Archbishop Sheen on Praying the Rosary
From the earliest days, the Church asked its faithful to recite the one hundred and fifty Psalms of David. This custom still prevails among priests, who recite some of these Psalms every day. But it was not easy for anyone to memorize the one hundred and fifty Psalms. Then, too, before the invention of printing, it was difficult to procure a book. That is why certain important books like the Bible had to be chained like telephone books; otherwise people would have run off with them. Incidentally, this gave rise to the stupid lie that the Church would not allow anyone to read the Bible, because it was chained. The fact is, it was chained so people could read it. The telephone book is chained, too, but it is more consulted than any book in modern civilization!
The people who could not read the one hundred and fifty Psalms wanted to do something to make up for it. So they substituted one hundred and fifty Hail Marys. They broke up these one hundred and fifty, in the manner of the [Eastern] Acathist, into fifteen decades, or series of ten. Each part was to be said while meditating on a different aspect of the Life of Our Lord. To keep the decades separate, each one of them began with the Our Father and ended with the Doxology of Praise to the Trinity. St. Dominic, who died in 1221, received from the Blessed Mother the command to preach and to popularize this devotion for the good of souls, for conquest over evil, and for the prosperity of Holy Mother Church and thus gave us the Rosary in its present classical form.
A Scriptural PrayerPractically all the prayers of the Rosary, as well as the details of the Life of Our Saviour on which one meditates while saying it, are to be found in the Scriptures. The first part of the Hail Mary is nothing but the words of the Angel to Mary; the next part, the words of Elizabeth to Mary on the occasion of her visit. The only exception is the last part of the Hail Mary, namely, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.” This was not introduced until the latter part of the Middle Ages. Since it seizes upon the two decisive moments of life: “Now, and at the hour of our death,” it suggests the spontaneous outcry of people in a great calamity. The Black Death, which ravaged all Europe and wiped out one-third of its population, prompted the faithful to cry out to the Mother of Our Lord to protect them, at a time when the present moment and death were almost one.
The Black Death has ended. But now the Red Death of Communism is sweeping the earth. In keeping with the spirit of adding something to this prayer when evil is intensified, I find it interesting that, when the Blessed Mother appeared at Fatima in 1917 because of the great decline in morals and the advent of godlessness, she asked that, after the “Glory be to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” we add, “O my Jesus forgive us our sins, save us from the fire of Hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who are most in need of Thy mercy.”
Repetition and Love
It is objected that there is much repetition in the Rosary because the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary are said so often; therefore it is monotonous. That reminds me of a woman who came to see me one evening after instructions. She said, “I would never become a Catholic. You say the same words in the Rosary over and over again, and anyone who repeats the same words is never sincere. I would never believe anyone who repeated his words, and neither would God.” I asked her who the man was with her. She said he was her fiancé. I asked: “Does he love you?” “Certainly, he does.” “But how do you know?” “He told me.” “What did he say?” “He said: ‘I love you.’ ” “When did he tell you last?” “About an hour ago.” “Did he tell you before?” “Yes, last night.” “What did he say?” ” ‘I love you.’ ” “But never before?” “He tells me every night.” I said: “Do not believe him. He is repeating; he is not sincere.”
The beautiful truth is that there is no repetition in, “I love you.” Because there is a new moment of time, another point in space, the words do not mean the same as they did at another time or space. A mother says to her son: “You are a good boy.” She may have said it ten thousand times before, but each time it means something different; the whole personality goes out to it anew, as a new historical circumstance summons forth a new outburst of affection. Love is never monotonous in the uniformity of its expression. The mind is infinitely variable in its language, but the heart is not. The heart of a man, in the face of the woman he loves, is too poor to translate the infinity of his affection into a different word. So the heart takes one expression, “I love you,” and in saying it over and over again, it never repeats. It is the only real news in the universe.
That is what we do when we say the Rosary, we are saying to God, the Trinity, to the Incarnate Saviour, to the Blessed Mother: “I love You, I love You, I love you.” Each time it means something different because, at each decade, our mind is moving to a new demonstration of the Saviour’s love: for example, from the mystery of His Love which willed to become one of us in His Incarnation, to the other mystery of love when He suffered for us, and on to the other mystery of His Love where He intercedes for us before the Heavenly Father. And who shall forget that Our Lord Himself in the moment of His greatest agony repeated, three times within an hour, the same prayer?
