Finding the music in praying the rosary
My grandmother’s rosary was of amethyst-colored beads and a small silver crucifix, gray-black with tarnish. She kept it on the bureau in her bedroom near a holy card of St. Jude and a talcum powder box made of imitation satin. She’d put it in a special pouch—an old change purse, actually—when she was heading out for Mass or had a reasonably long bus ride ahead of her. When she would visit us out in the suburbs—she still lived fairly deep in the city, not all the way downtown but close enough that you could smell the breweries—she’d say her rosary in the living room, in an easy chair by the picture window, looking out at the lawn.
We kids knew we weren’t supposed to disturb her when she was praying, but I would watch her from the dining room, her lips moving softly with the rhythm of the prayer, her eyes remote yet focused, looking at the lawn, lifting to an occasional passing car, looking and not really looking at all, there and not there. And I would get a little scared watching her, a little off-kilter. Because in the depth of prayer, at the heart of it, Grandma wasn’t just beyond herself, she was beyond everything: beyond the rosary, beyond lawns, beyond families, grandchildren. When Grandma was in prayer, I wasn’t quite sure who I was anymore, who anyone was.
My mother also prayed the rosary daily, kneeling by the bed, her arms resting on the white chenille spread, the beads moving softly, steadily between her fingers as she stared out the window or occasionally lowered her head. She’d slip off to the bedroom right after the lunch dishes, and when she came back into the kitchen a while later, as she was putting on her apron you’d see the little inverted bumps on her forearms from the chenille. She also still bore the impression of whatever mysteries she’d been praying that day and would resume the housework with an aspect more joyous, sorrowful or glorious. At least for a while.
My first rosary was all of blue plastic on waxy string. We were given rosaries in the first grade; and once we knew the requisite prayers, our homework assignment one night was to say a complete rosary on our own. But 6-year-olds aren’t really wired for saying the same prayer 50 times, and while I approached the first decade with admirable fervor, by the second I was getting squirmy. What saved me were the beads. I loved the beads. The blue was a sharp turquoise, like swimming pools. Or a dress my mother wore at a picnic one summer. The turquoise became my bridge. I don’t recall what mysteries I was supposed to be meditating on, but they had been superseded by my own: the mysteries of swimming pools and picnics, of charcoal briquettes and marshmallows.
And once I was a little older, I liked occasions that included the rosary: Marian feasts, Forty Hours’ devotion, all-school rosaries during May (and Lent), though I don’t know that I liked the rosary so much as the rhythm of people praying together. I thought of the rosary as a drum and the people praying as the drumbeat. But it couldn’t survive that charming moment in my adolescence when everything became just too boring and corny for words, and it was many years later before I re-encountered it in any meaningful way.
The Texture of Prayer
One afternoon I stopped in at the upper church of St. Francis of Assisi near Penn Station in New York. I needed quiet—or so I thought. Instead, as soon as I walked in I was greeted by the soft drone of 20 or 30 people, most of them women, in the final stretch of a Hail Mary, led by a woman up front with a tinny microphone. I figured I would ignore them, that I would pray in spite of the rosary. But within moments my reflection wasn’t so much disturbed as absorbed by the steady tread of prayer wending its way into mystery. It turned out they were doing the Joyfuls; I had just caught the end of the Annunciation (a personal favorite). I prayed the Visitation with them (another favorite). And of course I had to stay for Christmas.
The last time I visited my aunt in the nursing home we said a rosary. She was, by that time, essentially nonverbal. The Alzheimer’s had so dismantled her language that she was reduced to a roiling pool of dissolved syntax and random phonemes—though this in no way precluded her from saying a rosary, nor anyone else in the 40 or so wheelchairs crammed into the chapel. I had done volunteer work in an advanced-stage Alzheimer’s unit, so I had seen this miracle before: nonverbal residents, people who couldn’t remember who you were from one minute to the next, would know all the words to “Bicycle Built for Two” when the music therapist came in. Old classics, Christmas carols, childhood songs; music seems to be stored somewhere else, somewhere beyond memory. Music, poetry, prayer. At the sound of the Sign of the Cross heads around the chapel lifted, eyes straining through a fog, and people who hadn’t said anything in days, in weeks, began praying along. They may have gotten a little lost in the Creed, but the Our Father set them at ease, and with the first Hail Mary they were home free. The Hail Mary had nothing to do with memory. It was in their blood, their breath, the fulfillment of a wonderful promise: that prayer, pursued long enough, cherished long enough, could actually become part of your biology, a marvelous incarnation. Even my aunt’s verbal mélange had taken on the pattern, the rhythm, the texture of prayer. Once I even thought I heard a “Hail.”
It was a very moving experience that in no way prompted me to start praying the rosary on my own. No, what brought me back to the rosary was my second graders. (I’m the catechist for the second graders at my parish.) When we hit the unit on the rosary in May, I realized, to my shame, that I didn’t even own one. It was the first time that year I felt I wasn’t qualified to teach a unit. We pray a lot in class, and anything I teach them about prayer I want to be from lived experience. I owe them that. So in order to honor the covenant with my catechism kids, I had to have a lived experience of the rosary. I had to be able to tell them firsthand why this is part of the tradition. I had to be able to talk about the beads.
So last summer I bought a simple rosary (plain brown beads on hand-wound string, very Franciscan) and said my first rosary in many years. And yes, the first one back felt a little long, but I also experienced within it moments of profound consolation. I focused on my breath as I meditated on the mystery and let the rhythm of my breathing draw me into the rhythm of the rosary till breath and prayer became so organic, so one, that at times I felt I was praying from that place beyond memory the nursing home people had prayed from. That place in my blood.
I committed to saying one rosary a week, a commitment I’ve come to cherish. I very often say my rosary on the subway. At first I found the scene in the car itself too distracting and would look out the window at the forest of steel supports sweeping by. But as I grew more focused, I paid greater attention to the people around me as I prayed, and found that in fact the Sorrowful Mysteries and the A train are in perfect sync: the Agony in the Garden at 145th Street, the Scourging at the Pillar at Columbus Circle, agony and scourging in every car. And as I speed beneath the city I often think of my grandmother on her longer bus rides, the ones out to us in the suburbs, telling her beads as she moved toward a world of lawns.
This year I’m looking forward to teaching the rosary unit to my second graders. I think they’ll like the rosary, at least parts of it. They’ll like the call and response of the prayer, they’ll like taking turns as prayer leader and of course they’ll love the beads. (I googled it: they still have blue plastic starter sets.) Still, I suspect they’ll find it dull. No matter. If God can’t work in dullness, most of us are doomed. But if we trust to the rhythm of our prayer together, our lives together, trust to the repetition and the rote, to what we call the dullness, within that rhythm we may begin to sense the mysterious pulse of grace.