice by the laity to imitate the monastic Divine Office (Breviary or Liturgy of the Hours), during the course of which the monks daily prayed the Psalms. The laity, many of whom could not read, substituted 50, or even 150, Ave Marias (Hail Marys) for the 150 Psalms. This prayer, at least the first half of it so directly biblically, seems to date from as early as the 2nd century, as ancient graffiti at Christian sites has suggested. Sometimes a cord with knots on it was used to keep an accurate count of the Aves.
The first clear historical reference to the rosary, however, is from the life of St. Dominic (died in 1221), the founder of the Order of Preachers or Dominicans. He preached a form of the rosary in France at the time that the Albigensian heresy was devastating the Faith there.
Traditionally, there are four sets of meditations on the key events in the life of Jesus and Mary.
Here are the four sets:
The Joyful Mysteries – focusing on events of the Incarnation:
1. The Annunciation: meditate on what it means to say “yes” in trust
2. The Visitation: imagine two saintly women surprised at their pregnancies
3. The Nativity: reflect on the theological implications of such a humble birth
4. The Presentation: reflect on the Jewishness of Jesus
5. The Finding of Jesus in the Temple: imagine Jesus at 12 beginning to think about his call
The Luminous Mysteries – focusing on events of Jesus’ ministry as “light-bearer”:
- The Baptism in the Jordan: reflect on the experience of being unconditionally loved
- The Wedding at Cana: meditate on new wine instead of old water of purification
- Proclamation of the Kingdom: imagine living with (distributive) justice and compassion
- The Transfiguration: reflect on peak experiences
- Institution of the Eucharist (Last Supper): the bread of our labours; the wine of our suffering
The Sorrowful Mysteries – focusing on events of Jesus’ death:
1. The Agony in the Garden: meditate on “not my will but Yours”
2. The Scourging at the Pillar: reflect: this is what the dominant culture does to those who challenge it
3. The Crowning with Thorns: reflect: why does the dominant culture insist on mocking anything that purports to come from a higher power?
4. The Carrying of the Cross: imagine the horror of this form of execution
5. The Crucifixion: reflect: this is how the dominant culture always treats those who threaten its dominance
The Glorious Mysteries – focusing on Jesus’ resurrection and Mary’s role
1. The Resurrection: meditate: death is not the last word
2. The Ascension: reflect: what kind of existence does Jesus have now?
3. The Descent of the Holy Spirit: imagine Ruach, Sophia, Spirit pervading the universe
4. The Assumption of Mary: imagine Mary’s place in the broad scheme of things
5. The Coronation of Mary: reflect: what role does Mary play in your life?
While the practice of the Rosary is traditional in the Roman Catholic tradition, it can be a very useful spiritual practice, mutans mutandis, for Christians of most denominations.
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