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The Rosary: Why vocal, repetitive, meditative prayer is beneficial to Christians

Peter Kwasniewski Peter Kwasniewski Follow Dr. Peter

October 10, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — In this month of October, specially dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary under her title of Queen of the Most Holy Rosary, we gratefully recommit ourselves to this marvelous prayer, so beloved of countless saints; so highly praised by popes and enriched with indulgences; so comforting and simple; and so efficacious in the battle against evil powers, visible and invisible.

Many saints have said the Rosary is the most pleasing and fruitful private prayer we can offer to God — and this holds for all Christians in every walk of life. What is (in the words of St. Louis de Montfort) “the secret of the Rosary”? It is the spiritual humility and confidence with which we place ourselves before the sinless Mother of God, seeking the protection of the one who, among all creatures, is most pleasing to Jesus Christ and most powerful in her intercession with Him. As we see at the wedding feast of Cana, He listens to her pleas. As we see at the foot of the Cross, He entrusts His “beloved disciple” to her, and her to him. We are all children and beneficiaries of Mary, if we are disciples of Christ the Master. To probe the heart of Mary’s favorite prayer is to peer into the depths of her treasure-laden soul and see the glory of God reflected there as in a mirror.

The Rosary possesses three qualities that make it especially suitable for Christians working in the world: it is vocal, repetitive, and meditative.

As a vocal prayer, it continues the noble tradition stretching from the song of Moses and the Psalms of David, down to the utterances of the Maccabees and the Canticle of Simeon in the temple. In First Samuel we read that “Hannah multiplied her prayer before the Lord,” so much so that “Eli the high priest observed her mouth” (1 Sm. 1:12). Mary’s cousin Elizabeth “exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!,’” to which Our Lady responds, at the beginning of her canticle of praise, “behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed, for he who is mighty has done great things for me” (Lk. 1:42, 48–9). Christ instructs us to go into our rooms and pray fervently to God, offering as our model the humility of the publican who said, bowing his head and beating his breast, “Be merciful to me, a sinner” (Mt. 6:6; Lk. 18:13). On another occasion He gives us the example of the persistent widow who in her distress never ceases to entreat the judge for help (Lk. 18:2–5). The prodigal son of the parable falls before his father’s feet and confesses his guilt; the blind man on the road to Jericho continually cries out, “Son of David, have pity on me” (Lk. 15:21; Lk. 18:38). We are told by St. Paul to “pray always” (1 Thes. 5:17), to “persevere in prayer” (Rom. 12:12), and to keep hymns and praises upon our lips (Eph. 5:18–20; Col. 3:16–17).

With examples like these and hundreds of others at hand, it should be evident that vocal prayer is not negligible or mediocre, as misguided enthusiasts, especially Protestants and liberal Catholics, have maintained. Quite to the contrary, vocal prayer is a traditional, highly favored, efficacious means of cultivating the presence of God and turning to Him in trust and hope, a means of sanctifying one’s speech and one’s heart. “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Mt. 12:34).

The “repetitiousness” of the Rosary, far from being an impediment to concentration or an outmoded medieval custom, is bound up with two important aspects of prayer: the nature of the human mind and the proper way of approaching the Almighty. When we return again and again to the same lofty themes, we walk in line with our imperfect mode of knowing, which requires us to fix many a loving gaze on definite and familiar objects in order to know them more perfectly, and we learn how to bring ourselves before God with pleading that is tireless, humble, unaffected, childlike, and elemental. We learn new lessons from familiar things as we grow closer in love to Our Lord and His Mother. By carrying the same words ever on our lips, we shape our habits of thought and speech. By lingering over the same mysteries, we are like children who never tire of a beautiful story, or lovers who never grow weary of one another’s signs of affection. Even the Seraphim before the throne of God forever sing their hymn of praise: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Is. 6:3; Apoc. 4:8).

The simple and deliberately repetitive method of prayer, repeating the Lord’s Prayer, the Angelic Salutation, and the doxology, encourages meditation on the mysteries of our faith — not so much an exhaustive analysis or pictorial representation of them as a dwelling in their ambiance, with the desire to absorb their reality. In the words of John Paul II:

The Holy Rosary is a continuous memorial of the Redemption, in its salient stages: the Incarnation of the Word, His Passion and Death for us, the Pasch that He has begun and that will be completed eternally in heaven. Indeed, when we consider the contemplative elements of the Rosary, that is, the mysteries around which the vocal prayer unfolds, we can better understand why this crown of angelic salutations has been termed “the Psalter of the Virgin.” For the Psalms reminded Israel of the wonders of the Exodus and of the salvation wrought by God, and they constantly called the people back to fidelity toward the covenant made at Sinai. In like manner, the Rosary continually reminds the people of the new covenant of the prodigies of mercy and power that God has deployed in Christ on behalf of mankind, and it calls that people back to fidelity toward the commitments made at baptism. We are His people and He is our God. (Osservatore Romano, October 11, 1983)

“As desire should be orderly,” says St. Thomas Aquinas, “so should prayer, since it is the expression of desire.” Could anyone find three prayers more earnest, more clear, more consoling, or more profound than the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be?

To linger over phrases from the Our Father is to enroll under the most sublime teacher of all, Jesus Christ, Eternal and Incarnate Wisdom, who taught this prayer to His disciples. It is not in the least surprising that both the Catechism of the Council of Trent and the Catechism of the Catholic Church organize their sections on prayer around the Lord’s Prayer.

For its part, the Hail Mary is a prayer intensely alive — every line, every word contains the silence of mystery, the echo of prophecy, the promise of redemption. The very words encapsulate several mysteries and sacred events at once: the Annunciation, the Incarnation, the Visitation, the Holy Name of Jesus, Mary’s plenitude of grace, her intercession for us in Heaven, the Last Things. In fact, the Hail Mary is a miniature compendium of the entire Catholic faith.

Without theological digression, without the waste of a single word, the Glory Be grandly invokes the Blessed Trinity, Alpha and Omega of all things, and inserts the infinitesimal act of our prayer into the infinite majesty of God.

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Peter Kwasniewski

Peter Kwasniewski holds a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. After teaching at the International Theological Institute in Austria and for the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austrian Program, he joined the founding team of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, where he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history, and directed the choir and schola. He is now a full-time author, speaker, editor, publisher, and composer.

Dr. Kwasniewski has published seven books, including Sacred Choral Works (Corpus Christi Watershed, 2014); Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014); Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017); A Reader in Catholic Social Teaching (Cluny, 2017); and Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018). Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis has been published in Czech, Polish, German, and Portuguese, and will soon appear in Spanish and Belarusian.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over 750 articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church. 

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, please visit his personal website, www.peterkwasniewski.com.