In the seventeen years since I was received into the church, I’ve had what might be called an “up and down” relationship with the Rosary. It began with my difficulty with Mary.
I had decided to convert to Catholicism before I was completely comfortable with “the whole Mary thing.” (This is the polite term the Protestant version of myself employed after downgrading my attitude from “strongly suspicious” to a more manageable “awkwardly tolerant.”) As a Protestant Evangelical, I only ever saw Mary around Christmas, and even then, she wasn’t portrayed as anything all that special. She was like a demure, distant cousin who shows up for Christmas dinner and sits quietly in the corner at the kids’ table: you may recognize her, but you don’t remember ever having a conversation with her. After I had become convinced of the truth of the Catholic faith and of the protective offices of the Church, I was willing to admit that my discomfort with “the whole Mary thing” was no reason to stay away from the Eucharist. It would work itself out, I told myself, and for the most part, it has.
The Difficulty and Frustrations of the Rosary
Even though the ensuing years would transform that initial awkwardness toward Mary into affection and finally into love, I just could never get the hang of the Rosary. Intellectually, I understood the benefits of its method and perspective. I understood that so many saints offer it as a preeminent mode of Christian prayer, growth, spiritual flourishing, and peacemaking. I understood the role of its physicality (and, in fact, greatly appreciated this aspect of it). But still, it remained opaque to me. How was I to address myself to one person, making one set of invocations, while meditating on the events of the life of another person, without confusing either and being attentive to both? It always felt like spiritually trying to pat my head and rub my belly. My attention always felt divided, and therefore unmoored. I always felt distracted. I usually gave up. The rosary I carried in my pocket often took the form of a tangled, knotted mess for being so rarely used. A perfect image of my prayer life.
It may be hard for cradle Catholics to understand why Marian spirituality can feel so awkward to so many Protestant converts. But in the old school of fundamentalism, the invocation of the saints and the special honor accorded to Mary are the stuff of boogeyman tales. It was made clear that such papist barnacles were errors Catholics would have all of eternity in hell to regret. Considering such a cultural upbringing, even when these scurrilous attitudes were merely implicit, it is not difficult to understand how, even after the mind rejects such nonsense, the heart remembers its juvenile fears.
These were the obstacles that, for more than fifteen years, kept the Rosary a practice honored more in the breach than in the observance. But more recently, I’ve had the fortune to come across three insights—embarrassingly simple ones—that have helped me finally make up a bit of ground. And they don’t start with Mary at all, or with the Rosary, or even with prayer in general. They start with Christ.
The Way Christ Has Trod
Like many converts, I came to the Catholic faith initially through study. I like to read, study, write, and talk about the Gospel—all activities a good measure easier than living it. Being a critic, after all, is so much more comfortable than being on stage. I rather like not having skin in the game. It is easier to make words about the Christian life than it is to incarnate a Word.
But, of course, the Christian life is not a life of disembodied words, but of incarnation. The Christian life is a Way (to borrow Jesus’ own term and that of his first disciples). Thus the practices of spirituality are not little islands of activity interspersed amongst our many other quotidian activities, forming (we hope) some discernible archipelago of holiness. We are commanded to pray always, which means that the spiritual life is an infusion, a saturation. Orthodoxy is inseparable from orthopraxy.
Consider that when Christ called his disciples, he did not announce to them a twelve-point plan for salvation and doctrinal purity. No, he said “Come and see,” and “Come follow me.” To emphasize my point, a more modern idiom may help: “Hey, come here. I want to show you something.”
When a rabbi took on students, he wasn’t expecting them to come and merely listen to all he had to say. They were expected to observe how he lived and begin living that way. Eating what he ate. Washing his hands the way he washed his hands. The goal in “following him” was to follow him (as in to mimic him) in all he did. The goal was not simply to get the information from his head transferred into their own. How much more should this be true for those following the Word Incarnate.
This principle becomes especially important when applied to our prayer. In his brilliant little book on the Rosary, The Threefold Garland, Hans Urs von Balthasar writes that “Christian prayer can attain to God only along the path that God himself has trod; otherwise it stumbles out of the world and into the void, falling prey to the temptation of taking this void to be God or of taking God to be nothingness itself.… The path between God and us has been trod in both directions. ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.’”
