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.


4 thoughts on “The Rosary as contemplative prayer for everybody

  1. I’ve only tried the rosary once – didn’t like it because it seemed like “busy work” I guess. I really like the Ignatian way … the daily examen, gospel contemplation, and the “colloquy” or conversation. Maybe prayer style has something to do with personality type and also with what a person thinks the point of prayer is? I posted a pic once of my own rosary beads here 🙂 …

  2. I’m sure personality type has a lot to do with it. Based on what I read in Smith’s book, I’m interested in the Ignatian method and hope to explore it more. 🙂

  3. Nice post, and thanks for the idea. I’ve actually never used the Rosary to pray the “mysteries”; I have an Anglican rosary – it’s got a different layout and number of beads than Catholic ones – but have only used it straightforwardly for repetitive-type prayers, like the Jesus prayer.

    I’m much more attracted to something like what you’re talking about here, though! I love the idea of meditating on events, rather than only repeating words – so I think I’m going to give it a go.

    Going to look for a how-to site right now in fact….

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