What Is the Rosary?
The rosary is a a prayer devotion that, like most prayer devotions, has a number of dimensions to it. Here are a few, from the most surface level to the deepest spiritual level
- A series of traditional bible-based prayers to Mary and Jesus/God.
- A pleading for Mary’s intercessions (asking Jesus’s mother to ask Him for things on our behalf)
- A deep contemplation on the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ
- A door into a deep spiritual communion with our Creator.
Let’s look at each spiritual level of the rosary devotion in a little more detail to get a better idea, hopefully, of what the rosary “is” to different people at different times.
What the Rosary Is at Its Most Basic
Physically speaking, the rosary is a set of grouped beads, most commonly on a necklace. There are two primary groups: an introductory group and a set of decade groups.
The introductory group is the part that generally dangles down from the loop of the necklace. At the bottom of the introductory group is a cross which is there to signify that this is a highly Christian devotion. Upwards from the cross are a series of 5 beads signifying:
- Apostles Creed – common in many Christian denominations, the Creed is a concise exposition on what we believe as Christians
- Our Father – A nearly universal Christian prayer, straight from the mouth of Jesus (MT 6:9-13) when his disciples asked him how to pray
- 3 Hail Marys (for Faith, Hope and Charity) – The Hail Mary is a prayer (“an earnest request or wish”) said to Mary, the mother of Jesus asking her to pray To Jesus on our behalf. The logic of this will be described in more detail below. But here – on the surface – suffice it to say that the Hail Mary prayer is derived either directly or indirectly from scripture. (Luke 1:28, Luke 1:42, Luke 1:43, James 5:16). Here is a wonderful writing on the Hail Mary from St. Thomas Aquinas.
- Glory Be – God is, and always will be, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and worthy of glory. Also indirectly from scripture (ROM 11:33-36)
The decade groups are 5 sets of 1 bead slightly separated from 10 beads. The single bead is a “mystery” bead and the 10 beads are “Hail Mary” beads.
- Mystery Bead – Put simply, the mystery represents is 1 of 20 important events in Jesus’s life (discussed more in a following section). These events are called mysteries because they are endless sources of contemplation. Each mystery begins with a “Glory Be” and ends with an “Our Father” (discussed above).
- Hail Mary Beads – on each of these beads, a Hail Mary (discussed above) is said
When one completes the introductory group and all 5 decade groups, the rosary is typically concluded by the “Hail Holy Queen” prayer, which is a longer, and beautiful, exhortation to Mary for her prayers for us.
So in summary, on its surface the Rosary is a set of common and mostly bible-based prayers that are mapped to beads on a necklace. Praying even pre-written prayers is spending time with our Lord and is therefore a worthy and admirable activity that is surely pleasing to God.
The Rosary as a Pleading to Mary, the Mother of God
“And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Lk 1:43
At the heart of the rosary is the “Hail Mary” prayer:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.
It is the heart of the rosary because it is repeated over and over, 53 times in total, in the recitation of the rosary.
The first two lines of the Hail Mary prayer are almost verbatim from scripture (see Luke 1:28, Luke 1:42). It’s the final line for which some are more than a little squeamish. Is Mary “the mother of God”? It’s a question that has caused some manner of division in the Christian church since shortly after Jesus’s resurrection. The Council of Ephesus in 431 AD directly addressed this question, declaring essentially that if Christ is God (not a distinctly different Son of God) then the mother of Christ must be the mother of God. On the other hand, there clearly wasn’t a Mother that “pre-existed” that then brought God into existence in the way we think of human motherhood. Hence the understandable hesitation with this doctrine and this prayer.
However — looking at both sides of the question, it seems reasonable that the phrase “Mary, Mother of God” exhibits some level of literal truth to it and some level of metaphor. The uncertainty over how much is literal and how much is metaphor is really just a distraction from the value of the phrase in suggesting that Mary, a person or soul certainly in Heaven, would most likely have an abnormally high level of ‘clout’ there.
Praying the “Hail Mary”, then, is pleading with perhaps the highest human figure in heaven to ask Jesus to bless us or the one for whom we pray (our intention). And so praying that prayer 53 times in a rosary not only allows us to get to the depths of our plea, but also exhibits the persistence Jesus spoke of in Luke 11:5-8.
But why pray to Mary at all? Why not just pray to Jesus? Well of course we can and should (see this devotion similar to a rosary but prayed directly to Jesus). But at the same time, when we are asking for something, it never hurts to bring a highly respected friend along with us to ask for it too.
The Rosary as a Contemplation of the Life, Ministry, Death and Resurrection of Jesus
As mentioned above, the central theme of the rosary is Mary. But not Mary – daughter of Joachim and Ann, or Mary – peasant girl in Nazareth, or even Mary – wife of Joseph, but Mary – mother of Jesus. In other word’s Mary’s importance is completely in her relationship to our Savior Jesus. And the rosary is themed accordingly.
Each of the 5 decades of the rosary begins with a “Mystery”, which is an important event in Jesus’s life, ministry, death or resurrection. In fact, there are four different rosary themes, each dedicated to one of those events. The “Joyful Mysteries” focus on Jesus birth and early life. The “Luminous Mysteries” focus on His ministry. The “Sorrowful Mysteries” focus on His passion and death. And the “Glorious Mysteries” focus on His Resurrection and reign in heaven. In keeping with the Marian aspect of the rosary, most of its mysteries are events in which Mary’s life intersected directly with Jesus. Notably, however, there are a few mysteries that are so central to Jesus’s story that they don’t directly involve Mary, thus confirming that Jesus is the ultimate end or purpose of praying the rosary.
So as one gets spiritually deeper in praying the rosary, one’s focus shifts from Mary to Jesus. One begins to contemplate the nature of Jesus’s birth, His first miracle, His transfiguration, His crucifixion, His resurrection. These events are so deep in their impact on our singular lives to the entire history of the world that they are called Mysteries. The following 10 Hail Mary prayers are then a rhythm by which one can delve into some aspect of these mysteries. Such as:
“Jesus, the King of the Universe was born in a stable in the middle of the night with no fanfare, yet today I proudly announced to my wife three times that I was magnanimous enough to do the laundry today. How can I better follow Jesus tomorrow?”
“Jesus was born in a stable. God Himself loves us so much that He wanted to enter our very existence – but as a peasant rather than a prince. What is He telling us about people’s perceived status as it relates to their dignity?”
Or even simply picturing oneself at the edge of the glow around the manger, basking in the indescribable joy of the birth of our Savior.
The possibilities of how one enters into the Mysteries is endless. You can see how one taking some time each day to pray a rosary and delve into these mysteries couldn’t help but grow in faith, relationship and understanding of Jesus.
The Rosary as a Door to Spiritual Communion With Our Creator
It has been said of the rosary that if, on your 4th Hail Mary, you find yourself face to face with Jesus – stop praying the rosary. The deepest level of the rosary, or any heartfelt prayer to God, is a communion at which one feels the separation between oneself and his Creator has vanished. Talk to God, listen to God or simply swim in the glow of His love. That kind of depth of prayer isn’t as usual as we’d like but it can and does happen. And at that point, whatever device one has used to get to that place has served its purpose, free to be forgotten today and picked back up (likely with even more vigor) tomorrow!