Beads of Distraction: The Rosary and My Wanding Mind

“Hail Mary full of grace….my dishwasher is full…Blessed are you among women…oh, gosh! I need to make dinner before going to the woman’s prayer group!”

If this sounds familiar, welcome to the club of humanity. You are a human being, in whom body and soul are struggling to find balance in this earthly life. Distractions are a normal part of being human, but they sure do make prayer hard. The longer the prayer, the more we seem to drift. Many people give up on “long” prayers such as the rosary for this very reason. But there is hope! Having established the fact that we are indeed humans, we need to realize that we have an intellect! This God-given gift helps us to not only make decisions and choices, but it also allows us to effect change in our lives. Distractions are irritating. They come out of nowhere, and often we don’t even realize our thoughts have wandered until we are distracted from our distraction. Before we know it, we are distracted by a distraction which was brought upon by a previous distracting distraction! However, armed with our intellectual abilities, we can devise ways to help our body and soul work in harmony, so that we may effectively pray.

The rosary has been around for a long time. It is for this reason that many Catholics who have gone before us have developed “tools and tricks” that aid our focus. The rosary is, after all, a very challenging prayer! It’s a spiritual full-body workout: we speak word, we think about mysteries, we touch beads, etc. So many things going on at once! The great thing is, we can try different approaches at different times in our lives, and thus come to a renewal in our dedication to this devotion. So, without further delay, let’s explore some helpful options!

One approach I often use is to place myself in the scene, or mystery, I am thinking about. Sometimes I even close my eyes, so as not to be distracted by anything. After all, St. Bernard reminds us that, curiosity is the first step towards pride. For example, in praying the first joyful mystery, the Annunciation, I sometimes put myself in Mary’s position. She was a young teen, who had vowed her virginity to God. Now, this angel was asking her to be a mother. Everything in her was in turmoil, and yet there was a deep sense of peace. Where did this peace come from? Why did she say ‘yes’? How would I have responded? Would I have posed more questions? Why? How willing am I to accept God’s plan for my life, even when it seems to shatter all that I had planned for myself? Do you see what I mean? Suddenly, you are reflecting on God’s plan for your life, just like Mary did, and seeking a spirit of complete trust and surrender. This is meditation, even if it just seems like an endless stream of questions at first.

Another tactic I have found helpful is using Scripture. There are many websites and pamphlets which suggest Scripture verses for each mystery. Sometimes I will even read a few words of the passage in between each “Hail Mary”. This helps me re-focus, but it can also lead me to notice new things in the wording. If you would like to try this, I strongly suggest starting with the joyful mysteries. These are all contained within the first two chapters of St. Luke’s Gospel. The very words of the prayer you say are also in this portion of Scripture!

Some people find it helpful to think of an intention before each decade (or even before each prayer of the rosary). I know of one person who would pause for a split-second before each “Hail Mary”, so as to bring to mind an individual or a situation for which to offer that prayer. How beautiful! When we have a purpose to our actions, the actions become easier. This is true of the rosary as well: when I have an intention in mind, I focus more on praying “well”, so that my supplication may be pleasing to the Lord.

One last idea I would like to propose before we wrap up is using your distractions as opportunities for prayer. Now, not all types of distractions should be used in this manner, so some prudence is needed. However, if I am praying the rosary, and I am continually thinking about the students I teach, maybe God is asking me to offer the next decade for their needs! Do you see what I mean? You take the stumbling block and turn it into a new rung on the ladder. Let me give you another example. You start praying the rosary, and your mind is flooded with something you saw on Facebook. Why not offer the next decade for purity in social media? I guarantee that this simple tactic will help you pray, and it will remove a lot of frustrations! Lastly, if you are as forgetful as I sometimes can be, keep a small notepad close by when you pray. That way, you can pause, and write down the thing you have to do or buy. This will only interrupt your prayer for a few seconds, and you will not have to think about it again during your prayer!

