How to Start a Way of the Rose Group

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A wonderful way deepen your experience of the rosary is by starting a weekly rosary group. In an era when traditional religious organizations are gradually coming unraveled at the seams, the work of reinventing spiritual community is both vital and immensely rewarding.

As a spiritual practice rooted in the deep past, and at the same time able to address such issues as social justice and the need for a more feminine, ecologically-based understanding of life and community, the rosary offers a powerful force for good in the world and a compelling logic for community-building at the local level. Think if it as a “community garden” tended by a group of like-minded spiritual friends.

All you need to start a Way of the Rose meeting is a rosary and one or more other persons who live close enough to meet weekly. Choose a mutually convenient time and location and stick to it and soon you will have a thriving group. The rosary is its own best advertisement. Just meet regularly to pray it together, and Mary will do the rest.

The format is simple. Read our Way of the Rose group description aloud to begin the meeting. It goes like this:

“The Way of the Rose is a fellowship of men, women, and children who recite the rosary and share their experiences with it in a spirit of open dialogue. There are no dues or fees for membership; we are self-supporting through our own contributions. The Way of the Rose is not allied with any religious organization or institution and does not seek to reform such organizations or institutions. It neither endorses nor opposes any causes. Our primary purpose is to recite the rosary as a universal, nonsectarian spiritual path and encourage others to do the same.”

This is to protect each member’s right to his or her own spiritual or religious understanding and prevents the group from adopting outside causes that might lead to division or a loss of focus among its members.

Next we have “check-in” time. This gives us a way to visit informally with one another and catch up on the events of the week. People who pray the rosary together, praying in support of one another’s prayer intentions, tend to become good friends, and so this time is both necessary and enjoyable. People often stick around for a few minutes after the meeting as well, but some have other places to be, and so it is important to have an established time during the meeting for informal fellowship.

After 15-20 minutes the group discussion gets underway. The topic is always some aspect of the rosary. At our group in Woodstock we cycle through the fifteen mysteries, one per week, using them as the starting point for the discussion. The mysteries (the fifteen events from the lives of Jesus and Mary making up the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that constitute the rosary) are topics for discussion that will virtually never be used up. These are the great ecological and theological themes of human life that virtually anyone can relate to and find meaning in.

There are no rules and no limits for where our discussion might go. We generally try to stay on topic, but some of our deepest, most moving and most memorable discussions were the result of seemingly wandering off the subject of the mystery only to find in the end that we had discovered a heretofore unexplored dimension of it.

The group discussion can last anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes. At a predesignated time (for us this is one hour into the meeting) we ask for a volunteer to lead us in the rosary. We then dim the lights and begin with the Sign of the Cross.

The group sets its own pace for the recitation. In general, the words of the prayer should be allowed to establish their own momentum. Too slow and they lose that mantra-like power that shifts our collective consciousness. Too fast and it begins to feel like a race to the finish. Fifteen to twenty minutes is about right for a chaplet of five mysteries, following whatever set of mysteries is scheduled that day for the novena. Add a sixth “Prayers for the Dead” decade before concluding with the Hail Holy Queen and the rosary takes about 25 minutes from start to finish.

Now comes the heartbeat of our Way of the Rose meetings. In the silence that follows the end of the group recitation (still in natural light or candlelight, depending on the time of day), each member states his or her prayer intention for the week.

These are often very simple and straightforward: “Help me with the job interview on Monday…Bring me a soulmate…Be close to me at the settlement hearing for my divorce.” But sometimes they can take the form of personal explorations instead. A way of getting down to what we truly need or want: “Help my wife to forgive me – no, that’s not right. Guide me to one action I can take each day to repair the damage I have done.” The person speaking indicates the end of his or her prayer intention by saying the words “Hail Mary,” and the group joins in to complete the rest of the prayer.

No one is obligated to offer a prayer intention at a Way of the Rose meeting, and the intentions are spoken in no particular order. We simply leave space for everyone to pray aloud who wants to. People may feel shy in the beginning, but after a few weeks in such a group virtually everyone finds they have things they want to pray for. “This is the real deal,” said one member. “The place I finally get serious about my life.”

The meeting ends with a final decade recited “for the prayer intentions of the group.” After each intention, we said a Hail Mary as a way of supporting the prayers of the speaker. Now we pool our intentions together and offer them to Mary as a group.

In Woodstock we developed a custom that at the end of the meeting we stand and join hands, saying in unison, “It works if you work it, so work it – you’re worth it!” This is often followed by a little laughter, because that’s the standard refrain at a 12 step meeting. It’s our way of honoring our indebtedness to that spiritual tradition, which is the closest thing to our Way of the Rose groups and how they function – with no fees or dues, no leaders, and no concern but saying the rosary together and “working” it to deepen our experience of life, our connection to Mary, and our relationships to one another.

