Sunday, March 4, 2018

Back to the Rosary

I don't have much sticking power, as a rule, but some three years ago I vowed to pray the rosary every day, and I've succeeded so far (with the exception of a day or two). Sometimes I am more asleep than awake as I pray it, but I get through it one way or the other.

It occurred to me today that I've spent vast amounts of time praying the rosary, but very rarely written about it.

I don't think I'm good at praying the rosary. I think I'm terrible at it. My mind bounces around like a basketball, and I find it difficult to concentrate on one thing at a time. Very often I have to start a decade again, when I realize my mind has strayed entirely from the mystery..

Nevertheless, this is how I visualise the various mysteries, and the ideas that I meditate upon as I do. (It should be borne in mind that my visual imagination is terrible. Mental imagery is always vague rather than vivid for me.)

The Joyful Mysteries

The Annunciation: I have a very conventional image of this mystery. I imagine our Lady kneeling in prayer beside St. Gabriel, as pictured in so many paintings. The atmosphere that I concentrate upon is the atmosphere of a new horizon opening up, which may be one of my favourite ideas in the world: "Then felt I like some watcher of the skies, when a new planet swims into his ken." When I think of the Annunciation, I think of how everything (everything!) was changed forever in an instant, and how (to paraphrase a famous piece of doggerel) the world became better than ever we thought it could possibly be.

The Visitation: I have a very stately and ceremonial picture of Our Lady and St. Elizabeth meeting. I don't like the modern paintings which show them hugging and grinning. The exchange of words which is recorded in the Scripture would suggest it was a much more elevated affair. For some reason, in my imagination, they are standing at some distance from each other.

The Nativity: One would think this would be an easy mystery to picture, given the popularity of Nativity scenes. Perhaps it's a case of an embarrassment of riches, but I struggle with it. Increasingly, I simply think of the Holy Family, with our Lady and St. Joseph kneeling beside the manger. Sometimes it is simply our Lady holding the infant Jesus.

There was a painting in my school which showed a Madonna and Child against a very dark background. The darkness that enclosed the pair always seemed gloriously peaceful, warm, secure, and eternal to me. Recently, I had an exchange of emails with the principal of my old school. I asked if this picture was still hanging, but she didn't reply.

The Presentation: This is now my favourite mystery. (That honour previously belonged to other mysteries, as I will mention asI go on, but it's this one now.)

I always focus on Simeon holding the infant Jesus. Now and again, I think about Anna, or about Our Lady and St. Joseph, but it takes an effort to wrench my mind from the picture of Simeon cradling our Lord.

The simplicity and piety of the old man saying: "Now you can let your servant depart in peace" captivates me. Perhaps I like the idea of one thing which makes life worthwhile-- the "one thing needful". It's a picture of the utmost otherworldliness-- all the supposed wonders of the world are as nothing compared to the sight of this baby. And Simeon did even not need to see him grow and pursue his ministry, but simply to hold him once. That was enough.

I always imagine Simeon as a beautiful, white-haired old man, a lifetime of holiness etched on his face.

The Finding of the Boy Jesus in the Temple: I struggle with this mystery more than any other. I'm not sure why. I can't get a fix on it. I find it difficult to comprehend how our Lady and St. Joseph could have been worried, given St. Gabriel's promise.

As I count the last few beads, I usually imagine Jesus talking to the Doctors of the Law, and I reflect on how all Scripture is about Jesus. They were discussing Scripture, and did not realize that the key to Scripture was there in front of them. Well, how could they? But praying this rosary, I think how important it is not to let our faith degenerate into an abstract system, rather than an encounter with the living Christ.

The Sorrowful Mysteries

I find it these difficult to pray. Suffering is less real to my imagination than joy. I feel ashamed when I think of all the saints who would be transported, contemplating the passion of our Lord.

The Agony in the Garden: For some reason, I always imagine the Agony in the Garden as a sculpture, usually a small sculpture carved from dark wood. I also think of how all the suffering and pain in the world, everything bad that would ever happen, descended on Our Lord during that hour.

The Scourging of our Lord: I simply picture the scourge descending on our Lord's body again and again.

The Crown of Thorns: This is the sorrowful mystery which is most vivid to me. Shame and humiliation are much more impressive to me than physical suffering. The crown of thorns and the scarlet robe seem not only humiliating, but also glorious. Perhaps this is because I have always admired (and identified with) those who are willing to undergo scorn and ridicule for their beliefs.

I often find myself contemplating the fact that that the crown of thorns was ultimately more precious than any of the crowns of gold and jewels that various earthly monarchs have worn.

