A few months ago I went to confession at a conference where I was speaking and made the mistake of wearing my nametag into the confessional. Now, I’m not terribly concerned that Father would connect my name with my sins–it’s not like there’s anything he could do about it if he did. But my nametag identified me as a speaker at the conference, which evidently gave him the idea that I was serious about holiness because he gave me a rosary for my penance.
You read that right. A whole rosary.
I wanted to be like, “Sorry, did you mean three Hail Marys?” Because you know it’s always three Hail Marys.1 But I figured I’d show off instead.
“Do you mean in addition to the one I’m already praying today?” See, Father? I’m so holy. I shouldn’t have to do a hard penance.
“Yes.” Well, shoot. “Do you pray a rosary every day?”
“Yes, Father.” Now you get it. I’m really awesome.
But instead of congratulating me, he started talking about how I should really pray three rosaries a day. THREE! Ain’t nobody got time for that! As he talked, I sat there stewing. I can’t pray more rosaries. I barely have time for what I’m doing already. I’d have to cut out mental prayer or spiritual reading and I know that’s a terrible idea. Really, I’m too pious for any more rosaries.
Moral of the story: I’m arrogant.
But there’s a confession in there, too: I don’t like praying the rosary.2
If you’re a Catholic of my variety, you’re not really supposed to say this. We love Mass and we love Mary and we absolutely love the rosary. But I don’t.
Sometimes I tell people this and they beg me to try again. Believe me, it’s not for lack of trying. I’ve prayed the rosary daily since I was 16–three times a day in college.3 That’s something like 5000 rosaries. I’ve prayed the rosary with music, with extemporaneous meditations, with Bible passages. I’ve prayed in several languages, alone and with thousands of people. I’ve prayed in fits and starts throughout the day and start to finish in one shot, while walking and driving and kneeling and sitting. I’ve read books about the rosary, taught others to pray the rosary, given talks on the merits of the rosary. I just don’t like praying it.
Here’s the thing: I don’t like sushi, I don’t like The Phantom of the Opera, and (if we’re being quite honest) I’ve never much cared for Hopkins. I know that sushi is wonderful, that Phantom is beautiful, and that Hopkins will take your breath away. I know these things are good. I just don’t like them. Perhaps if I try and try and try again I’ll find that I do. And perhaps not. But my opinion isn’t a judgment against them, just a personal preference. It’s the same with the rosary–I know it’s good, I just don’t enjoy it.
I know that I’m bad at praying the rosary. I know that if I were really meditating on the mysteries I’d begin to see the value of the prayer. I also know that not all prayers work for all temperaments. One of the many gifts of the Catholic Church is that there are as many ways to be a Catholic as there are to be a person. You don’t have to love adoration or weekly confession or Taize or lectio divina or 40 Days for Life or immigration reform or Latin or Matt Maher. There are so many ways to pray, so many spiritualities, so many acts of piety to choose from. Not everybody’s going to love the rosary. I even read a book recently4 that said people with my temperament will almost always struggle with the rosary. I felt absolutely vindicated.
You’d think I’d give up. But I’m not going to. Largely, it’s because I felt absolutely convicted that God was calling me to pray the rosary and I haven’t yet felt released from that call. But I don’t think mine is an unusual situation. I think a lot of us don’t enjoy the rosary. And I think most of us should be praying it anyway. Every day. Here’s why:
1. It’s objectively a good way to pray. The rosary is a scriptural prayer. It’s shot through with the words of Scripture and built around the mysteries of Scripture. It was given to us by Our Lady,5 who keeps returning to encourage us to pray this miracle-working prayer. When you recite a prayer written by a modern author, sing a hymn, or read a book about God, it might not be fantastic. The rosary always is.
2. You need your mother. Ever call your mom when you didn’t have anything to talk about? And maybe she didn’t either. But you talked for a little while anyway, because talking to your mom is important. Whether you enjoy the rosary or not, it keeps you connected to the mother of Jesus and your mother. And when you’re connected to Mary, she keeps drawing you closer and closer to Jesus. Praying the rosary daily keeps you in check.
3. You’re in good company. The rosary has been prayed by countless Saints–I’d hazard a guess at nearly every Saint since it was introduced to the world. It’s a great equalizer, prayed by popes and peasants, geniuses and fools. Any given day, there are millions of people throughout the world praying the rosary. If it’s made saints of sinners for nearly a thousand years, who are you to refuse?
4. It consecrates a busy day. I’ve found that I struggle most when I try to sit down and pray a rosary all the way through. It just makes my mind wander more. Instead, I pray a decade as I drive to the store, half a decade while I’m waiting for the microwave. It seemed like cheating at first, until I realized: every time I have a free second, my automatic inclination is to pray. I’m squeezing the rosary in wherever I can which means my default action is prayer. Back in college (when I prayed three rosaries and still had time for naps) I used to pray the rosary to help myself fall asleep in the middle of the day. I did this so often that when I woke in the night, I found that I was praying Hail Marys. Maybe it’s better to set time aside for a full rosary, but when you’re fitting it in as best you can, it transforms your whole life.
5. Sometimes mindless prayer is the best you can do. The rosary shouldn’t be mindless. It should be wrapped up in the mysteries of Christ’s life. But there are times when you can’t meditate. When God seems far, reading the Bible can be nothing but frustrating. Praise music rings hollow. There’s no time for the Liturgy of the Hours and you wouldn’t be able to mean it even if you tried. But the rosary you can do. Even when doubts are creeping in and you feel abandoned, you can cling to Mary’s apron string and murmur those words. Even when you’re so distracted by contractions or mile 24 of your marathon that you can’t think, you can repeat the prayers you’ve said so many times. Maybe you can’t call the images of the mysteries to mind, but you can keep saying the words–day in and day out–until they mean something again. If you’ve committed to a daily rosary, perhaps only stubbornness will keep you praying. But God can work in stubbornness to draw you back to him. Promise God a daily rosary in time of consolation and it will sustain you through desolation until you’re feeling his love again.
6. It’s something to cling to in a crisis. When all is well, the rosary is something I do out of duty. When my life comes crashing down around me, though, I run for my Momma. After a dreaded phone call, after a breakup, while racing to a survivor’s side, my hand reaches automatically for my rosary. Even while I’m struggling to see God working in my pain, I’m being drawn back to him by my Mother. When I’m lost, I’m already found because I go home to Mary before I even know what I’m about. Because the rosary is the rhythm of my life, it’s what I fall back on even when I’m not feeling it. Not song lyrics, not video games, not even phone calls to friends. It’s not even a decision because the commitment I’ve made makes it automatic. And that automatic turning to the rosary has gotten me through more than I ever would have imagined when I first picked one up 15 years ago.
I don’t know that I’ll ever like the rosary. Maybe one day I’ll be holy enough that I won’t spend the whole time distracted. Or maybe even at my holiest it still won’t fit my personality. No matter. I’ll pray it either way, not because of what it does for me but because of what it does to me, even when I don’t notice it.
Will you join me?
- Note to priests: it wouldn’t hurt if you switched it up some. [↩]
- Pause for the reader to freak out, except that I already put it in the title, so maybe it’s no surprise. [↩]
- Take that, rosary-loving priest! I mean…uh…bless me, Father, for I have sinned…. [↩]
- Well, skimmed a book and then lent it to someone who forgot to give it back to me. Story of my life. [↩]
- Or at least by Saint Dominic, if you want to call the story of the rosary a legend. [↩]