If you want to start a Way of the Rose meeting, our Woodstock group is happy to offer support, although most of what you need in terms of basic guidance is here. As more groups form, we will develop additional support materials – such as pamphlets on how to say the rosary, and collections of stories from Way of the Rose members about how the rosary has change their lives.

Way of the Rose #18: The Physical Rosary

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“The physical rosary beads are nothing more than prayer counters to help us remember when it is time to switch over to the next mystery.”

The quote comes from a popular Catholic web site and although its tone is somewhat graceless and narrow minded, it is nevertheless fairly typical of the more “official” attitudes toward the rosary within the church. Not the folk attitudes, mind you. Nor the attitudes of ordinary people who love the rosary and pray it every day. Rather, it is the attitude of those who see themselves as “Guardians of the Faith.”

Such guardians have long seen the rosary as a kind of theological delivery system, the purpose of which is to instill correct doctrine in the minds of the faithful. Their rosary is an extended catechism recited daily as a ritual “circling of the wagons” to preserve conservative religious attitudes and ward off the attacks of modern secular (i.e. atheist) society. But that kind of approach is antithetical to Mary’s “little chaplet of beads.”

The chaplet of beads we call the rosary today has its origins in the “corona,” a crown of actual flowers, usually roses, that we’re placed on the Virgin’s head – as an offering, as a display of affection and devotion, as a way of symbolically joining with the Divine Mother in the greater reality of the cosmos and of the planetary ecology, embodied locally in the person of her statue.

These statues were no mere ‘objects’ made of wood or stone. In ancient times they were known to talk, to heal, to grant wishes, and to bring stillborn babies back to life. Until the late middle ages, ordinary Catholics understood them for what they were: portals to the world beyond. They understood that not only had Jesus come from Mary’s womb, the whole cosmos had. Likewise, it was to Mary’s womb – ever Virgin, ever holy, stainless, and uncreated – that they returned when this life was done. The portal that opened when they stood in the presence of the Virgin was a gateway to the realm of the ancestors through which the dead and the living were forever passing, trading places in a dance as old as the universe itself.

Granted, this was never the official position of the church. In fact, the church was at war with it from the earliest times. But this was the teaching embodied in the most ancient art and rituals, many of which predated Christianity, and the people could not forget them and did not want to forget them.

The rosary, a chaplet of beads that replaced a chaplet of flowers, was their way of remembering their Mother and touching their Mother. In earlier centuries they might brush their fingers against her brow when offering a chaplet of flowers – or, having made a prayer before her statue, steal a kiss of her hand. Later they had the physical object of the rosary itself, which they held and kissed and fussed over, much as a young child might play with a mother’s necklace or her hair.

It was in this way that the rosary itself became the portal and what was once a public mystical devotion, became primarily a private one – although today it is still possible to celebrate it together as we do in our Way of the Rose meetings, and here in Facebook.

WAY OF THE ROSE #17: The Rose of Union

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In the second chapter of his book The Secret of the Rosary, St. Louis de Montfort writes:

Every day unbelievers and unrepentant sinners cry: “Let us crown ourselves with roses” (Wis. 2:8). But our cry should be: “Let us crown ourselves with roses of the Most Holy Rosary.”

Are there really two kinds of roses, sacred and profane? This is not a matter on which we can trust a church burdened with centuries of deeply ingrained prejudices against women, sex, and the body.

Roses have long been sacred to the goddess in Western culture. Roses were sacred to Venus before they were sacred to Mary, and sacred to Isis before Venus. Before Isis, they were sacred to Innana. And so there is a long history of associating roses with mother goddesses and goddesses of love and fertility.

In pre-Christian culture roses were a way of honoring the union of body and soul. They celebrated both the material and the spiritual dimensions of life and recognized no split between the two. To offer a garland of roses to the goddess (and the word rosary refers exactly to such a garland) was to unite with the cycles of birth, death, and rebirth that She embodied. To offer roses was to find one’s individual body eternally united with the greater body of the world.

That union is the teaching of the rosary as well. Its traditional mysteries (which chronicle the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus) offer a portrait of our physical and spiritual journey through this world—a unified portrait that recognizes the oneness of life and death, body and soul, male and female, heaven and earth.

To pray the rosary is to find ourselves enveloped in the mystery of that fundamental union, as surely as a child who is loved by her mother and cherished by her father rests secure in the knowledge that she “belongs” to them. The rosary teaches us that there are, in fact, not two types of roses—that the ecstasy of the body and the rapture of the soul are the flower of a single stem.