After reading this, I realized for the first time that my own prayer is not a matter of my own individual initiative. It is something else entirely.
Prayer is a Service of Obedience
Prayer is, in fact, a service of obedience. Fr. Jacques Philippe, in his poignant book, Time for God, tells us that it is never a good idea to use one’s own desires to pray as the motivation to pray (and therefore to accept reticence to pray as a reason to avoid it). “There is another motive for going to meet God in mental prayer that is equally meaningful and far deeper and more constant: he invites us to.” What should be our guide, says the good father, is “faith and not … our subjective mood.” We pray as a matter of obedience.
Obedience has a bad connotation to the liberalized mind, as it does to the Protestant sensibility (consider the term protestant). To be obedient is somehow to jettison freedom and authenticity. Obedience is seen to be a matter of power relations. To obey may be better than sacrifice, but both should be effortless and free, right?
To the Catholic mind, obedience is not about power or ease, but about trust. Obedience is the lived form of trust. You obey someone you trust. You disobey someone when you want to trust yourself more than the person asking your compliance. There may be times when such a thing is prudent, but not when dealing with the Son of God.
This reframed the whole problem of prayer for me. If prayer was a matter of obedience, then it was a form of following Christ on his Way—perhaps the primary form. And so, to avoid my prayers was to declare that I would trust myself more that Christ the Way. It was to walk a way of my own devising. But even in choosing to obey, to trust, there remain challenges.
She That Points the Way
When we pray, we are obediently (again: trustingly) living with Jesus, following him, watching what he is doing so that we may do the same. But in turning our eyes toward this task, we should notice immediately that we don’t see so well. Consider, as evidence, all the contradictory ‘ways’ Christians try to live a Christian life—the various sects, schisms, heterodoxies, heteropraxies, and heresies. Complementarity is one thing, but contradiction is another, and if Christians live in contradictory ways, it is reasonable to conclude that some people see that more clearly than others.
And here arrives a key insight for my own prayer life, a way of understanding Mary that sends my Protestant ghost running: Mary is a corrective lens. Through her eyes, we can see Jesus better because she doesn’t have the cataracts of sin. She has the best view of the drama of the Gospel and possesses the clearest sight of it. Through this lens God focuses light. This is why Mary’s place is hard to see, why it is often a hidden place: to serve as this lens, it is fitting that she is translucent. As Hopkins has it, “Through her we may see him / Made sweeter, not made dim, / And her hand leaves his light / Sifted to suit our sight.”
Understanding Mary in this way, the Rosary too becomes clearer. As a service of obedience from Mary’s vantage point, the Rosary offers the opportunity to, as Von Balthasar says, pray ourselves into the union Mary shares with Christ. If “Christian prayer can attain to God only along the path that God himself has trod,” how, asks Von Balthasar, “has this ‘Way’ reached us? How has the ‘Light’ penetrated to us? How has the ‘Word’ lived among us? … Someone had to receive the Word, so unconditionally that it staked out a space in a human being in order for itself to become man, as the Child of a Mother.”
The Way of Christ, this Incarnate Word, led from the Father through his Mother, and as Christ trods back to the Father, we are caught up in the slipstream of the movement of his love. Mary lives and prays right in the quiet center of that grand movement, and the Rosary allows us to share her vantage point, to enter into the Way of Christ alongside her who shares it most intimately. This vantage point is, after all, not a mere point of observation, but a point of participation. Mary watches the drama from on the stage. In seeing the Light, she shines with Light. To borrow a phrase from the playwright Eugene O’Neill, in seeing the secret, she becomes the secret.
This reality takes a poignant form in the iconographic motif called Hodegetria, She Who Points the Way. In this icon, Our Lady holds and gestures to the Christ Child. Here is the Way, she says. Here is your purpose, your meaning, your joy. Through her gaze, in this icon and in the Rosary, we can not only see, but live, the mysterious Way of Christ more perfectly. We too, in seeing the secret, can become the secret.
The Rosary is, then, not something to be feared, not an adjunct to be awkwardly tolerated. It is a step of the Way, a movement of the music, a grammar in discourse of grace. It is a door to the depths of the Sacred Heart, and it hums with the echoes of the mysteries behind. May we—especially we converts—learn to open that door with a bit more alacrity.