I can't remember where I found it, only that I thought it was the most beautiful necklace I had ever seen. The glass beads did not merely shine, but, being iridescent, whenever they were moved, they refracted the colors of the rainbow. And the crucifix was ornate and golden.
I naturally did what many an unknowing person does upon first contact with a rosary—I put it around my neck.
When my mother saw me, she said, "No, no. We don't wear those."
Totally confused, I asked, "Well, what do you do with it?"
"We used to pray with it. But since Vatican II we don't do that anymore."
She seemed a little irritated. "I don't know. We just don't."*
This wasn't a very satisfying answer, but she made me very happy by giving me the gorgeous beads.
It seemed terribly sad to me that this beautiful, holy object was now passé. I didn't know how on earth one prayed with it, but I decided I could at least treasure it myself. Being only about eight or so, I could only use what I had — a shoebox — but couched it with other "holy" objects. (Most of these were missalettes that I'd accidentally brought home from church.)
Dr. Scott Hahn tells how after his Catholic grandmother passed away, he came across her rosaries ... and tore them apart, feeling triumphant that he was setting her free from such Catholic superstition. (Later, he converted and is now a well-known Catholic speaker and author.)
So many misconceptions about this string of beads. Is it merely a string of beads? a necklace? a chain of superstition? Or something else?
We hear the Gospel passage where Jesus warns against praying like the pagans: "Do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words" (Mt 6:7; RSV). Some translations read "vain repetitions" instead of "empty phrases". People sometimes look around at repetitious prayer of their own time and say, "Ah-hah! Those Catholics pray the Rosary, saying 50 Hail Marys — that must be just the kind of vain repetition Jesus was talking about."
But how many of us know what empty phrases or vain repetitions the Gentiles of 2,000 years ago may have said? For all we know, it may have been "Ohm, ohm, ohm...".
At any rate, I don't think Jesus could have been criticizing any and all repetition. (If He was, then even those of us who use spontaneous prayer are in trouble, for it's common to fall into using the same phrases repeatedly.) After all, in the Old Testament, the Lord told His people to keep the words of the First Commandment in their hearts, and the way He tells them to do so requires a fair amount of repetition: "You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them
when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you
lie down, and when you rise" (Deut 6:7).
And in Revelation, John tells us of the four living creatures: "Day and night they never cease to sing, 'Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!'" (4:8).
In fact, repetition is widely recognized as being helpful in entering into prayer. The Orthodox, for instance, also have prayer breads, upon which they repeat the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner"). It is a way to obey St. Paul's injunction to "pray without ceasing" that Bishop Kallistos Ware says can be used by beginners "but equally a prayer that leads to the deepest mysteries of the contemplative life."
There's more to the Rosary than merely repeating the Hail Mary over and over again. There are five "mysteries" upon which one strives to meditate during the recitation of the prayers. The mysteries are largely from the life of Christ — from His Incarnation and birth, through His ministry, to His Passion and death, on to His Resurrection and Ascension.
It is easy in our hectic lives to focus on our day-to-day duties and concerns, and forget about these greater realities. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis' book The Silver Chair, in which Aslan charges the children: "Remember, remember, remember the signs!" and tells them to repeat them several times a day, so they won't forget. (They fall out of the habit of repeating the signs, and thus don't recognize them initially when they do come across them.)
In the same way, the Rosary helps one to remember the significant moments in Christ's life and "ponder" them with Mary, His primary disciple. (See Lk 2:19.) Meditating on the the key moments in Christ's life keeps Him and His teachings and what He did for us, how He suffered for us, from fading from our minds. Then we are less likely to be overwhelmed by temptations of fleeting pleasures, discouragement, resentment, cowardice, sloth — whatever.
The Rosary is also a powerful means of intercessory prayer. Padre (now Saint) Pio — that holy, twentieth-century monk associated with so many miracles — had such confidence in the might of the Rosary that when he was ready to use it, he was wont to say: "Bring me my weapon."
A spiritual battle lies before us; may we remember and utilize this vital force at our disposal.
*My mother, by the way, started praying the Rosary again in the early '80s and has been praying it daily ever since.