On Testing the Power of Prayer

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I just wanted to share one or two thoughts on the 54-Day Rosary Novena and how it works. Fifty-four days is a long time, but not too long–longer than a month, but not quite as long as two. It’s a major commitment undertaken for a major change, but it’s not undoable. At the same time, it requires a bit of focus and “staying on task.”

The number is derived from the practice, recommended by Our Lady of Pompeii, of praying six 9-day novenas back to back for the fulfillment of a specific prayer intention. 6 x 9 = 54. The first three novenas are said in petition, the last three in thanksgiving–regardless of whether the petition has been granted yet or not. In other words, you have to lean into it…and keep praying.

The 54-Day Rosary Novena has an interesting history. The story goes that on March 3, 1884, a young Italian girl named Fortuna Agrelli witnessed an apparition of Our Lady of Pompeii. Fortuna was ill with three separate incurable diseases and her doctors had given up on her case as hopeless. At the time of the apparition, the young girl and her family had already completed a standard nine-day rosary novena.

Fortuna complained to Our Lady, “I have already prayed a novena, but have not yet experienced any relief. I am so anxious to be cured!”

“Make three novenas, and you shall obtain it,”  answered Mary. “Whoever desires to obtain graces from Me should make three novenas of the prayers in petition, and three novenas in thanksgiving.” Following these instructions, the young girl was healed and restored to health.

What does this tell us about the novena, how it works, and how to pray it? For one thing, it shows us that the proper prayer intention for our 54-Day Rosary Novena is almost certainly something that is already on our radar. It’s an issue, a problem, or an obstacle we’ve prayed about before–if only in a half-assed, complaining sort of way…as in, “I wish I could be free of this crippling debt!” or “For Christ sake, can’t I ever find someone love…who’s worth loving!”

And so, like Fortuna’s incurable illness, our prayer intention should address some part of our life we honestly despair over. Something that a part of us believes will never change. Can we dare to pray all-out for 54 days straight to change a thing like that? Sure we can! There is absolutely no reason whatsoever why we can’t. In fact, praying in this way draws forth reserves of faith and hope we might not otherwise even discover that we have.

In short, the 54-Day Rosary Novena is the medicine for prayers that until now have gone unanswered. It is important to understand one thing from the very beginning, however, and that is that the novena is not a test of our faith. What is being tested is the power of prayer itself…and the infinite care of a Loving Mother for whom no problem is too great and no knot so tight that it cannot be fully untied.

I will post other thoughts on saying a 54-Day Novena as we go along, with the aim of helping others who, like myself, have decided to go for broke on the next novena (beginning this Thursday, June 12th) and pray for the thing we’re almost afraid to ask for–either because we can’t see how it will happen, or because we’ve nearly given up.

Way of the Rose #16: The Miraculous Catch of Fish

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The Gospel of John tells the story of a miracle performed by Jesus after the resurrection. The disciples are out fishing when they see Jesus standing on the shore, although they don’t recognize him at the time.

He asks, “Friends, have you caught any fish?”

“Not a one,” they reply.

“Cast your net on the right side of the boat,” Jesus suggests, “and then you will find some.”

The disciples follow this advice and find the net so heavy with fish they cannot haul it in. Dragging their catch to shore, they discover it contains 153 large fish.

Why 153? It’s one of those gospel mysteries we’re not likely ever to solve. It is interesting, however, that 153 is the precise number of Hail Mary’s in a complete rosary: 15 decades of ten Aves each (corresponding to the 15 traditional mysteries), plus the three said on the pendant at the beginning of a rosary.

The rosary didn’t exist when the gospels were being written, and so there is no possibility that this was what John had in mind. Nevertheless, when we pair the rosary with the miracle, something like a teaching begins to emerge.

On one side of the boat there are no fish. On the other there are too many to lift out of the water. How can that be? Rationally, it makes very little sense. And yet…

In 1857, one year before Saint Bernadette witnessed the apparitions of Our Lady at Lourdes, the founder of the Ba’hai faith wrote a book of 153 very brief chapters called Hidden Words. The 83rd chapter reads:

“O MAN OF TWO VISIONS! Close one eye and open the other. Close one to the world and all that is therein, and open the other to the hallowed beauty of the Beloved.”

The two sides of the boat, then, are really two different ways of looking at the world. One reveals lack, the other abundance. One fear, the other faith. The life of faith is a life of superabundance, but you can’t get there without closing one eye and opening the other. You can’t harvest the miraculous catch of fish without pulling in your net from the left side of the boat…and then dropping it down on the right.

