The Rosary as contemplative prayer for everybody

In his book The Word Is Very Near You: A Guide to Praying with Scripture, Martin L. Smith, a spiritual director and formerly the superior of the (Episcopal) Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Mass., considers various ways of using the Bible in prayer. These include Ignatian-style meditation, where we imaginatively place ourselves in a biblical story, such as one from the gospels; lectio divina, where we mediate on a word or phrase from scripture; and what he calls “gazing,” or simply contemplating and resting in one of the great biblical images.

Smith says that this third, contemplative type of prayer is more common than people may think:

Many people are praying contemplatively though they do not know it. For example, in the widespread devotion of the rosary people meditate on a series of key events in the life of Mary and Jesus, allowing their attention to focus on each “mystery” in turn while repeating the Hail Mary, the Gloria and the Lord’s Prayer in a set pattern regulated by the sequence of the beads. The repeated prayers are intended to occupy the mind and keep distractions away so that we can be free to soak ourselves in the grace and meaning with which the great images are saturated. Far from being the technique or a privilege of the spiritually advanced, simple forms of contemplative prayer are the ‘bread and butter’ of the spiritual lives of millions.

Similarly, Anglican theologian Austin Farrer referred to the rosary as a “heaven-sent aid” for meditation on the great truths of the faith. In his short book Lord I Believe, which is on using the creed in prayer, Farrer writes:

If I had been asked two dozen years ago for an example of what Christ forbade when he said ’Use not vain repetitions,’ I should very likely have referred to the fingering of beads. But now if I wished to name a special sort of private devotion most likely to be of general profit, prayer on the beads is what I should name. Since my previous opinion was based on ignorance and my present opinion is based on experience, I am not ashamed of changing my mind.

I am no great pray-er, but speaking personally, the rosary is the most meaningful way I’ve come across to mediate in prayer on the major events in the life of Christ (the “mysteries” as they’re called). Before I began using it, I wondered how one was supposed to recite the prayers while simultaneously meditating on the mysteries. But in my experience at least, the prayers do seem to work as advertised–to provide a kind of background noise that helps one to stay focused on the mysteries. Sometimes there is a sort of oscillation of the attention between the words of the prayers and the images of the mysteries–but I find that they often infuse each other with additional meaning and associations as one proceeds through the decades of the rosary.

For whatever reason, many Protestant forms of prayer strike me as too wordy and intellectualistic. But I also haven’t had much luck with forms of meditation where you’re supposed to “empty” your mind and wordlessly contemplate the divine. The rosary provides a good balance of structure and freedom, or mind and heart. It’s grounded in the great truths of the faith, and so has a certain “given-ness” and objectivity, but it also allows for one’s personal prayers and affections to range freely. Your mileage may vary, of course, but reading Smith’s book has encouraged me to pick up the beads again after a period of neglect.

Another year (almost) over. . .

Since it’s unlikely I’ll do much substantive blogging over the next couple of weeks, I want to wish you, dear readers, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Also, thanks to everyone who still reads this humble blog! 2013 hasn’t exactly been a banner year for my blogging, productivity-wise (or quality-wise you might add). Like a lot of people, I find myself more active on Twitter these days. But from time to time I still want a place where I can think out loud about things in more than 140 characters. Plus, we’ve had some pretty robust comment threads around here this year. ATR commenters may be few and far between, but they’re almost uniformly high quality.





La Visitacion

Yesterday I took my daughter to the museum at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown. It’s privately funded and thus was not affected by the (recently concluded) government shutdown.
The museum is small, but it features a wonderful collection from the Byzantine Empire and an impressive exhibit of pre-Columbian American artifacts. It also has, tucked away in the corner of one of the rooms, this marvelous painting by El Greco:


What struck me was that the painting manages to convey great emotion even though both Mary’s and Elizabeth’s faces are almost totally obscured. Well worth the schlep to Georgetown if you live in or are visiting the D.C. area.

Methodism, homosexuality, and me

This NYT article interests me as someone who is about to join the United Methodist Church from an ostensibly more “progressive” denomination, at least with regard to the equality of LGBT persons.

Thomas Ogletree, a UMC minister, is facing disciplinary action after he presided at his son’s (same-sex) wedding. The UMC has continued to maintain that the “practice” of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” As with most mainline denominations, there have been efforts to change this, but, in the UMC’s case, they have met with limited success.

