Many great popes, saints, and Christian leaders have exhorted us to pray the rosary. It’s a powerful prayer, they say, one that can change your life, strengthen the family, bring peace to the world, convert entire nations, and win the salvation of souls.
But does the average person experience the rosary this way?
Many Catholics, unfortunately, have the impression that the rosary is not relevant for them. It might be a sacred prayer for very religious people—priests, religious sisters, and exceptional Catholics—but not for “an ordinary lay person like me.” Even some devout Catholics admit that they are a bit intimidated by this prayer. They have tremendous respect for the rosary, know it’s important, but feel bad that they don’t love it more. Many view it as the marathon of Catholic devotions. “I know it’s an important prayer, but it takes fifteen to twenty minutes. I’m too busy. I don’t have time for that.” “It’s too hard to stay focused for that much time. I prefer shorter prayers.”
Some have questions about the rosary: Does all this attention to Mary distract us from a relationship with God? Why do we repeat the same prayers over and over? Are we supposed to concentrate on the prayers, the mysteries, or both? Still others think the rosary is just plain boring—a monotonous, dry, mechanical way of talking to God, not as personal and meaningful as other forms of prayer. “It’s like taking the garbage out for your wife. You know you should do it, but date night is more exciting.” “Sure, the rosary might be good for you—like flossing your teeth—but it’s not as interesting and meaningful to me as spiritual reading or adoration.”
Others wonder if all the repetition has any meaning. “I know the rosary is important, but it just seems like rote prayer,” one young adult said. “It’s like saying magical words and something good is supposed to happen. What’s the point? Is simply saying these words actually doing anything for me spiritually?”
But what if I were to show you that there is a lot more going on in the rosary than simply saying these words and counting them with beads? What if I were to tell you that the rosary is not beyond you—that you, wherever you may be in your relationship with God, can actually experience a profound, intimate, personal encounter with Jesus through this devotion? And what if you were to discover that there are many different ways to pray the rosary—indeed, some that can easily fit within your schedule and help you with whatever challenges you face right now in your life.
Think of the rosary as being like the ocean: There’s something in it for everyone, whether you consider yourself a veteran mystic longing to go deeper in prayer with our Lord, a novice struggling to learn how to pray, or someone seeking the Lord’s help, right now, with something going on in your life. The deep-sea explorer and the child making sand castles on the beach can fully enjoy the same ocean while playing at different levels. And this is true with the rosary.
If the rosary is not a part of your regular prayer life right now, it’s easy to get your feet wet with this devotion. Here are five key things you need to know to get started.
First, we don’t have to pray the rosary all at once. Sure, some people might sit down and quietly pray a whole rosary in one sitting. But we can also choose to divide it up, saying just a decade or two at a time at different points throughout the day: on the way to work, in between errands, in between meetings, while folding laundry or doing dishes. Many holy men and women and even popes have prayed the rosary this way and have found it manageable and fruitful for their busy lives.
Second, we can pray it anywhere! The rosary is like a portable chapel we can keep in our pocket and pull out anytime, anyplace. Whether we have a sudden, urgent situation to present to God in prayer or we just want to fill some of our day with thoughts of God, all we need to do is pull out our beads and turn to the Lord in this prayer. Indeed, the rosary is always accessible. We might pray it in a church, in our room, in our office. Or we might pray it in the car, on the exercise machine, in the grocery store line, or while cutting the grass or going for a walk. Bringing our hearts into the rhythm of the rosary is something we can do intermittently throughout the day.
Third, we can pray the rosary in different ways, customizing it to fit the needs of the moment. Sometimes we might focus on the words of the prayers, thinking, for example, of Gabriel’s greeting to Our Lady as we slowly say with great devotion, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” At other times, we might reflect on the mysteries of Christ’s life, prayerfully contemplating scenes such as his birth in Bethlehem, his transfiguration, or his death on the cross, etching the Gospel on our hearts. At still other times, we might focus on the holy name of Jesus at the center of each Hail Mary, speaking his name tenderly with love as the pulse of our rosary.
Fourth, it’s easy to fit the rosary into your schedule. Do you have two and a half minutes in your day that you can give to God? is is the beauty of the rosary.
If I need a quick pause in my busy life—just a two-and-a-half-minute break—I can pull out my beads and pray a decade in order to regroup with the Lord and be nourished spiritually. That’s all a decade takes: one Our Father, ten Hail Marys, and one Glory Be. I can do that easily, pausing for a moment in between emails, in the car, in my office, in between meetings, in between errands. I don’t even have to stop some things I’m doing: I can pray a decade while cooking dinner, sweeping the floor, holding a baby, or walking to my next appointment.
If an urgent need comes up in the day—someone is in an accident, I’m about to begin a big project, my spouse is having a rough day, I have an important decision to make, I need to have a difficult conversation with someone, my child is taking an exam—I can say a quick decade right on the spot. In just two and a half minutes, I can offer a special gift to God—one decade of the rosary—for that particular intention.
Fifth, even if I’m not able to give the rosary my full attention, it’s still worth praying. I might not always be able to completely unplug mentally from the concerns of the day. I might be exhausted, too tired to pray well. I might be distracted and unable to reach the heights of contemplation. But still, the words themselves are biblical and holy. Offering God a decade or two in the midst of my daily life gives him something beautiful, even if I give it without my full, relaxed, undivided attention. I’m giving God some space in my day and filling it with words of praise for him.
But the rosary can take us deeper—a lot deeper. When we pray the rosary in its ideal setting, doing a whole set of mysteries, the prayer can slow us down, calm our hearts, and enable us to rest in God’s presence. It draws out the deepest desires in our souls, desires for God and God alone.
The rhythm of the repetitious prayers can have a profound spiritual effect. In this, it is much like the traditional “Jesus Prayer” many early Christians recited: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” They would slowly repeat these words over and over again throughout the day, such that the rhythm of this prayer was linked to the rhythm of their breathing. As John Paul II explained, this loving repetition “embodies the desire for Christ to become the breath, soul and all of one’s life” (RVM, 27). In the same way, the repeated prayers in the rosary help us get more in touch with the deepest desires in our souls for God.
We as human persons are made with infinite desires that only God can fulfill. But because we’re fallen, we tend to live at the level of our superficial desires—desires for comfort, fun, fame, wealth, pleasure, success. These desires are not bad, but the rosary helps us be more aware of the soul’s deepest desires, which are for God. As St. Catherine of Siena taught, the greatest gift we can give to God in prayer is not the finite work of saying the words but our “infinitely desirous love” for God that is expressed in those words and that is being drawn out of our souls in prayer.
How might this happen in the rosary? As we’ll see more in my book, when we pray the rosary, we can focus on the name of Jesus at the center of every Hail Mary. We can simply speak Jesus’s name with fervent, heartfelt love. We can gather all our desires into that one word, his beautiful, holy name. And with each Hail Mary, we can call out to him, like a lover speaking to the beloved: “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus...Jesus...Jesus.”