How long does this take? It’s hard to say. The moment we begin reciting the rosary, the fish are there–all 153 of them. Maybe the real question is, “How long does it take us to notice this?”

The key—if you can really call it that, because it just consists of saying the rosary in a spirit of devotion to Mary—is to drop our net down on the other side of the boat…to close the eye that sees only this world and open the other, the one that sees the face of the Beloved in each and every thing.

The Way of the Rose #15: A History of the Rosary in Deep Time

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It is pretty well accepted now that no one will ever solve the mystery of the true origin of the rosary. Praying with beads appears to have evolved simultaneously in several places at once. Nearly every religion has a prayer bead tradition, and each tradition has its own story of how it came to be.

Some argue that the practice first originated in India as a form of devotion to Shiva, whose mantra was recited while counting on a circular chaplet of rudrashka seeds. But that is just because the Shiva mantra is the first reference to praying with beads to be found in any written record. Scholars are a lot like fundamentalists when it comes to their trust in the written word.

Nevertheless, the Sanskrit word japamala (“muttering garland”) and the English word rosary (“rose garland”) make one thing perfectly clear: mantra-like prayers were once associated with flowers, and indeed probably were flowers to begin with, at a period of human history when language had not yet completely rewired human consciousness to its own settings.

It is almost certain that the practice of offering garlands of flowers to a god or goddess predates the formal prayers associated with those figures. Eventually, prayers were added to the practice. Then beads were added to keep track of the prayers. Finally, the beads became a substitute for flowers, which were now offered only on special occasions, like the “May Crowning” of Mary still observed many places in the Catholic world.

This is why the 54-Day Rosary Novena to Our Lady, once the most popular rosary devotion in the Catholic world, uses the language that it does. After each decade the novena invites us to pray “I bind these roses with a petition for the virtue of…and humbly lay this bouquet at Your feet,” and at the end of each complete set of mysteries to say, “Mother Mary, I offer You this spiritual communion to bind my bouquets in a wreath to place upon your brow.” It’s a way of tracing the rosary back to its origins in a prehistoric spiritual devotion that may very well have been the original form of human prayer.

It is important to remember when we say the rosary that we are offering a gift to Mary. If our object is merely to calm our nerves, assuage guilt, or to indulge in a bit of spiritual nostalgia, these are of course also absolutely all right. There are no “rosary police” to monitor our intention when we pick up the beads. Mary is always willing to take us as we are. But it we can imagine our prayers as an offering we may find ourselves in the slipstream of deep history, embraced by Spiritual Mother far older than any written record of Her. At that point we may realize that, truly, no one remembers the origin of the rosary…just as no one can say when the Mother of God was “born.”

The Way of the Rose #14: “All You Have to Do Is Turn to Me”

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There is a natural arc to rosary practice that no one talks about anymore, although it was once well-known. In some ways that’s good, because it’s just there (albeit somewhat hidden) implicit in the beads. Contemplation is indigenous to the rosary. It grows there. It belongs there. Keep saying the rosary, and eventually you’ll stumble upon it naturally, often without realizing how you got there.

The first time you experience spiritual contemplation, it can come as a surprise. If you’re the kind of person who has a relaxed temperament toward spiritual matters, you may be able to simply let go and dwell there for awhile. But if you’re like me—a person given to spiritual striving and the desire to “get it right”—you may think to yourself, “I shouldn’t be doing this. Better get back to the business of the beads.” It that case, it will take longer, although you will certainly get there in the end.

Not long ago, while I was praying, I found myself transported back in time to my days as a Zen monk, sitting ramrod straight on a meditation cushion for hours and hours on end. If my mind wandered, I yanked it back to attention, a little like walking a dog on a lead. HEEL! It involved a lot of strain, but eventually, after sitting like this continuously for three or four days, I was able to enter a state of deep, restful attention. Anyway, I was having this memory while saying the rosary, and I heard Mary say clearly, as if She were speaking directly into my ear, “All you had to do was turn to me.”

I couldn’t help it—I just wept when she said it. I knew it was completely true. What took constant striving to attain on the cushion could be had for the asking once Mary got involved.

In his 17th century confraternity manual Le Triple Rosaire, Père Bernard of Toulouse writes of the Three Ages of the Rosary. The first is the Rosary of Meditation. The second he calls the Rosary of Affection. The third is the Rosary of Union.

The Rosary of Meditation

“At this stage we engage in some reflection on the mysteries of the rosary, in order to know, love, and imitate the virtues of Jesus and Mary….Nothing more is required for this than goodwill and the aid of the Holy Spirit, together with some simple method.”