There is a scene in the excellent Alec Guinness movie Cromwell in which King Charles's chaplain reads the Passion to him as he prepares to leave his palace to be executed-- in particular, the passage regarding the crown of thorns and the scarlet robe. This often comes into my mind as well.

The Carrying of the Cross: I picture Christ setting out, meeting his mother, Simon of Cyrene taking the Cross, Veronica wiping his face-- that is, the Stations of the Cross, as I've often prayed them in the UCD church. Again, I find it hard to really become invested in this mystery.

The Crucifixion: I always make a special effort to concentrate on the Crucifixion, since it seems like the central mystery of our faith. I think of what a timeless and transcendental image it is, one inscribed into the consciousness of the world. I think how our Lord gave absolutely everything for us. I always feel this mystery should spark my imagination more than it actually does-- perhaps it is "performance anxiety."

The Glorious Mysteries.

The Resurrection: I really struggle with this mystery, too. Perhaps it is too stupendous. I find it hard to picture Christ's resurrection body. These days, I usually imagine Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene, to the disciples gathered in the upper room, or to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. In the past, I would also think about Peter and John entering the empty tomb, and the empty tomb itself, but I don't do that so often now.

The Ascension: I generally picture the carving of the Ascension over the altar in the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin. (Surprisingly, I can't find a decent photograph of it on the internet. Clicking on the one below enlarges it a little, but if anyone can find a better picture of it, I'd be obliged.) And I meditate on one of my favourite verses from Scripture, "Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things" (Colossians 3:2).

The Descent of the Holy Spirit: This used to be my favourite mystery; it was my first "favourite mystery". I like the "shock and awe" of it. Well, considering my favourite line of poetry is "the fingers of fire are making corruption clean" (from Bunyon's "Burning of the Leaves"), and my general love of fire imagery, this is hardly surprising. I also like the sense of togetherness; the disciples are all together, before they would scattered all over the earth. The entire history of the Church is there in embryo.

The Assumption of our Lady: My visualisation of this mystery generally draws on the various paintings I've seen on the subject, especially one in the National Gallery in Dublin. Increasingly, I picture Our Lady as a woman of dazzling physical beauty, untouched by age. Reading a book about Irish Catholicism of the Middle Ages, I was struck by the fact that Our Lady is always represented in the Gaelic tradition as a woman of stunning beauty. The child-like naivety of this pleased me.

As I've written elsewhere, Marian devotion doesn't come easy to me, for whatever reason.

The Coronation of our Lady: I imagine Our Lady surrounded by innumerable ranks of angels as she is crowned. I also imagine all the saints in Heaven paying her honour. I suppose I imagine this mystery as one that transcends time, rather than one that happened at a particular moment. Thinking of Mary as the Queen of the Saints is helpful to me.

My image of Heaven is very conventional; sunlit clouds and so forth.

The Mysteries of Light:

The Baptism of our Lord: I imagine our Lord being fully immersed, and how he chose to assume our condition, and the dignity this gives human nature and the human body.

The Marriage at Cana; This is one of my favourite mysteries and I like to dwell on it. It seems to me symbolic of the unity of nature and grace. Wine is a very pleasant and vivid image of grace! This has a very personal meaning for me, especially as it pertains to my own marriage. 

I like this mystery for many reasons, but one is that it is so "bourgeois" and respectable. Jesus and Our Lady were concerned for the social embarrassment of the couple. Yes, I know that there is much more than that going on in this scene, but it seems plain that our Lady (and our Lord) did sympathize in a very human and straightforward way with the awkward situation of the husband and wife. This episode in the Gospel seems like our Lord's blessing on so much that is human and conventional; marriage, wine, celebration, and even "putting up a good show".

The Proclamation of the Kingdom: I always used to imagine the Sermon on the Mount, and a whole new way of life being unveiled to the listeners. Now I am more likely to think of the disciples being sent out to preach the gospel to the Jews. I picture the various pairs making their way through the countryside, in a kind of movie montage. I like this mystery. I like the sense of excitement, of something new happening.

The Transfiguration: Before the Presentation and after the Descent of the Holy Spirit, this was my favourite mystery. Interestingly, they are all mysteries of light (or fire), but my preference has been for increasing understatement; first it was the tongues of fire at Pentecost, then it was the glow of our Lord's Transfigured body, and finally it is the purely metaphorical "light to the gentiles" in Simeon's speech.

I still love this mystery, though. I've often mentioned my purple notebook on this blog. This is a notebook filled with moments of inspiration or insight, which have struck me at various times in my life. Such moments (I would argue) are the stock-in-trade of poetry, which I've always loved. James Joyce called them "epiphanies", though the term has become rather shopworn.

Famously, the disciples had to come down from the mountain. Faith can't be one long ecstasy. But this mystery tells us that the moments of ecstasy are legitimate and to be prized.