A Prayer for All PeopleThe beauty of the Rosary is that it is not merely a vocal prayer. It is also a mental prayer. One sometimes hears a dramatic presentation in which, while the human voice is speaking, there is a background of beautiful music, giving force and dignity to the words. The Rosary is like that. While the prayer is being said, the heart is not hearing music, but it is meditating on the Life of Christ all over again, applied to his own life and his own needs. As the wire holds the beads together, so meditation holds the prayers together. We often speak to people while our minds are thinking of something else. But in the Rosary, we not only say prayers, we think them. Bethlehem, Galilee, Nazareth, Jerusalem, Golgotha, Calvary, Mount Olivet, Heaven — all these move before our mind’s eye as our lips pray. The stained-glass windows in a Church invite the eye to dwell on thoughts about God. The Rosary invites our fingers, our lips, and our heart in one vast symphony of prayer, and for that reason is the greatest prayer ever composed by man. The Rosary has a special value to many groups: (1) the worried, (2) the intellectual and the unlearned, (3) the sick.
1. The Worried. Worry is a want of harmony between the mind and the body. Worried people invariably keep their minds too busy and their hands too idle. God intended that the truths we have in our mind should work themselves out in action. “The Word became flesh” — such is the secret of a happy life. But in mental distress, the thousand and one thoughts find no order or solace within and no escape without. In order to overcome this mental indigestion, psychiatrists have taught soldiers suffering from war shock how to knit and do handicrafts, in order that the pent-up energy of their minds might flow out through the busy extremities of their fingers.
This is, indeed, helpful, but it is only a part of the cure. Worries and inner distress cannot be overcome by keeping the hands alone busy. There must be a contact with a new source of Divine Energy and the development of confidence and trust in a Person Whose essence is Love. Could worried souls be taught the love of the Good Shepherd Who cares for the wayward sheep, so that they would put themselves into that new area of love — all their fears and anxieties would banish. But that is difficult. Concentration is impossible when the mind is troubled; thoughts run helter-skelter; a thousand and one images flood across the mind; distracted and wayward, the spiritual seems a long way off. The Rosary is the best therapy for these distraught, unhappy, fearful, and frustrated souls, precisely because it involves the simultaneous use of three powers: the physical, the vocal, and the spiritual, and in that order. The fingers, touching the beads, are reminded that these little counters are to be used for prayer. This is the physical suggestion of prayer. The lips move in unison with the fingers. This is a second or vocal suggestion of prayer. The Church, a wise psychologist, insists that the lips move while saying the Rosary, because She knows that the external rhythm of the body can create a rhythm of the soul. If the fingers and the lips keep at it, the spiritual will soon follow, and the prayer will eventually end in the heart.
The beads help the mind to concentrate. They are almost like the self-starter of a motor; after a few spits and spurts, the soul soon gets going. Every airplane must have a runway before it can fly. What the runway is to the airplane, that the Rosary beads are to prayer — the physical start to gain spiritual altitude. The very rhythm and sweet monotony induce a physical peace and quiet and create an affective fixation on God. The physical and the mental work together if we give them a chance. Stronger minds can work from the mind outward; but worried minds have to work from the outside inward. With the spiritually trained, the soul leads the body; with most people, the body has to lead the soul. Little by little the worried, as they say the Rosary, see that all their worries stemmed from their egotism. No normal mind yet has ever been overcome by worries or fears who was faithful to the Rosary. You will be surprised how you can climb out of your worries, bead by bead, up to the very throne of the Heart of Love Itself.
2. The Intellectual and the Unlearned. The spiritual advantages which one derives from the Rosary depend upon two factors: first, the understanding that one has of the joys, sorrows, and glory in the Life of Christ; and second, the fervor and love with which one prays. Because the Rosary is both a mental and a vocal prayer, it is one where intellectual elephants may bathe, and the simple birds may also sip.
It happens that the simple often pray better than the learned, not because the intellect is prejudicial to prayer, but because, when it begets pride, it destroys the spirit of prayer. One always ought to love according to knowledge, for Wisdom and Love of the Trinity are equal. But as husbands who know they have good wives do not always love according to that knowledge, so too the philosopher does not always pray as he should, and thus his knowledge becomes sterile.
The Rosary is a great test of faith. What the Eucharist is in the order of Sacraments, that the Rosary is in the order of sacramentals — the mystery and the test of faith — the touchstone by which the soul is judged in its humility. The mark of the Christian is the willingness to look for the Divine in the flesh of a babe in a crib, the continuing Christ under the appearance of bread on an altar, and a meditation and a prayer on a string of beads.
The more one descends to humility, the deeper becomes the faith. The Blessed Mother thanked her Divine Son because He had looked on her lowliness. The world starts with what is big, the spirit begins with the little, aye, with the trivial! The faith of the simple can surpass that of the learned, because the intellectual often ignore those humble means to devotion, such as medals, pilgrimages, statues, and Rosaries. As the rich, in their snobbery, sneer at the poor, so the intelligentsia, in their sophistication, jeer at the lowly. One of the last acts of Our Lord was to wash the feet of His Disciples, after which He told them that Out of such humiliation true greatness is born.