The rosary, just like so many other prayers, requires creativity. This creativity does not destroy the rich history of the devotion, but, rather builds on it, so as to help the soul come closer to the Lord. We are all unique, and, as such, we need our prayer to be unique. Even when we pray the rosary with others, each of us will pray differently. Yes, our lips may say the same words (I sure hope they do!), but our hearts and minds are approaching the beautiful battle of prayer in a variety of ways. I hope and pray that some of the ways I combat distractions in prayer are helpful to you. So now, go, pick up a rosary, and pray it! The Blessed Mother is holding beautiful spiritual fruits prepared specifically for your soul! Reach for the rosary, and receive all that Jesus longs to give you, through the hands of his Immaculate Mother!

 

If you don’t have a rosary, click here.

If you’d like a little help getting started with the prayers of the rosary, click here.

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Rediscovering the Ancient Beads: The History of the Rosary

Do you have a rosary dangling from your car rear-view mirror?  Do you, perhaps, have a collection of rosaries in a basket at home?  Many Catholics, sadly, own rosary beads, but never use them for prayer.  One of the obstacles of praying the rosary is not knowing where this prayer came from.  It is true that this may not be a major obstacle, but the more we know about something, the more we can come to love it.  The rosary, like all good ol’ customs, has a very rich and diverse history.

The use of beads in prayer not is strictly a “Catholic thing”. I know this may surprise some of you. Many world religions use beads to assist them in their prayers. For example, Buddhists use prayer beads on which they repeat a mantra while meditating. A mantra is a syllable, word, or group of words that is considered capable of “creating transformation”.   Interestingly, when we think about the mysteries of the rosary, we are doing relatively similar things. We repeat a group of words. These words have the power to transform us. What is the difference then? Why should we, as faithful Catholics, preserve the rosary?  Simply put: because it is part of our Catholic heritage.

The Early Church

Let’s start in the early centuries of the Church. Praying with a counting device has been recorded as far back as the desert Fathers, in the first few centuries AD. The desert Fathers would use pebbles in their prayer. As they completed one prayer, they would move one pebble. Why use pebbles, though, instead of fingers? There is one simple reason: pebbles are easier to keep track of than fingers. Ever started to count something with your fingers, only to be distracted by the need to swat a mosquito? When counting on our fingers, we can often get caught up in other thoughts or activities, and lose count. By moving a physical object, for instance a stone or bead, we are free to focus more effectively on the prayer. But let us return to the early Church once again. It is around this time that we find Catholic graves engraved with an abacus-like counting tool. Many scholars believe that this was an instrument used in prayer. It is not until the 6th century that we see prayer beads on gravestones of Catholics. Mind you, this is not a rosary, yet. The rosary had a very lengthy development. This is only a pre-cursor to what we know today as the rosary.

The Middle Ages

Let us continue to our walk through history with a look at the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages were a time of great turmoil, but also of great devotion among Catholics. Great saints, such as St. Dominic and St. Francis, were raised up during this time. When we think about the rosary, we realize that the Middle ages were a crucial period. It was in this time that the words, “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb” became popular. Notice that this is the first portion of the Hail Mary as we know it today! To this Scriptural foundation, the Dominicans added the name of Jesus. This was in order to combat a terrible evil of the time. You see, during the middle ages, the appalling practice of swearing and cursing had become fashionable. The Dominicans hoped that, by calling on the Most Holy Name of Jesus, they would make reparation for the vulgar language of the time. Does this sound like our own era? There is so much vileness in our culture. The Dominicans of the Middle Ages saw a great need for the Name of Jesus to be inserted into this prayer. The Name of Jesus is the most powerful name we can call upon. This is especially true in times of darkness and evil. I encourage you to think of this whenever you pray the Hail Mary. The name of Jesus is the most effective name we have to call upon. In fact, His very name is a prayer. Jesus means “God saves”. By calling on His name, we are crying out for God to save us! How beautiful!

