Two of my very dearest Christian friends recently attended a vigil rosary service, and came away with the following impressions:
- The attendees attempted to say a "speed rosary" in record time, which amounted to them "mumbling" through the prayers.
- The prayers themselves (or what they could make out through said mumbling) seemed fairly repetitious and lacking emotion.
The rosary as we understand and pray it today is a devotion in honor of the Virgin Mary. It consists of a set number of specific prayers--the first are introductory, but the bulk of it consists of a meditation on Scripture. The rosary within the tradition of the Catholic Church is first and foremost a "personal piety," meaning that the Church loves and approves of its use, but doesn't require it at all (contrast that to attending Mass each Sunday, which is an obligation, not a personal piety).
The rosary opens with the Apostle's Creed--a creed not written by the apostles, but a compilation of their teachings. Non-Catholic Christians can find much common ground in the Creed. Then comes an Our Father (we all love that one!) and three Hail Marys. The Hail Mary is mostly lifted right from Scripture, with the exception of its last line, which is Scripturally based. The last prayer of the opening of the rosary is a "Glory Be," which is a simple Christian hymn of praise to God.
You can find/read all those prayers here.
After the introductory prayers comes the meat of the rosary--the decades. A decade consists of one Our Father, 10 Hail Marys, and a concluding Glory Be. There are 20 decades in a full rosary (which takes about an hour to say), but most times, when we say "I'm going to say a rosary," just five decades are said.
Each decade is devoted to a mystery regarding the life of Jesus or his mother--it's essentially a meditation on the Gospels. As catholic.com says, "Here the word mystery refers to a truth of the faith, not to something incomprehensible, as in the line, 'It’s a mystery to me!'"
The 20 mysteries are divided into four groups of five:
- the Joyful (the early life of Christ)
- the Luminous (Christ's work on earth)
- the Sorrowful (His Passion and death)
- the Glorious (His Resurrection and our Blessed Mother's Assumption)
But why the repetition?! Well, I think this excerpt from catholic.com says it pretty well (emphasis mine):
"First we must understand that they are meditations. When Catholics recite the twelve prayers that form a decade of the rosary, they meditate on the mystery associated with that decade. If they merely recite the prayers, whether vocally or silently, they’re missing the essence of the rosary. It isn’t just a recitation of prayers, but a meditation on the grace of God. Critics, not knowing about the meditation part, imagine the rosary must be boring, uselessly repetitious, meaningless, and their criticism carries weight if you reduce the rosary to a formula. Christ forbade meaningless repetition (Matt. 6:7), but the Bible itself prescribes some prayers that involve repetition. Look at Psalms 136, which is a litany (a prayer with a recurring refrain) meant to be sung in the Jewish Temple. In the psalm the refrain is "His mercy endures forever." Sometimes in Psalms 136 the refrain starts before a sentence is finished, meaning it is more repetitious than the rosary, though this prayer was written directly under the inspiration of God."
It is the meditation on the mysteries that gives the rosary its staying power.
But why the beads, then? Well, for one thing, it helps us keep on track, and helps us to remember, individually and sequentially, the divine truths of our faith. A blog called "Crossed the Tiber" puts it this way:
"So the beads hold our place, keep our physical body engaged in an attitude of prayer, the Hail Mary prayers engage our lips in intercession and the mysteries engage our hearts and minds on Christ and the events in the Gospels. What's not to love here?"
And so, to go back to the question that sparked this tome of a note (and its title): Saying a rosary, with its meditation through meaningful, repetitive prayer, brings one to focus on the mysteries in the Gospel, the life of Christ, and the role of Mary as Mother of God. Reducing the repetition to rote recitation, though, strips the rosary of its beauty, and empties it of its meaning (and power).
I hope that helps!
Plus: Short, easy-to-read explanations of the rosary which are far better written than mine:
AND, just for fun: Scriptural references for all 20 mysteries.
The Joyful Mysteries are these: the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), the Visitation (Luke 1:40-56), the Nativity (Luke 2:6-20), the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:21-39), and the Finding of the child Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:41-51). Then come the Sorrowful Mysteries: the Agony in the Garden (Matt. 26:36-46), the Scourging (Matt. 27:26), the Crowning with Thorns (Matt. 27:29), the Carrying of the Cross (John 19:17), and the Crucifixion (Luke 23:33-46). Next are the Luminous Mysteries: the Baptism in the Jordan (Jn 1:23), the Wedding Feast at Cana (Jn 2:1), the Proclamation of the Kindgom (Mk 1:14), the Transfiguration of our Lord (Lk 9:28), and the Last Supper (Mt 26: 17). The final Mysteries are the Glorious: the Resurrection (Luke 24:1-12), the Ascension (Luke 24:50-51), the Descent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4), the Assumption of Mary into heaven (Rev. 12), and her Coronation (cf. Rev. 12:1).