This is the rosary as we learn it in the beginning. It consists of matching the beads with the appropriate prayers and mysteries, starting at the beginning and following through with them to the end. The rosary forms a circle. Nevertheless, this “simple method” is fairly linear. It is definite, learnable, and contained. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The Rosary of Meditation is a wonderful thing. It’s what allows anyone—even an eight-year-old—to pick up a simple diagram of the rosary and, without any further instruction, begin saying it right away. Moreover, it is also very satisfying. Once you’ve got the knack of it, it becomes almost automatic. You breathing slows, your body relaxes, and the beads seem to ease away worry and stress.

It also gives the mind something to do. Meditating on the mysteries puts the mind in flexible, creative mode. It leaves us open to new thoughts and new ways of looking at the trials and triumphs of life. We begin to look forward to our time within the garden of the rosary. Meditation is good for you, anyway you look at it. Before long you may find yourself easing into the “rhythm” of the mysteries. Birth, death, resurrection—these are the three great movements in the eternal symphony of the soul.

The Rosary of Affection

“The rosary now becomes simpler and more profound. One makes acts of love, adoration, thanks, and petition; one listens and praises following the attraction of the moment.”

At this stage, observes Père Bernard, one might feel tempted to abandon the rosary. It’s like the walking stick you use to climb a mountain. When you reach the first panoramas on your climb, you may think, “I no longer need this. The journey is done.” But there is further to go. The Rosary of Meditation has brought you this far, but it is important not to abandon it, for the vocal rosary and the mysteries aren’t just a way of supporting the practice of attention. They are also a spiritual landscape and a map.

At this age (notice that Père Bernard speaks of ages as well as stages, always with an emphasis on maturity rather than self-conscious striving) it is sufficient to allow yourself to pause and follow the lead of the spirit. This is like resting and enjoying the view at various locations along the trail. To abandon the beads at this moment would be unknowingly to leave the trail and make reaching the summit entirely a matter of chance. The beads will lead us there as long as we continue to trust them in a simple, childlike way. This is the single most important “lesson” about saying the rosary—just to trust and allow ourselves to be led.

In saying the rosary this way, I sometimes felt my heart was about to explode—there was so much feeling, so much devotion, so much desire. I was often burning with it. One night while saying the rosary at sunset I looked at the horizon and began saying over and over again, “I would walk through fire for You and not be burned…I would walk through fire for You and not be burned.” I was speaking to Mary, and I really meant it. Another person might have found themselves speaking to Jesus or to God.

The Rosary of Union

“Those who pray the rosary with a high degree of simple contemplation need not be constrained to make complicated meditations….Having arrived at a passive kind of prayer, and already receiving the fruits of the rosary, they are no longer helped by that searching that is peculiar to meditation. They must use the talent God has given them in restful prayer, applying it for the intentions of the fraternity.”

Père Bernard compares this kind of prayer to “that of an infant asleep on its mother’s breast, or like a drop of water lost in the ocean. One is lost in God.” He goes on to observe, however, that this “may be an active or a passive state, or a mixture of both.” In other words, the usual rules of consciousness simply no longer apply. You might even experience the Rosary of Union while reciting the prayers of the vocal rosary and meditating on the mysteries as before. And, of course, as the phrase “applying if for the intentions of the fraternity” clearly indicates, you can pray for others at such a time. In short, contemplation is the “age” of the rosary that includes all of the others, just as those persons who have grown to full maturity carry within them all that they have experienced and learned before.

The wonderful thing about the rosary as a spiritual devotion is that it sets these mystical experiences within reach of an ordinary person struggling with various problems and distractions right in the midst of life. Most medieval prayer manuals were written for cloistered monks or nuns. Manuals like The Cloud of Unknowing presumed a life of rigorous discipline and self-denial—and hours and hours of daily prayer. But Père Bernard was writing for the members of his rosary confraternity, only a few of whom were religious professionals. He understood what devotees of the rosary have understood from the very beginning: All you have to do is make a start. Pick up the beads and let Mary lead you by the hand. Keep praying, and keep following, and success is virtually guaranteed.

To anyone who will listen, Mary says the same thing over and over again at every age of the rosary: “All you have to do is turn to Me.”

Keeping Watch Through the Passage of the Mysteries

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In the course of my employment as a property manager for a government department in New Zealand a few year ago, it fell on me to confront a company who appeared to be cheating the department of significant royalty payments. The wealthy managing directors of the company had a well-documented reputation for violence against property and persons who crossed them the wrong way.