The Institution of the Eucharist: I always imagine a typical Last Supper scene, with Jesus breaking the bread. But my focus is not so much upon the Eucharist itself, as the invisible floods of grace emanating from it, which I conceive of as refreshing and even luxurious. I like to think of how all the Masses in history partake of this primordial event, in a manner that transcends time.

Well, there you go. Perhaps something in this will be of help to somebody reading this. Here's hoping. As I say, I fear that I'm bad at praying the rosary. Every single day, I have to push myself to say it, and it's a constant battle to keep my mind focused.

I've often looked for meditations on the rosary, but I've nearly always been disappointed-- they usually don't enter into the mysteries, they are more often pious rhapsodies (or "gushing"), which sadly leave me cold. There is no predicting what will capture any given person's imagination.

In any case, I am grateful to our Lady for having kept me to my vow these last few years, and I pray that she continues to do so. Pray for me!


  1. Today´s reading were from Daniel... I also like the intensive parts of the Gospel where we find Jesus Christ as very much "on fire" against abuses (like the cleansing ot the temple the other day).

  2. Among the Rosary scenes I can´t easily choose a single favorite but for suite it would probably be the sorrowful mysteries. In the Way of the Cross it might be one of the falls. Tonight we prayed by a text seldom used here, and as it went this lighted some spark.

    1. That's fascinating, since the Sorrowful mysteries are my least favourite!

  3. Apologies for writing only personal notes of no concern to other readers. Perhaps little more appropiate to your actual comments here are some again to the JPII decades.

    The marriage at Cana: One of the mysteries of many layers! Good you mentioned even "human and conventional". That covers a wide range and not simply the story itself. For me literally it is most of all a lovely moment of drama. The episode is well told in its pure biblical style. Someone suggested (a non-Catholic friend) it was also like a green card to drinking wine freely and I guess it may be but house some hesitation in making sense about the rights or wrongs in that.

    The Transfiguration: Also inspirational and a strong scene to visualise yet for me kind of dim in applications. The fact you mention that all these things must fade (famously) is WHEN IT DOES a hard truth to bear. Many songs and books written on the same theme, not least in the bittersweet sentimental veins of country and romance. But always IN HINDSIGHT no less a comforting truth to bear as well. Cf. "For my yoke is easy".

    1. It is hard to bear! I understand the words of Walter Pater, often quoted by aesthetes:

      Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us, — for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?

      To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life."

      That is a philosophy I could easily embrace if I was not a Christian. But it is very reassuring to me to know that there is a place for such moments of "encounter" in Christianity...that they are a good thing, simply not the goal of our lives.

      I think the marriage at Cana IS an endorsement of drinking wine! As for "freely", well, it depends what you mean by that! And obviously, alcoholics shouldn't drink anything alcoholic.

  4. I'd not be as keen to that type of maximising flow philosophy. It has to do with personalities what appeals to different persons by nature of course. Still compelling to reflect on what Christian life entails in terms of mundane behaviour. What are no longer allowed and so on. Not a few times it gets right more in hindsight than directly! When still a youth my interest in philosophy was mostly circling around questions about the meaning of life, what makes the good life and how one best could reach it. Notoriusly I attempted, in vain, to compass much variety in my wild small ambitions to cover too much in short time. Today it seems more often to be like time gets lost in reflections on loss, and not with the same impressions of melancholia in the horizon either. Does philosophy ever go beyond its own logical circles anyway? In my life it's not so helpful to ask "philosophical questions" anymore. The Bible is incomparably better reading nowadays.

    As for the wine what I meant was drinking enough to get drunk. Wherever that thin line would be crossed, and if you would like to, i.e. without bothering about it.

  5. "Myself in youth did eagerly frequent
    Doctor and saint, and heard great argument,
    About it and about; but evermore
    Went out by the same door as in I went".

    1. Lord Edward Fitzgerald. Loosely based on a poem by the Persian Omar Khayyam, so the "saints" are Muslims, one assumes. It's a great poem, you should read it! (The Edward Fitzgerald one, I mean. I can only enjoy poetry in English.)

    2. Sorry, just Edward Fitzgerald, not Lord Edward Fitzgerald. Lord Edward Fitzgerald was an Irish patriot.

  6. I thought it was from an English joke poem... nice with light poetry here and there!

    1. It's funny you should say that. I've always liked the poem and it's often occurred to me that it's playful, quasi-humorous elements are a great part of the appeal. Chesterton writes about it in Heretics.

    2. Its, not it's. I don't want to give the Trussites an aneurysm.

    3. I just found out that he was English! By the name of Purcell, later when he was about 9 years old his father changed to the mother´s name.