October is traditionally the month associated with the rosary; last Friday was the feast of our Lady of the Rosary.
It is fair to say that the rosary is not fashionable in most Catholic circles. There are some good reasons for this. The form of prayer has attracted more than its fair share of piety and sickly sentimentality. There are some tracts about the devotion you would be well advised not to read too soon after eating. Being something protestants definitely don’t do, it has also served as a badge of jealously guarded Catholic particularity. None of these things are at all admirable and each is perfectly sufficient to put a reasonable person off their beads.
There are also, however, lots of very bad reasons to regard the rosary with suspicion, and these are probably the dominant ones. I am on my guard the second I hear anyone describe the prayer as ‘mechanical’. We are, after all, creatures of habit and spontaneity is not necessarily a good thing, as the speeches of Donald Trump confirm. There is worse to come: to varying extents people will intimate that it is not sufficiently inward-orientated, reflective, ‘spiritual’ (a word that when not used in its New Testament sense to denote the things of the Holy Spirit, ought to be banned from Christian discourse), deep, conducive to self-exploration or otherwise sensitive to the need for the thriving 21st century market in ‘spirituality’ (a word that, when not used in its medieval sense to denote the distinctive pattern of life of a religious order or fraternity, ought similarly to be banned).
The problem with the rosary, from this perspective, is that it is vulgar and material. You pass beads through your hands and repeat prayers. Your mind can wander, and to the extent that it is directed towards anything to do with the prayer, it is on drearily familiar stories from the Bible and tradition. There are no techniques to learn, no breathing exercises: prayer is supposed to be difficult, or else why would it be worth doing? Worse still, it is all deeply impersonal. Saying prayers said by millions across the world daily; how could that be suited to my personal spiritual needs?
All of this is really a complaint not about the rosary, but about the fact that we are human beings. A perennial temptation , and one on which it is very easy to put a holy gloss, is to try to be something other than the kind of things we in fact are. In particular, human history has been full of people – including those Alibigensians St Dominic founded his order to oppose – who would rather not be animal, embodied, social creatures. Praying with beads is, for these sort of people, a horrible reminder of our gross physicality. We would prefer to be exalted, angelic beings, able to focus on anything perpetually but the dreary world around us – the other people, the worries, concerns, noises, and affections that get called ‘distractions’, and above which we fancy prayer will raise us.
This attitude is disastrous, since as long as we deny what we in fact are, we are closed to God working in us through prayer. The central Christian truth is that God loves us just as we are. The only thing that stands in the way of that love coming to fruition is us not believing that God loves us just as we are, because we find ourselves unlovable. So we try to be something different instead, telling ourselves that God will love us if only we are more inward, more spiritual, less human. God, who will not force his love on us, and who calls us to be what he created us to be, can do nothing with this attitude other than provide the means for it to change, for us to simply allow ourselves to be loved.
This is, I think what the rosary does. Drawing us back to earth, to our commonality with others praying in the same words, allowing our minds to wander whilst keeping the rhythm of prayer, inviting us to think about how the story of our redemption speaks of a young woman and her son – it is all very human, very grounded. In this it speaks of the God who saves us as we are, since there is no other way we could be saved.