If somebody says a task will take about twenty minutes, most of us won’t consider that a burdensome amount of time. But if somebody says, “Let’s pray a Rosary,” we’re suddenly aware of the enormity of each passing second. We even check how many beads are left in the decade. (How many now? Six. How many now? Five and a half.)
Why is it so difficult to quiet ourselves for such a short amount of time? If we understood what the Rosary is and how it’s significant for our spiritual lives, would we be more willing to spend those twenty minutes in prayer? As an undisciplined, minute-counting Rosary-sayer myself, I’m hoping the answer is “yes.”
To appreciate the Rosary, we should learn where it comes from—and it’s not a disappointing story. Throughout the first centuries of the Church, counting loose beads and other small objects was a typical way to keep track of prayers. In fact, the word “bead” comes from the Old English bede, which means “prayer.” When people began to string the beads together, monks would wear these strings on the left sides of their habits, where many men would have worn their swords.
The actual prayer of the Rosary—five decades of Hail Marys, Our Fathers, and Glory Be’s—didn’t come about until the year 1214. Tradition says that Our Lady gave the Rosary to St. Dominic with the special intent of converting Albigensian heretics. The Albigensians (consistently ranked among the top ten most difficult heresies to pronounce) were causing a stir throughout Europe, and it was Dominic’s calling to lead them back to the Church. Our Lady came to his aid, appearing to Dominic with three angels and telling him, “Preach my Psalter.” This referred to the memorization and oral recitation of the Psalms, a common practice in the days when few people were rich or literate enough to pore over the Scriptures at length. Like the Rosary, Our Lady’s Psalter consists of repetition: it has a simple structure and a simple set of meditations. It can be taught to little children and adults alike—a prayer for everyone.
Throughout the centuries, the Rosary has been a prayer for everyone and every situation. The Rosary’s history is replete with miracles: sailors used it to beg for Mary’s help at the critical Battle of Lepanto in 1571; four Jesuits who shouldn’t have survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki attributed their safety to the Rosary. But even if we don’t witness extraordinary events like these in our own lives, the Rosary still holds an incalculable significance.
“I found that because the Rosary involves a definite rhythm…it is very helpful as a method of prayer,” says Boston College’s Fr. Tacelli, S.J. “Especially when other mental forms of prayer are more than you can manage… If I’m not able to do anything else, I can at least say the Rosary. [It] has been able to sustain me both in times when mental prayer was easy, and in times of dryness…[and throughout] 45 years of religious life.”
Now, as ever, perhaps the Rosary’s greatest miracle is its pure accessibility and adaptability. For those who are novices to prayer, it provides a format to follow. For those who have spent years in prayer, it provides an always-needed opportunity to experience and rest in the mysteries of the lives of Jesus and Mary.
“The idea is not that you’re gaining new insights. The Rosary takes you... into the mysteries. [It allows you to] enter into the rhythm of the Church’s own life,” says Tacelli.
A world as rushed as ours could certainly use a rhythm—and a deeper rhythm than just a class schedule. The Rosary provides this opportunity through the use of a method that is tried, true, and divinely inspired (which is always a bonus). Maybe we don’t have any Lepanto-caliber miracles in store for us—or maybe we do—but either way, we’re sure to have gained something of absolute necessity to any Catholic: the intimacy and peace of communing with Christ’s own life. Mary offers us a way to experience what we were not present to see; through the beads of the Rosary, she invites us to surrender ourselves to the beauty of events we can’t entirely comprehend. In short, she offers us a little earthly glimpse at the divine.
Not a bad deal for twenty minutes.