Bearing this in mind, I prepared my evidence carefully and prayed with my wife and friends about the coming meeting.

At the meeting the directors calmly admitted their theft and made immediate plans to pay fair restitution. They were true to their word repaying in full over the next few months.

Several months later I was at a morning prayer group and one of the men prayed for the intentions of a man who had just been told that he had terminal cancer. Exploratory surgery showed the cancer to have so penetrated his body that they had no other surgical option than to close him up again.

Immediately the face of one of the managing directors appeared behind my closed eyes and after the meeting I asked the person placing the intention before us whether the person we prayed for was by any chance ‘so and so’. With great surprise he confirmed that indeed it was and asked how I knew. I had no answer that would have made sense to him at that time.

I then took it upon myself to visit this man as he struggled to come to terms with the few weeks of life that he knew remained to him.

From his sick bed he was clearly surprised to see me when his wife ushered me in to his room. I told him that I guessed that, from his name, he was probably bought up as a Catholic and offered to pray the rosary with him if he wished.

He wished that very much and thus began a short few weeks of rosary recitations that came to encompass his entire family. In that time he organised restitution to all those he could remember having ever offended beyond the amount of any debt that was due. By the time he could no longer speak himself the family continued to keep watch with him through the passage of the mysteries until he finally was able to let go.

-Hansha Teki

The Way of the Rose #13: A Self-Taught Mystical Practice

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A friend asked me to teach him the rosary, so I gave him the one I was carrying in my pocket that day and explained which prayers belonged to which beads. He asked if that was all he needed to know and I told him it was. “The rest is magic,” I said.

Maybe magic isn’t the right word for it. There’s no trick to the rosary, no sleight of hand. The beads do their work in a very simple, straightforward way. At the same time, it really is almost magic how, once the lips and fingers are set in motion by the rosary, the spirit tends to naturally follow along. What might take years, or even decades, to accomplish on the meditation cushion can be had from the rosary almost from the start—with minimal instruction and very little fuss.

Why is that? I’ve asked myself this question many times. What is it about the rosary that makes it essentially a self-taught mystical practice? Why is it so easy to pick up? You could try to learn Zen meditation that way, but it would make for an extremely difficult and drawn-out affair. You’d probably give it up after awhile without instruction from a teacher or the support of other meditators. Whereas with the rosary, you can show somebody once how to pray it only to find out years later, even with no further instruction, that they’re still devoted to it—whether they belong to a rosary group or not.

Over the years, I have thought of many possible answers to this riddle. Maybe it’s Mary who keeps people praying it. Maybe it is “Our Lady of the Rosary” Herself who offers the solace, relaxation, companionship, and “inner instruction” that is necessary to keep us picking up the beads. Or maybe it’s the simple, “tangible” quality of rosary beads—the fact that, after we’ve used them for awhile, merely to pick them up draws us automatically  into a state of prayer.

I’ve never reached a definitive answer, and I don’t think there needs to be one. But I do believe there is something both dirt simple and sky high about the rosary. It has both an earthy, physical quality about it, and a transcendent quality as well.

Once when my wife and I were struggling financially as young writers with a new family to feed, she sent me to the town next door to purchase something for the house. I can’t remember now what it was—only that the store didn’t have it. On the way back I passed a small antique store that someone was running out of the second floor of their home. In the dormer window, visible from the road, was a medieval statue of Mary with a face so unfathomably sweet it made me stop the car. We had $100 dollars left on our American Express card, and that was what She cost. So I bought Her and brought Her home.

When I got back to the house, Perdita was exasperated. “I send you off with a cow, and you come back with magic beans.” But her irritation was short-lived. By the end of the day she had transformed the mantle above our fireplace into an altar. That was when I first learned that, as a small child, she was always making altars to Mary—in her room, in the hollow of a tree in the back yard, and pretty much everywhere else besides. There was no precedent for it in her family. Her mother was a bohemian artist, her father a surgeon who’d sworn off his pious mother’s Irish Catholicism almost from the moment of his birth. Now, after a lapse of three decades, she was creating an altar to Mary again.

A year later, without either of us quite realizing how it had happened, the statue of the Virgin had become the center of our home. A year or so after that, though she wouldn’t set foot in a Catholic church, Perdita was saying the rosary daily and reciting it before  bed each evening with our kids. So you could say that the “magic beans” had taken root and sprouted after all.

In “Jack and the Beanstalk,” Jack’s handful of beans—so like a rosary, only missing the cross and chain—is rudely  tossed out of the kitchen window. There, over the course of a single night, the beans sprout a stalk reaching up into the heavens. The rosary is a lot like that—a ladder that can reach as high as heaven because it is so firmly rooted in the ground.