This is partly due to the fact that a significant number of the delegates to the church’s general conference–its supreme legislative body, which meets ever four years–come from outside the U.S.–particularly places where conservative views on homosexuality still prevail. At the conference’s most recent meeting, in 2012, even an “agree to disagree” resolution couldn’t pass. Though it’s unclear how much of an effect acts of “civil disobedience” such as those of Rev. Ogletree may have on the direction of the larger denomination, this seems to be a stance that more “progressives” feel compelled to take.

So as someone who does support full LGBT equality in church and society, why would I consider joining a denomination that seems to be a long way from affirming it?

The main answer is that my family and I have found a home in the local UMC congregation we’ve been attending for about the last two years, and we want to formalize our commitment to it. We left our previous church for a variety of mostly non-theological reasons and were attracted to this one by its growing number of young families, dynamic pastor, flourishing homeless ministry, and combination of theological substance and progressive social vision, among other reasons. I’ve also come to appreciate some of the distinctive emphases of Wesleyan theology–combining at its best a Protestant emphasis on sheer, unmerited grace with a Catholic emphasis on personal and social holiness that I find quite appealing.

Our congregation is a “reconciling” church and so aims to welcome LGBT folks at all levels of parish life, even though this contradicts the denomination’s official teaching. This makes them (us) the loyal opposition, a position that could grow increasingly uncomfortable if, as seems likely, the denomination continues to move at its current glacial pace on this matter.


The “what” and the “how” are awful, and no one seems to know much about the “who” and “why” at this point. Of course, that hasn’t stopped people from speculating. I recommend this post from Jesse Walker at Reason as an antidote to some of that.

I lived in the Boston area (Somerville to be exact) for about a year, and both my work and my church home were in the city. It will always have a special place in my heart. My thoughts and prayers are with everyone affected, and my hope is that, whatever the origin of this event turns out to be, we’ll respond in a sane way.

Favorite music of 2012

I can make no claims to comprehensiveness for my music listening habits–in any given year I hear only a tiny fraction of what gets put out, and only a slightly larger fraction of what taste makers tell me I should like. But for what it’s worth, here are the albums released this year that I found myself enjoying and coming back to most frequently:

Torche, “Harmonicraft”

Of Monsters and Men, “My Head Is an Animal”

Baroness, “Yellow and Green”

Silversun Pickups, “Neck of the Woods”

Shearwater, “Animal Joy”

Dwight Yoakam, “3 Pears”

Gojira, “L’Enfant Sauvage”

Napalm Death, “Utilitarian”

The Walkmen, “Heaven”

The Sword, “Apocryphon”

Why I voted for President Obama (again)

I voted today–D.C. started early voting last Monday–and, not surprisingly, I pulled the lever (or rather pushed the touchscreen) for the Obama-Biden ticket.

This wasn’t at all a hard decision. On every issue I care about, the Romney-Ryan G.O.P. is significantly worse than the Democrats. And this includes those areas where Obama has most disappointed–peace, civil liberties, and (to a lesser extent) the environment. Since 2008, the Republican Party has only intensified its commitment to Devil-take-the-hindmost economics, foreign policy belligerence, and particularly atavistic elements of social conservatism.

Obama has, best as I can tell, done pretty well with the hand he’s been dealt, at least with regard to domestic policy. (The president has a much freer hand in foreign affairs, so I judge him more harshly here.) Despite Republican intransigence, he managed to pull the economy out of a death spiral, make historically large investments in clean energy and infrastructure, and establish, at least at the level of principle, a federal commitment to universal health care. I give at least some credence to Left-wing critics of Obama who say he’s been too soft on Wall Street or that he should’ve pushed harder for the public option, but looking at the big picture, he’s got a strong claim to being the most successful liberal president since LBJ.

More importantly, though, the vision that the Democrats still represent, and that I embrace, is that government has a indispensable role to play in establishing the conditions for individuals to flourish. The Dems want to preserve and strengthen the welfare state; the G.O.P. wants to dismantle–privatize, federalize, “voucherize”–it. Democrats think collective action is necessary to fight climate change; most Republicans won’t even admit climate change is happening. Democrats think that some degree of regulation and redistribution is necessary to smooth the rough edges of capitalism and reduce inequality; Republicans decry this modest vision of a mixed economy–a vision more conservative than the one embraced by most center-Right parties in Western Europe–as “socialism.” Heck, there even now seems to be a debate about whether there’s a proper federal role for disaster relief!