St. Dominic

There is yet another Dominican connection to the rosary. According to pious legend, our Blessed Mother appeared to St. Dominic, and gave the rosary to him. The Church has never officially confirmed or denied this. This is partially due to the fact that the rosarydocuments containing this miracle were lost or destroyed. It is known, however, that St. Dominic combined meditation and a pattern of prayer. The rosary also combines meditation and a pattern of prayer. All of the elements of the rosary, as we know them today, were in place. The belief in this miraculous gift of the rosary is further strengthened by a remarkable incident. In St. Dominic’s time, there was a heresy known as Albigensianism. After years of failure to combat this heresy, St. Dominic and his band of preachers finally abolished it. How? Well, this marvel is attributed to the Mother of God, especially under the title of Queen of the Rosary. But this miracle of the rosary is still happening today! The heresy of Albigensianism, which held many false notions, is no longer around! You will not find anyone who calls him or herself an Albigensian in the full and true sense. I regret that I do not have time to go into the doctrinal and moral principles of this heresy, but I encourage you to look it up online.

13th-20th Centuries

Let’s look a little more closely at the 13th Century. It is in this time that the mysteries of the rosary first begin to take shape. The Cistercians compiled a series of 15  joys of our Blessed Mother. They would meditate on one joy at a time, while reciting a Hail Mary. Interestingly, these 15  joys are very similar to the mysteries we have today! For example, the joys compiled by the Cistercians included the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Presentation, and even the Assumption! This last mystery, the Assumption, was not made a dogma of our faith until 1950, and yet here it is! Once again we see that the rosary transcends time, and allows us to contemplate such beauty and truth!

Finally, let us travel to the 16th century. It was in the 16th century that the rosary took the form and shape which it has to this day. That’s hundreds of years of tradition! But now we have to ask a question: why did it take so long to get to this point, and why is the rosary still around? The answer lies in one word: devotions. In the Catholic Church, we have a rich history of devotions. These prayers and objects grow out of the needs of the faithful in a given time period. Devotions are not liturgical prayers, but they are never in opposition to them. In fact, devotions often support and strengthen the official, liturgical prayers of the Church. Taking a look through history again, we see that in the early centuries of the Church, many devotions focused on the veneration of the martyrs. Why? Because martyrdom was a reality. Every Christian daily faced the possibility of honoring Christ by his death. In the centuries leading up to the Middle Ages, the prayer of the Church focused on the 150 Psalms. Monks prayed these psalms, which they chanted from a Psalter. However, monasteries also had illiterate brothers called “lay brothers”. These consecrated men needed a substitute. They prayed 150 “Our Father’s” daily as a replacement for the Psalms. It was in the Middle Ages, when, as I have mentioned, the “Hail Mary” became a popular prayer. It was also then that devotion to Our Lady began to grow. At this time, many monasteries permitted their lay brothers to pray 150 “Aves” or Hail Mary’s as an alternative to the Psalms. Beads became popular to help the lay brothers in their prayers. These beads were grouped together by sets of 50, and were often called “Our Lady’s Psalter”. Lastly, when the Church was in need of a renewed sense of hope, Saint John Paul II composed the Luminous Mysteries for the rosary!  This prayer is ancient and yet new, in a sense!

Through history, we see how the beautiful devotion of the rosary has developed.  This knowledge can lead us to a greater love of this prayer, if we allow it to.  It took centuries of devotion to give you the privilege of holding a rosary in your hand.  Now, what are you going to do with your rosary?  Hang it from a mirror, or take it down occasionally and devoutly pray it?  The choice is yours.

Note:  If you struggle with the rosary, welcome to the club!  In my next article I will look at different ways of praying the rosary, so that this devotion can truly lead you to a greater love of God, through the heart of the Immaculate Mother.  Stay tuned!

 

 

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Undoing the Fall of Man: Obedience after Disobedience

“If God had commanded her (Mary) to carry out with her own hands that crucifixion which an inscrutable Providence had placed in the hands of the wicked, she would have obeyed with all the promptness and resoluteness expected of one perfectly submissive to the laws of the Creator.” 
(From The Cross of Jesus, Fr. Louis Chardon, OP)

This is a shocking statement. It disturbs us on a very deep level. How can anyone dare say that Mary, the gentle and loving mother, would venture to carry out the crucifixion if the executioners had refused? It seems so disordered!

