As you may or may not know, I’m a practicing Catholic. And one of my practices is the rosary, a form of prayer that goes back to the Middle Ages. It’s a folk tradition, which means there’s a simple core, a lot of variants, and a ton of symbolic interpretation and personal association on top of it all.
The Rosary: a Quick Primer
When most non-Catholics think of saying the rosary, they think of someone in a habit, or maybe a little old lady dressed in black, holding a string of beads and muttering prayers about Mary over and over.
And that’s not inaccurate! People in habits do say the rosary, and little old ladies too. The string of beads popularized by the Dominicans is ubiquitous. And saying just the prayers that I do means repeating the word Mary 107 times; it’s the most frequently-occurring meaningful word in the English-language rosary (beating out blessed by one).
But that image is incomplete in many dimensions. I wear a lot of black, but I’m neither little nor old (except to my six-foot 15 year old). And I’ll get into my personal variants of the physical rosary some other time.
And then there are the prayers: the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, the Salve Regina. Yes, we say them. But they’re just the beginning of the practice, not its end. They’re the carrier wave for the rest of the rosary, which is the Mysteries*.
The Mysteries: an Even Quicker Primer
The Mysteries are why the rosary has lasted for me. I suspect they’re why the rosary itself has survived all this time. They’re the story cubes of the practice, the seeds of meditation, contemplation, and symbolic analysis; the thematic axes for processing the world and praying for its betterment. When I’m not up for anything more complex, they’re the categories of people I’m praying for, one per bead and only with their consent.
There are four sets of Mysteries, three quite old and one rather new. The medieval ones are the Joyful Mysteries (the conception, birth, and early life of Jesus), the Sorrowful Mysteries (the events leading up to the crucifixion), and the Glorious Mysteries (the Resurrection and subsequent events; the end of Mary’s story). The newer one, the Luminous Mysteries (about Jesus’ ministry), was instituted by Pope John Paul II. I have complex feelings about it, which I won’t go into now.
Traditionally, the Mysteries are said on different days of the week:
The core of each set of Mysteries is just a list of five events, either Biblical or (at the end of the Glorious) traditional. There’s a lot of significance and commentary built on top of them, and anyone who uses them in prayer has their own particular subset. I certainly do. But they are, at heart, just five connected events considered in chronological sequence.
The Sorrowful Mysteries
So today, January 20, 2017, is a Friday. Thus traditionally a day for sorrowful mysteries. How very convenient. Here’s how I’m using them today, and probably for Tuesdays and Fridays for some time to come.
The Agony in the Garden
The evening after the Last Supper, before the soldiers come to arrest him, Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane. He’s fearful and anxious; he feels alone and vulnerable. He knows there’s suffering to come, and dreads it.
For all those anxious about the future, particularly about health care. This is a set of intensely physical mysteries, and so many people’s physical anxieties are about health care right now.
The Scourging at the Pillar
Jesus is tied to a pillar and scourged (whipped with a particular kind of implement). This serves two practical purposes for the Romans, who weren’t actually that interested in killing him. First, it’s offered as a lesser alternative; perhaps they can just beat him and let him go? And second, if the public pressure is for him to be crucified, it weakens him so he’ll die faster. For Jesus, of course, it’s an enormously painful ordeal.
For all those in physical pain, particularly those with chronic conditions. This is particularly relevant as the availability of strong pain relief is being curtailed in the US.
The Crown of Thorns
The Roman soldiers twist a crown out of thorns and put it on Jesus’ head. They drape him in a purple robe (probably just a red soldier’s cloak), call him a king, then spit on him and mock him. In the escalating sequence of cruelty, it’s logical that mental torment comes after physical suffering.
For those being tormented on social media. The current venue for our personal crowns of thorns.
The Carrying of the Cross
Jesus carries the cross to the hill at Calvary. After the scourging at the pillar, he’s physically weakened. He falls several times. He doesn’t do this alone; a bystander, Simon of Cyrene, is pressed into helping him. And according to church tradition, a woman named Veronica wipes the blood and sweat from his face.
For those marching in protest; for those keeping going, one foot in front of another, through difficult times. For the helpers.
In the Christian context, both the darkest time and the triumph over darkness. It’s a syntactic singularity, for those of us who process things on a symbolic level. But to pick one thing out: there were two thieves crucified with Jesus; they, too, had their own journeys to that hillside, that suffering.
For anyone in crisis in these troubled times. Because people’s everyday lives don’t stop, which means their pain and grief doesn’t either. Even as we watch any single event, we can see out of the corners of our eyes that our neighbors are struggling with smaller, more immediate, more intimately painful things. They need us, too.
The traditional prayer to end the rosary with is the Salve Regina, which is a lovely prayer for Mary to be with us and help us through “this valley of tears”. But more and more, I’m swapping it out for Psalm 23, the King James version. In addition to being one of the most beautiful pieces of English writing ever, it’s a powerful narrative of moving from being completely flattened to death-defying courage, and then beyond it to heroic sanctity.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
* late thought: the relationship between the prayers of the rosary and the Mysteries is basically the relationship between Mary and Jesus.