Some progressives have argued that Obama is too compromised –too cozy with big business, too promiscuous in his use of deadly military force–to support. And these criticisms have merit. But what I haven’t seen is a plausible account of how an Obama defeat (which ineluctably means a Romney victory) would strengthen the hand of progressives in building the kind of society they want. (The Bush years, for example, were not exactly a high-water mark for progressivism.)

When it comes right down to it, I’m probably less left-wing than many of Obama’s progressive critics. But I want to move things in the same general direction they do. And the last four years have seen movement in that direction, even if not as consistently or as quickly as we might all like. I think that a Romney victory would probably spell doom for that progress, however incremental and timid you may think it’s been. An Obama victory, on the other hand, is a chance to consolidate and build on it. That’s enough to get my vote.


As readers of my Twitter feed may be aware, my wife gave birth to a healthy and beautiful baby boy last Thursday morning. We’re extremely happy (and tired, etc.). However, a foreseeable, if unintended, side-effect of the new addition is less time (and energy) for blogging. So expect few if any posts for the next few weeks at least (not that this will be a huge departure from my usual posting frequency). Thanks as always to everyone who reads this blog, and thanks to all who’ve sent good wishes our way.

On the death of a cat

Two poems:

On the Death of a Cat
By Christina Rossetti

Who shall tell the lady’s grief
When her Cat was past relief?
Who shall number the hot tears
Shed o’er her, belov’d for years?
Who shall say the dark dismay
Which her dying caused that day?

Come, ye Muses, one and all,
Come obedient to my call;
Come and mourn with tuneful breath
Each one for a separate death;
And, while you in numbers sigh,
I will sing her elegy.

Of a noble race she came,
And Grimalkin was her name
Young and old fully many a mouse
Felt the prowess of her house;
Weak and strong fully many a rat
Cowered beneath her crushing pat;
And the birds around the place
Shrank from her too close embrace.

But one night, reft of her strength,
She lay down and died at length;
Lay a kitten by her side
In whose life the mother died.
Spare her line and lineage,
Guard her kitten’s tender age,
And that kitten’s name as wide
Shall be known as hers that died.
And whoever passes by
The poor grave where Puss doth lie,
Softly, softly let him tread,
Nor disturb her narrow bed.

To A Cat
Algernon Charles Swinburne

Stately, kindly, lordly friend,
Here to sit by me, and turn
Glorious eyes that smile and burn,
Golden eyes, love’s lustrous meed,
On the golden page I read.

All your wondrous wealth of hair,
Dark and fair,
Silken-shaggy, soft and bright
As the clouds and beams of night,
Pays my reverent hand’s caress
Back with friendlier gentleness.

Dogs may fawn on all and some
As they come;
You, a friend of loftier mind,
Answer friends alone in kind.
Just your foot upon my hand
Softly bids it understand.

Morning round this silent sweet
Sheds its wealth of gathering light,
Thrills the gradual clouds with might,
Changes woodland, orchard, heath,
Lawn, and garden there beneath.

Fair and dim they gleamed below:
Now they glow
Deep as even your sunbright eyes,
Fair as even the wakening skies.
Can it not or can it be
Now that you give thanks to see?

May not you rejoice as I,
Seeing the sky
Change to heaven revealed, and bid
Earth reveal the heaven it hid
All night long from stars and moon,
Now the sun sets all in tune?

What within you wakes with day
Who can say?
All too little may we tell,
Friends who like each other well,
What might haply, if we might,
Bid us read our lives aright.

Wild on woodland ways your sires
Flashed like fires:
Fair as flame and fierce and fleet
As with wings on wingless feet
Shone and sprang your mother, free,
Bright and brave as wind or sea.

Free and proud and glad as they,
Here to-day
Rests or roams their radiant child,
Vanquished not, but reconciled,
Free from curb of aught above
Save the lovely curb of love.

Love through dreams of souls divine
Fain would shine
Round a dawn whose light and song
Then should right our mutual wrong—
Speak, and seal the love-lit law
Sweet Assisi’s seer foresaw.

Dreams were theirs; yet haply may
Dawn a day
When such friends and fellows born,
Seeing our earth as fair at morn,
May for wiser love’s sake see
More of heaven’s deep heart than we.

(Thanks to Crystal for bringing the second one to my attention.)