To fully understand the magnitude of that statement, we need to first understand the dichotomy between order and disorder. On a human level, we flee from disorder and suffering, and we long for order. And yet all creation is continually moving towards disorder and chaos, as described in the second law of thermodynamics (creation, in and of itself, moves towards a state of entropy). Think of a tree that falls in the forest. Can it, of its own accord, pick itself up? No. In fact, once it has fallen, it will begin to die and decompose; it cannot return to an orderly way of being. This desire of ours for order and nature’s tendency towards disorder is a result of the Fall.

Before that fateful moment, all creation (including man) was ordered rightly; God was the center of all things, and all things were perfectly obedient to Him. After the Fall, we see a drastic and jarring change: man struggles against the natural tendency towards chaos on a daily basis. It starts right in the morning for most of us. Admit it: you hate the sound of your alarm clock. Your alarm clock is a signal to you of order, and your fallen nature desires to do its own thing.   That’s why the snooze button was invented: to give you a second (and third…and fourth…) chance at starting your day in an orderly manner. Disorder can lead to sin, while order leads to virtue. Sadly, due to Adam and Eve’s disobedience, we find it easier to sin (live in disorder), rather than to do good (live in order).

We need help in order to regain control. In our struggle, there is a beacon of hope: Mary. As one free from original sin, she did not have concupiscence (fallen man’s tendency towards sin). Mary’s vision was unclouded by sin. For this reason, when God asked her to be the Mother of Jesus, she consented. Oftentimes we fail to see beyond this moment in Mary’s life. We neglect to recognize that her whole life was lived out as a “yes” to God. In my own life, this truth is slowly coming into focus. I have recently become a mother, and I am realizing how profoundly demanding motherhood is. Yes, there are the natural demands of my little one (diapers, feeding, etc), but this is just the surface. On a very profound level, I am realizing what it means to live in a constant state of “yes”. Finding out we were pregnant was our first “yes” (acceptance of this wonderful news), but each moment after that has been a re-echoing of that attitude. Even in difficult moments, I need to give myself completely for the sake of this little being that God has entrusted to me. In one sense, I am just doing what I need to do. But, taken to a spiritual level, I am living in the “yes” of Mary, and bringing order into disorder.

Mary’s acceptance of God’s will was perfect in all things, and therefore was rightly ordered. This attitude reaches far beyond the joyful events of life, and even embraces the difficulties present before us. In Mary, I can find strength to do that which is unpleasant (e.g. feeding my infant at 3am) for love of God. If, like her, I can accept all things as part of God’s amazing plan for my life, then my life and actions become a prayer. It is this very disposition which restores order into even the most tumultuous situations. In a sense, when I align my will to God’s will, I am participating in a reversal of the effects of the Fall; the Fall brought disobedience and disorder, while living a life faithful to the Lord brings obedience and order.

God’s ways are often mysterious to us. Therefore, accepting them necessarily involves an openness to trust. If God is all-good, there can be no evil in Him. Mary knew this, and lived accordingly. In light of this realization, the opening quote comes to light: Mary would have done anything necessary, in order that God’s will would be fulfilled. No mother wants to see her child suffer. Neither did she. And yet, she was willing, like Abraham, to offer the Son she held so dear. She was yearning, in fact, to sacrifice her own desire for a greater good. As she stood at the foot of His holy cross, she said her “yes” once again to God’s plan. In her we find strength in sorrow. Through her we come to a fuller realization of our ultimate goal: to love and serve God in this life, so as to be happy with Him for all eternity in Heaven. This is the ultimate reversal of the Fall, and it was opened to us through the cross. Mary was able to accept it, even though she had no foresight of how the execution of her Son would ultimately affect the salvation of countless souls. She simply stood (yes, she stood at the foot of the cross) and lovingly accepted God’s mysterious plan. May we, through her intercession, daily strive to give our “yes” with loving obedience, and complete trust in God’s beautiful plan in our lives.

 

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