Monday, September 20, 2010

worshipful movements of humans through space, part 8: a rosary is a soul utensil

A rosary, on the one hand, is nothing more than a string studded with beads and baubles. On the other hand, it is a cosmic connection. This is the essence of the rosary: it is a bridge between the earthly present and a higher, more sublime realm.

The lone Apostles’ Creed, the clockwork Our Fathers, the Hail Marys strung like sacred breadcrumbs along the winding of the maze, the punctuation from time to time by a joyful Glory Be rung like a chiming bell announcing the turning of a page, the lone Hail Holy Queen: if you described the praying of the rosary only by the sequence of prayers to which the beads correspond and you stopped your description there, failing to remark upon the physical sensations induced by the praying of the rosary – the way the beveled beads feel, the small muscular movements of the hands accompanying the mouthing of the prayers, the way the beads rolling between the ball of the thumb and the pad of the index finger feel, the creeping along the beads, the lingering in the oases, how the thumb and the index finger, even though they cannot speak, know how to count to ten by the way ten rolled beads feel, the way glass and fine chain sound like prayers in the mouth – without mention of these movements and these delicate sensations, your description would be incomplete.

A rosary is not jewelry: a rosary made from dried blueberries and hazelnuts is no less holy for lacking jewels. In fact, a cheap plastic rosary works as well as a fancy one. A rosary is not an article of clothing, even though it is worn around the hands. Nor is a rosary some kind of magical amulet, glowing its radiant powers onto the people standing around it. In order for it to work, a rosary must be used. A rosary is more like a utensil, a tool for shaping the soul. By using a rosary, the soul becomes more like a rosary, in the same way that by navigating a garden of roses, one becomes more like a rose.

It’s the shape of the rosary which gives the rosary its power – that is to say, its usefulness – but the shape of the rosary alone does no one any good. Think of the rosary as an obstacle course for the fingers and the lips, a jogging track for the soul. Since obstacles are useful only when they are actively overcome, an unused rosary is like an unused obstacle course or a dormant treadmill. The rosary spells out an exercise regimen, a workout for the small muscles of the hand and of the throat. With practice, the regimen coalesces into a well-worn routine which reshapes in a positive direction the soul of the person praying. Through its habitual and mindful use, the trajectory of the soul is reoriented.

Dangling from a rearview mirror, a rosary is mostly ornamental. While its presence may serve as a daily reminder of the virtues of the Virgin Mary and the path to God she weaves through Jesus, its full powers remain untapped wrapped around the stem of the mirror. When a careless driver swerved mindlessly into my lane yesterday, I noticed two things. One, she was paying more attention to the cell phone in her hand than to the potentially dangerous traffic around her. Two, a rosary dangled from her rearview mirror probably collecting dust. Using her rosary to exercise and practice mindfulness would make her a safer driver than merely displaying it like a magical amulet.

A rosary is a path to be walked, a journey to be undertaken. Since no one can undertake a journey on another person’s behalf and since paths don’t walk themselves, an unprayed rosary is nothing more than a knickknack. To be useful, a rosary must be walked through and worked through. Think of it as a sort of maze. In fact, medieval Christians commonly built into the pavement of Gothic cathedrals laborious walking labyrinths for the faithful to mindfully navigate while contemplating the sacred mysteries, encouraging through its use a resculpting of the soul. What the faithful Christian finds at the center of the labyrinth after making his way through eleven snaking loops over twenty or thirty minutes – a rosette motif as it turns out – is beside the point. The only true treasure at the end of the maze – or at the end of the rosary – is the whole shape of the maze itself and the delicate knotwork of the soul the journey through that shape cultivates.

Not only is the rosary a winding walking labyrinth of sorts, it is also an encouraging guide through the labyrinth, pulling a person along its knotted track practically magnetically. It is no accident that the beads of the rosary are sized to tempt the tips of the fingers. A rosary is pleasing to behold: more importantly, it is tempting to hold and to roll. And it is no accident that its prayers are pleasing to the ear and sound like soft songs. The fingers yearn for the satisfying palpability of the bead-to-come and the beads-to-come. The tongue longs to pronounce the deliciousness of the prayers. The sensuousness of the rosary lubricates the arduous workout like a trainer who motivates an exerciser with words of encouragement and reward.

A rosary bears its fullest fruit only after many executions and only after its rhythms and maneuvers have been woven into muscle memory. This takes time and patience. Once the mouth routines and hand choreography have become second nature, the mind is free to ponder the sacred mysteries of the rosary and, in doing so, plumb a higher realm. The sacred mysteries of the rosary are stories taken from the life of Jesus – the Virgin birth of Jesus, the finding of Jesus in the temple, the agony in the garden, the crucifixion, the resurrection, etc. – meant for reflection and contemplation. If the beads of the rosary are like lanterns lighting a path of contemplation through a wilderness of darkness, the mysteries of the rosary are the hues the lanterns glow. Including the five new mysteries proposed by Pope John Paul II, there are twenty sacred mysteries altogether, five mysteries per rosary. The mysteries come in four colors: joyful, glorious, luminous and sorrowful. For each lap around the rosary, one of the colors is chosen at the discretion of the person praying and with sensitivity to the demands of the occasion. (Pope John Paul II, for example, preferred the luminous mysteries on Thursdays and the glorious mysteries on Sundays.) Flavored with sentiments of humility, compassion, obedience, courage, fidelity, purity, faith, hope and grace, the sacred mysteries of the rosary are inexhaustible chewels to be pondered and savored during the long and slow march forward while the fingers teach the brain the hard work of contemplation, bringing one to oneself in the presence of God.

A rosary studied from a distance is a hollow novelty. I once spent an afternoon helping my niece and nephew prepare for a quiz on the mysteries of the rosary scheduled for the following day at the Catholic school they were attending. While the mysteries of the rosary make excellent test questions, quizzes do nothing to reshape the soul, which is the point of the rosary after all. When I asked them if they actually prayed the rosary in school, they told me that it was offered once a week and was a completely optional exercise. This misses the point entirely. It’s like learning to play an oboe without ever touching an oboe. If I were in charge of the curriculum at a Catholic school, there would be daily praying of the rosary, fifteen minutes a day devoted to quiet reflection and contemplation of virtues. These habits of mindfulness, once habitualized, would remain long after the cramming for quizzes has left their minds for good. And I would cobble a walking labyrinth into the pavement of the playground. As a final exam, children would have to walk through it slowly and contemplatively.

On the one hand, the rosary is nothing more than a string studded with beads and baubles. On the other hand, it is a cosmic connection. The praying of the rosary is a marriage between the physical movements the hands and the mouth make and the path of contemplation the mysteries encourage. The rosary literally presses itself into the flesh of a person praying and the soul becomes the shape of a rosary.