LONDON, ONTARIO – A mere 35 years after my Catholic conversion, I suppose I should be a little chagrined to admit that it is only in these last few months of Lent and Easter that I finally got the hang of how to operate the Rosary and am finding it a very powerful devotional instrument in the way that it commands and directs and focuses my prayer. What took me so long?
Well, a lot of converts – perhaps male converts in particular – have been known to take their sweet time in twigging to the pivotal importance of Our Lady in the grand salvific scheme of things as well. And as the Rosary was the Holy Mother’s unique gift to the Church in the second millennium (and, of course, is built around the recitation of a set number of Hail Marys ) it really is quite inextricably linked to her. In the same way as you can’t truly appreciate a gift if you don’t acknowledge its giver, you won’t ‘get’ the Rosary if you don’t ‘get’ Mary.
When a modern-day male convert notices that it is predominantly women who take part in the pre-Mass Rosary devotions at churches all over the world, that inextricable link might start to look like it might be an exclusive link as well. Of course, nobody will stop him or look askance if he should take out his beads and pray along as well and time spent pondering the five-fold sets of Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious and Luminous Mysteries will soon enough show him the universality of this prayer. While the appearance of things might seem to suggest that the Rosary is an instrument especially attuned to the spiritual temperament of women, it would be closer to the truth to regard it as that popular devotion by which all Catholics acknowledge and honour the miracle of incarnation. None of us - not even God himself in the person of Jesus Christ - makes it onto this globe without the assent and the embodied hospitality and ministrations of a woman.
But here’s an interesting little wrinkle. In spite of my bewilderment about who the Rosary was for or how to use it, I’ve insisted on carrying one in my pocket for almost the entirety of my life as a Catholic. And whenever it broke (which the vast majority of them are woefully inclined to do), I would pass its pieces over to the infinitely more dextrous hands of my agnostic wife for repair, hoping that – hey, she’s a woman – contact with it might somehow incline her heart. And who knows? Perhaps it did. When she finally did come into the Church four years ago this Easter, I gave her a Rosary of her own but, alas, haven’t been able to offer to reciprocate her restorative work.
And six years before that I’d given away a Rosary to the other major woman in my life. While my father actually served a couple of terms as a United Church elder, he did so mostly at the behest of my mother who fitfully attended a Baptist church as a child and continued that erratic adherence as an adult and a mother when, for a few months at a stretch, she would pack us all off to Calvary United Church in South London every Sunday morning and then for some mysterious reason – and with no objections raised by my father or my three older brothers and me – we’d suddenly drop it for a few months. In a similarly scattershot way, my three brothers had all been baptized shortly after their births and I was not. This wasn’t the result of some decision my mother came to. It just slipped her mind and by the time she noticed the oversight, I think she was a little flummoxed at just how she’d go about gracefully rectifying the lapse.
Still, one summer, she enrolled me at a Vacation Bible School that I didn’t absolutely hate, and she sent me and my brothers to a Bible Class at a neighbour lady’s house for a full year. Thanks to both of those experiences, I had a better grounding in Bible stories and Christian precepts than a lot of my friends. I know she considered herself a Christian all of her life and when I announced that I was becoming a Catholic, she was genuinely thrilled with the news and proudly sat with my Dad throughout the three-hour Easter Vigil service where I was finally baptized, anointed with oils and brought into full communion. It was only at the time of her death – get a load of this – on the precise 25th anniversary of that 1984 Vigil that I fully appreciated the efforts she had made in her dear and scattered way to always keep God before my eyes. At her funeral service just before they closed the lid and wheeled her casket away for the last time, I impulsively dug the Rosary out of my pocket and laid it in the crook of her right arm.
Though I didn’t know how to properly employ a Rosary all those years when it jangled along with a ring of keys in my left front pocket, there was for me a sort of talismanic reassurance whenever I would assuage uncertainty or stress by blindly pushing the keys aside and fingering my way along a section of beads to the crucifix. I related like crazy when I read English writer and artist Caryll Houselander’s (1901 – 54) account of an incident that occurred during the wartime blitz of London:
“The other day I saw a person suffering badly from shock who caught sight of my Rosary, which I pulled out of my pocket while searching for something else; she seized it, and although she had only the vaguest idea of the significance, she became calm at once, like a miracle; she asked me to explain it, but she was not in a state of mind capable of taking in a whole explanation. I told her simply that it is a form of prayer which reminds one of all the landmarks in Christ’s life from before His birth until after His death and it gives them to us ‘arranged,’ so to speak, by His Mother. She listened only very slightly and kept saying, ‘Well, it is something to hold on to!’”
In an instinctive bid last September when the Church was being swamped by the latest waves of scummy scandal, I startled myself when I was in the Eucharistic queue one Sunday and did not hold out my hands in my customary way but instead received the Host on my tongue. I have kept that up ever since, have taken to occasionally attending an old rite Latin Mass in St. Thomas and see a more deliberate and diligent use of the Rosary as part of the same strategy to draw closer, to deepen my practice, when I feel I’m being pushed away from the Church.
A book that has greatly assisted me in making the Rosary a part of my daily regimen is Champions of the Rosary: The History and Heroes of a Spiritual Weapon (2016) by Fr. Donald H. Calloway of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. No, it is not an elegantly written tome but as the title vividly suggests, Fr. Calloway’s exhaustive study emphasizes the inspiration that the Rosary has provided in the lives of men over the last eight centuries – from its founding in 1208 by St. Dominic, to the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, to the miraculous rescue of 33 Chilean miners trapped underground for 69 days in 2010. In addition to Fr. Calloway’s book, this last Christmas I also received a Combat Rosary which is a larger, heavier and impressively sturdy replica of the metal Rosary which the American military used to issue to their Catholic recruits.
Yes, there’s something almost comical about such macho boosterism being applied to an instrument of prayer and reflection. But like most good jokes, it also underscores a valid point. The contemporary Catholic Church really could use a fresh infusion of such masculine ideals as vigilance and discernment. And for this man, at least, one key to a deeper participation in the faith has been to take up the Rosary and pray it every day whether I happen to feel like it or not. Like honouring the obligation to attend Sunday Mass, it may not have as much immediate appeal as hitting that snooze button for another hour or two of warm and cushioned oblivion, but I never regret it on the walk back home.
(A shorter version of this essay originally appeared in the May 26, 2019 edition of The Catholic Register)
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