The rosary is a seed that gets  mysteriously “planted” in the dirt of ordinary life. It doesn’t even take much watering. It seems to have a vigor and a vitality all its own, drawing from the raw stuff of life everything it needs to grow. The process is organic. Because it’s natural, it doesn’t take much oversight. And because of that it can be easily and quickly passed along.

I have only one piece of advice to impart where all of this is concerned. Once you begin praying the rosary, you should always have two on hand—one to pray with, and one to give away. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself without a rosary from time to time, because you will give your beads away to the person who needs them…and once you start praying the rosary those people will begin finding a way into your life.

ON FORMING A PRAYER INTENTION (or “The Orbit of Sainthood”)

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The story goes that on the eve of the Feast of St. Vincent in 1830, 24-year-old Catherine Labouré was awoken by the voice of a child calling her to the chapel of the convent of Ru du Bac in Paris. When she arrived she witnessed the first great Marian apparition of the modern era. Mary said to her, “God wishes to charge you with a mission. You will be contradicted, but do not fear; you will have the grace to do what is necessary. Tell your spiritual director all that passes within you. Times are evil in France and in the world.”

On November 27 of that same year, Mary returned during Catherine’s evening prayers, displaying her image in an oval frame that rotated so that she could see both the front and the back. This image became the model for the Miraculous Medal subsequently worn by millions of Catholics throughout the world. You can read the complete story by typing the words Miraculous Medal into Google and going to any number of sites. For our purposes, however, only one detail is crucial.

In the apparition, Mary stood on a globe with her arms outstretched and her hands open. On her fingers were jeweled rings of various colors emitting rays of light that shone down upon the world. These, Mary explained, were the graces she granted in answer to people’s prayers. Catherine noticed that some of the rings did not emit light. When she asked the Virgin to explain, she answered: “Those are the graces for which people forget to pray.”

Now, there are many reasons why someone might “forget” to pray for a particular grace, and before we begin our next 54-Day Novena it might be good to consider a few of them. Each of us could probably come up with our own list. This is mine.

• Because I am not worthy. Who I am doesn’t warrant that kind of blessing. I have too many faults. I don’t deserve it. I’m not religious or spiritual enough. It should go to somebody else who is.
• Because it’s impossible. I simply cannot figure out how this grace could possibly come into my life. I can’t imagine it; therefore it must be only a fantasy. Praying for something like that would be setting myself up for a fall.
• Because it’s outside my comfort zone. To receive that grace I’d have to be somebody different from who I am at present. I’d have to be more confident, more capable, more willing to take risks, more steady on my feet.

You can see from this that the graces we forget to pray for aren’t really “forgetting” at all. They are self-limiting. But it isn’t our limits we should consider when we begin a 54-Day Novena. It is our innermost heart’s desire. What will make us truly happy? What will make us feel so fulfilled in life that we have joy to spare for others. What will make our heart’s so full that the person sitting next to us can’t help but get some of the overflow?

We don’t have to worry about what we pray for. If the time is not right for that prayer to be fulfilled, then over the course of the 54-Day Novena we will be guided on the course that will lead us to that right time. We will find ourselves on the path toward it. What’s more, we will find that path isn’t as linear as we thought. We will discover that it’s really more of an orbit—it revolves around a spiritual center that gives spiritual energy, meaning, and coherence to our lives.

But, back to Catherine Labouré. The first night Mary appeared to her, she said: “God wishes to charge you with a mission. You will be contradicted, but do not fear; you will have the grace to do what is necessary.” The mission Mary entrusted Catherine with was as simple as it was impossible. She was to have a medal created in the image of the apparition she had witnessed and have it distributed across the world. That meant that she would have to convince her spiritual director of the truth of the apparition she had witnessed, and that he in turn would have to convince the bishop and the church.

It was a tall order for an illiterate novice nun whom the other sisters universally regarded as quite dull. But she prayed for the success of her mission and, although the road wasn’t easy, within a few years the Miraculous Medal had been distributed to millions of people.

Until her death 46 years later, only Catherine’s spiritual director knew the true identity of the nun at Ru du Bac who had witnessed an apparition of the Immaculate Conception. Catherine’s mission was accomplished entirely through prayer. When the sisters learned the truth, they were stunned that such an unlikely person could have been entrusted with such a mission and blessed with such a grace.

Catherine was made a saint on the basis of her apparitions and the many miracles later attributed to the Miraculous Medal. I am not a Catholic and have no opinion on the church’s process of authenticating Marian apparitions or the way it decides who should or should not be canonized. But it seems to me that anyone who prays for a grace that seems to be impossible—or for which they personally don’t feel worthy—has at least put themselves in the “Orbit of Sainthood.”

