But there is more to the Rosary than the bones and muscles, so to speak, of its vocal prayers. The Dominicans who promoted this devotion, and the Popes who later praised it, have long commended the practice of meditating on the mysteries of Christ and His Mother while we “tell our beads,” and it is in this deeper layer that we shall find, with patience and persistence, the greatest treasures.
We tend to be frightened by the word “meditation” and even more by the word “contemplation,” as if they should be mentioned only in connection with heroes of asceticism and mysticism, or at very least, monks and nuns far removed from the distractions and demands of ordinary life. But one look at the words will assure us that what they signify is within our reach.
The verb meditari simply means to consider, ponder, reflect upon. The verb contemplare means to look at attentively or eagerly, and was later used to describe the careful observation of sky and stars. The one who contemplates “ponders the heavens.” When we meditate the mysteries of the Rosary, we train our minds on moments of special prominence in the life of Christ and His Mother, which in turn form us in their image.
As with turning a beautiful gem in one’s fingers, looking at it from every different angle to see how the light plays off its facets, so it is with meditating on Gospel scenes and Marian events while we utter short prayers: these scenes and events become more light-filled, more transparent to us. The Christian mysteries recollected in the Rosary are a wellspring of wisdom, an incitement to good works, a comfort in affliction, a redoubling of joy, a purification of the mind’s eye, a ladder to God’s throne. The purpose of the Rosary is to make all Christians contemplatives, so far as our state in life allows and so long as we persevere in prayer.
Just as it is never prudent or charitable to judge a person by his external appearance without having some knowledge of the state of his soul, so we must not fall into the same mistake with the Rosary. It, too, has a body that is easily noticed by the senses, and a soul that must be discovered and explored by the mind and heart. The beads in our hands, the vocal prayers on our lips—these are the “body” of the Rosary; but mental prayer and meditation on the mysteries, Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious (and some like to include the Luminous), are the “soul” of the Rosary.
As a body is lifeless without the soul acting in it, so too, the prayers of the Rosary can become paralyzed, can seem unalive, if they are mechanically spoken and severed from their ultimate purpose. It is just for this reason that some who start praying the Rosary become discouraged and give up, while others who have prayed it a long time no longer gather as much fruit from it as they should. If the risk of mechanical recitation looms upon the beginner or threatens the lifelong devotee, he or she should do something about it rather than giving up or staying in a rut.
There are several aids to meditation that can be recommended. First and foremost, one may take up one of the many versions of the “Scriptural Rosary,” by which verses of Sacred Scripture are sown into the recitation of the prayers. I will recommend several that we have used in our family: Scriptural Rosary; Behold Thy Mother: An English/Latin Scriptural Rosary; A Scriptural Rosary (different author); The Mysteries of Christ: A Scriptural Rosary. But there are dozens of such publications, and I don’t mean to claim that these are necessarily the best ones. They are, nevertheless, very good ones to use. Because the Bible is a repository of the truth we embrace, the law we live by, and the hope we cherish, we should strive to make it an intrinsic part of our daily prayer. The Scriptural Rosary can be a fine way to do that.
Second, one could use a book or booklet that presents images of the mysteries together with meditations for the decades. The best example I know of is The Rosary with Fra Angelico and Giotto, but the Sacred Art Series Rosary Flip Book is also worthwhile, and a neat concept: the book features its own easel, so that for each mystery the appropriate image can be displayed. (The Luminous Mysteries are available separately.) Those who find the style of Byzantine icons more conducive to prayer could assemble their own set of Rosary images by searching at sites that sell small reproductions of icons (like Jordanville or St. Isaac’s Skete). For little children especially, it can be helpful to have something to hand to them to look at and get absorbed in during the recitation of the Rosary. (Really, any book of good religious art will do, but it’s nice if it can be somewhat related to the mysteries being prayed.)
Third, we can prepare a more suitable environment for praying the Rosary. Turning down the lights and lighting candles by an image of Our Lord or Our Lady creates an atmosphere that fosters meditation. Sometimes it may be appropriate to sing a short chant or song before and after, or between mysteries, to bring in the elevating quality of music. We can make a point of kneeling for the Sorrowful Mysteries if we are not already accustomed to kneeling, since this will remind us more surely of the Passion.
These are just some suggestions, not necessarily to be used all at once, but simply if and when they are helpful.
The goal of the Rosary is to lift our souls to God through contemplation of the greatest mysteries of faith. When the Rosary is thus regarded in the light of its eternal and infinite content, it is no wonder the Saints have praised it so lavishly, Sister Lucia of Fatima assuring us that, second to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the most pleasing prayer to God is the “Psalter of the Virgin.”
With such considerations before us, it should be clear why this 700-year old prayer, through which our knowledge and love of Scripture and Tradition is deepened, ought to be of central importance to the Catholic who is serious about his or her faith.