I sent you a question before on meditation and John Kabat Zinn and your answer was very helpful.
I don’t think I've ever heard you comment on the Rosary. I'm open to correction on that.
I say the Rosary with my wife, who doesn’t go to church at the moment, but gets great peace from saying this prayer. I also say it when I'm walking, although my mind is all over the place, kind of thinking about individual mysteries, sometimes concentrating on the individual prayers themselves and partly thinking on what's for dinner or the fall of the Euro.
Sometimes it becomes an exercise in discipline and will-power only?
I'm just wondering are there ways of approaching the Rosary differently and deepening it as a meditative prayer?
I'm sure any comments would be appreciated.
Yes, the rosary remains somehow an intimate kind of prayer for Catholics, even when they are distanced from other religious practices. Just repeat the words “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…” in a monotonous voice, and anyone who has ever been a Catholic moves immediately into a different place in the mind. It is like music familiar since childhood. I'm glad you see that it is a meditative prayer. Nowadays the word ‘meditation’ is used to describe complete inner silence in the presence of God; but through the centuries it meant turning over a thought or a phrase in the mind. The rosary is meditative in this older sense.
In the mind alone? No, in the body as well: the beads pass through the fingers, and this somehow keeps the meditation grounded. Any enduring form of prayer seems to need a physical and practical base. The Eucharist has this; the rosary in its own way has it too; and your own custom of saying it while walking may be a further way of doing this. During the centuries of persecution in Ireland, when to attend Mass was to risk death, the rosary embodied the faith of the people in a practical way.
- It is not sentimental prayer, if by sentimental we mean entertaining feelings for their own sake and not because of any reality; it keeps us close to the full range of the Christian mysteries.
- It is not moralistic in the way that many prayers can be; it just places us in the presence of the mysteries, in Mary’s company, and leaves us there.
- It is not self-regarding (a groove that prayer can easily slide into), it looks away from the self; there is nothing in it for the ego.
- It is not an invitation to the rational mind to stage one of its performances; it draws us instead into a much quieter place, a place of meditation.
You mentioned the difference between the words of the Our Father and Hail Mary, on the one hand, and the scene that each mystery puts before us. This is a difficulty that many have with the rosary: which should we concentrate on, the mystery or the words? At the simplest level the words are a measure of time; you contemplate the mystery for the space of an Our Father and ten Hail Marys. But in addition (as I mentioned at the beginning) the words of the rosary draw us into a different atmosphere of mind. The atmosphere is Mary’s faith. It is as if you were link-arms with her as you stay in the presence of the mystery. There is no need to think about the words you are repeating. Words – especially familiar words – are capable of doing things by themselves without much help from us.
As for the mind wandering: welcome to the company of the rest of us! The mind and imagination are restless, and this is a problem in every form of meditation. When you become aware that your mind has wandered don’t be surprised or disappointed; just return to the practice.
Are we free to experiment with other forms of the rosary? Of course. It is a private prayer. Pope John Paul II introduced five additional mysteries that focus on the ministry of Jesus; the traditional fifteen focused mainly on the beginning and the end of his life. You could indeed make further additions of your own. For example: when you and your family are going through some turmoil you could dwell on Jesus calming the storm; when you are summoned to great courage you could dwell on his journey to Jerusalem, knowing that he was walking straight into trouble. And so on. Or you could take a phrase of the Our Father or Hail Mary and use it as a mantra: ‘Father, may your will be done.’ And so on. These ad hoc additions can be temporary and don’t have to replace the traditional form.
I hope, John, that the rosary will continue to be a real support for you and your wife, keeping you close to the heart of the Gospel.