I am a former Buddhist monk who believes in reincarnation, and so for me that orbit could be a very long one. I won’t get there in this lifetime, but I am quite certain that the limits I place on what my 54-Day Novena can accomplish are only my own limits. I am therefore willing to challenge them a bit. Mary observes no such limits, as Catherine’s story illustrates quite well.

The Beads Anchor Me…

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I do not know if it is appropriate to share here three different episodes from my own life that this post brought to my mind.

The one I will share concerns an aged priest who was much-loved for his utter humility and genuine concern for all he met. He belonged to the Society of Mary.

I went to experience the rosary with him as helay on his deathbed. With the little strength left in him we managed to recite the five glorious mysteries.

He then spoke to me with these words (or words very like these).

“The rosary takes me to the very heart of the Godhead and I have said it all my life so that it is a part of my very breathing. These beads anchor me in my physical life and remind me to breathe, but soon I shall let them go for I am being called to let go of my breath.”

–Hansha Teki

No Rosary Police

So, this morning Perdita and I are holding our usual abbreviated Way of the Rose meeting at home: five decades, followed by a decade of prayers for the ancestors, followed by our prayer intentions for the day and a final decade to focus those intentions. A great way to stay on course and a great way to start the day. But she’s in charge of announcing the mysteries this morning and…well, she’s sleepy or something and keeps messing them up. Afterwards she apologizes, and I reply: “That’s the great thing about the rosary–there are no rosary police.”

Now, I know that’s not what a lot of Catholics experienced growing up, some of whom were actually struck by a nun’s rosary beads when their attention wandered during class. But it’s in the nature of the rosary to forgive lapses of attention and protocol, missed decades and dropped prayers. At one of our early meetings, the member leading the prayer dropped one or two Hail Marys from two decades, and a Glory Be from all but the last. But that was ultimately fine. Afterwards another member remarked to me, “Well, that just means that the others won’t feel shy about volunteering to lead the prayer.” She was right. One person’s mistake gives another person permission to learn as they go along without obsessing too much over the form.

This more relaxed attitude toward the rosary is something Pope Francis seems to grasp without much effort. While he was celebrating a Marian Day public mass, an overzealous pilgrim tossed him a rosary to bless…and, bizarrely, it got caught on his ear. He was momentarily stunned (understandable, since people have tried to assassinate popes in the past). But once he saw what it was, he smiled and blessed it…and tossed it with a smile back into the crowd.

The Rhythm of the Rosary

The rosary is all about movement for me, as I’ve said before, but today I am thinking about the rhythms it sets up between daily concerns and nighttime worries.

The Our Fathers address the stuff of “daily bread” and how to move through ordinary life without creating too much karmic chaos–how much is enough, forgiveness, responsibility, addiction and sobriety. Hard stuff indeed and this old prayer reminds us of what matters in the hours between waking and sleep.

The Hail Mary on the other hand takes us from the inner darkness of the womb to the waiting darkness of our death. I’ve often thought that there are ten Hail Mary’s to the single Our Father because that is the rhythm of time–the business of the day speeds along and then we enter the vast numinous timelessness of night where our only job is to remember that we are not alone in the dark, that she is their at our birth and at our death and at our rebirth.

On my own I will often drift into some sleepy, place during the Hail Mary’s but as my fingers twist the beads I know that no matter where I roam I cannot be lost. The rosary is my guide through the night.

Mother of God

Mother of God. Those words are the first koan of the rosary. “But what was before the beginning?” children ask with their simple wisdom. “What was before the big bang, what’s beyond the outer edge of the universe, who was there before God?” The Mother of God is the answer–the one who is all things and no things, where we begin and where we end. In the beginning of the rosary one becomes two and the dance of life begin, in the final mystery all things become one again.

The Rosary as Cosmic Dance

The rosary is a series of comings and goings, departures and reunions. Like one of those old country dances in the community hall, we are reminded that all life is a great circle in which we swing around the arm of our partner, and then cast off from each other, to turn this way and cross that way, but our eyes always on each other, and eventually circling back towards each other in elaborate patterns that can go on and on forever. Mary is separated from Jesus at the moment of his death on the cross and she is reunited with him in the garden. He ascends to heaven, he comes to life in her womb. The moon waxes and wanes, the seasons pass, the tide goes in and out, we are born, we die, and are reborn. This is the movement of the rosary, of our life, of our lives together, of life itself, of the cosmic dance we dance together.