When it comes to love, there is no difference between the intellectual and the simple. They resort to the same token of affection and the same delicate devices, such as the keeping of a flower, the treasuring of a handkerchief or a paper with a scribbled message. Love is the only equalizing force in the world; all differences are dissolved in the great democracy of affection. It is only when men cease to love that they begin to act differently. Then it is that they spurn the tiny little manifestations of affection which make love grow.
But if the simple and the intellectual love, in the human order, in the same way, then they should also love God in the Divine order, in the same way. The educated can explain love better than the simple, but they have no richer experience of it. The theologian may know more about the Divinity of Christ, but he may not vitalize it in his life as well as the simple. As it is by the simple gesture of love that the wise man enters into the understanding of love, so it is by the simple acts of piety that the educated also enter into the knowledge of God. The Rosary is the meeting ground of the uneducated and the learned; the place where the simple love grows in knowledge and where the knowing mind grows in love. As Maeterlinck has said: “The thinker continues to think justly only if he does not lose contact with those who do not think at all!”
3. The Sick. The third great value of the Rosary is for the sick. When fever mounts and the body aches, the mind cannot read; it hardly wants to be spoken to, but there is much in its heart it yearns to tell. Since the number of prayers one knows by heart is very limited, and their very repetition becomes wearisome in sickness, it is well for the sick to ‘have a form of prayer in which the words focus or spearhead a meditation. As the magnifying glass catches and unites the scattered rays of the sun, so the Rosary brings together the otherwise dissipated thoughts of life in the sickroom: into the white and burning heat of Divine Love.
When a person is healthy, his eyes, are, for the most part, looking to the earth; when he is flat on his back, his eyes look to Heaven. Perhaps it is truer to say that Heaven looks down on him. In such moments when fever, agony, and pain make it hard to pray, the suggestion of prayer that comes from merely holding the Rosary is tremendous -or better still, caressing the Crucifix at the end of it. Because our prayers are known by heart, the heart can now pour them out, and thus fulfill the Scriptural injunction to “pray always.” Prisoners of war during the last World War have told me how the Rosary enabled men to pray, almost continuously, for days before their death. The favorite mysteries then were generally the sorrowful ones, for by meditating on the suffering of Our Saviour on the Cross, men were inspired to unite their pains with Him, so that, sharing in His Cross, they might also share in His Resurrection.
A Power Beyond DescriptionThe Rosary is the book of the blind, where souls see and there enact the greatest drama of love the world has ever known; it is the book of the simple, which initiates them into mysteries and knowledge more satisfying than the education of other men; it is the book of the aged, whose eyes close upon the shadow of this world, and open on the substance of the next. The power of the Rosary is beyond description. And here I am reciting concrete instances, which I know. Young people, in danger of death through accident, have had miraculous recoveries — a mother, despaired of in childbirth, was saved with the child — alcoholics became temperate — dissolute lives became spiritualized — fallen-aways returned to the faith — the childless were blessed with a family — soldiers were preserved during battle — mental anxieties were overcome — and pagans were converted. I know of a Jew who, in World War I, was in a shell hole on the Western Front with four Austrian soldiers. Shells had been bursting on all sides. Suddenly, one shell killed his four companions. He took a Rosary from the hands of one of them and began to say it. He knew it by heart, for he had heard others say it so often. At the end of the first decade, he felt an inner warning to leave that shell hole. He crawled through much mud and muck, and threw himself into another. At that moment a shell hit the first hole, where he had been lying. Four more times, exactly the same experience; four more warnings, and four times his life was saved! He promised then to give his life to Our Lord and to His Blessed Mother if he should be saved. After the war more sufferings came to him; his family was burned by Hitler, but his promise lingered on. Recently, I Baptized him — and the grateful soldier is now preparing to study for the priesthood.
All the idle moments of one’s life can be sanctified, thanks to the Rosary. As we walk the streets, we pray with the Rosary hidden in our hand or in our pocket; driving an automobile, the little knobs under most steering wheels can serve as counters for the decades. While waiting to be served at a lunchroom, or waiting for a train, or in a store; or while playing dummy at bridge; or when conversation or a lecture lags — all these moments can be sanctified and made to serve inner peace, thanks to a prayer that enables one to pray at all times and under all circumstances. If you wish to convert anyone to the fullness of the knowledge of Our Lord and of His Mystical Body, then teach him the Rosary. One of two things will happen. Either he will stop saying the Rosary — or he will get the gift of faith.
Excerpted from the book The World’s First Love, 1952.