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The Catholic Rosary... Vain Repetition?
The “vain” objection
Many non-Catholics – and perhaps especially non-Catholic Christians – apparently take issue with the Catholic practice of praying the Rosary. From all accounts it seems that, aside from “praying to Mary” (which is a topic too involved to go into much here and which deserves its own article), the main objection to praying the Rosary is the idea of “vain repetition.”
First of all, what does that word “vain” really mean? It could mean “ineffectual,” “unsuccessful,” or “a wasted effort,” as in “He frantically back-paddled, but his attempts at fighting the river were in vain because of the strength of the current, and over the falls he went.”
“Vain” could also mean “showing pride or concern about one’s appearance.” I suspect that the more anti-Catholic contingency of Christendom might have something of this definition in mind when they think of Catholics praying with “vain repetition,” as if repeating prayers is all for appearance’s sake, all for show – as with the Pharisees who Jesus admonished for that very thing. I’m sure there probably are those, but you’ll have those types in every walk of life and in every religion. So to judge a custom of the Catholic Church for the actions of one or even more of its individuals for something that is common among all people seems a bit harsh.
A third meaning of “vain” might be considered, as demonstrated in the 2nd Commandment (or 3rd, depending on whether one uses the Catholic or Protestant version of the Ten Commandments): “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in ‘vain’.” This could mean a couple of things. In this case, “vain” could refer to the idea of debasing the name of God into something common and vulgar where it should be used, instead, to glorify Him and bespeak His greatness (in other words, when people use God’s name in the same vein as a curse word).
“Vain,” as used in this Commandment, may also signify using – and abusing – the name of God to claim some kind of false or uncertain authority. One example of this is the massacre of an entire Native American village of mostly women and children by a U.S. Cavalry troop under a leader who claimed that he was acting under the authority of God. Or the guy who is accused of something which is not acceptable in the eyes of the accuser, and he says something like, “Hey, don't blame me! God told me to do it.” In either of these scenarios “taking the Lord’s name in vain” might be akin to making God a scapegoat – blaming God for our own actions or desires.
With all that being said, I would take issue with the idea that praying the Rosary is “vain” repetition by any of the standards mentioned above. Yet it would be in “vain” to disagree with others’ opinions without at least trying to defend my position. So please allow me the courtesy of attempting to explain why Catholics pray the rosary at all, and then you can decide whether or not it’s “vain repetition.”
First, just what is the “rosary?” It can be defined as a piece of religious jewelry (for lack of a better word) generally consisting of a crucifix at the beginning, followed by a short string of 5 five beads (a set of 3 beads in between 2 individual beads), and then a center (which is usually a medal depicting an embossed image of a saint or some religious symbol). The center works as a joint piece connecting the short string that starts with the crucifix with a circlet consisting of 5 sets of 10 beads each (called “decades,”) which are interspersed with 4 individual beads.
That is a physical description of the rosary, though "Rosary" can also mean the actual prayers that are said while using the rosary, as in, “I’ll pray a Rosary for you.”
Diagram of a Rosary
A little bit of background
The word “rosary” comes from the Latin “rosarius”, meaning a garland or bouquet of roses. An early legend tells “a story of Our Lady, who was seen to take rosebuds from the lips of a young monk when he was reciting Hail Marys and to weave them into a garland which she placed upon her head.” (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13184b.htm) In medieval times the word was also used figuratively – for instance, to denote a collection of prayers, as in a prayerbook – the notion of a “rose garden” as a “garden of prayers.” (Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper). The origin of “bead” is interestingly attached to an old English word, “bede” which meant “prayer.” Perhaps one can see the connection, then… sweet-smelling roses in the form of a garland, the aroma wafting to one’s nose, being compared to a collection of prayers in a “garland” of beads, the sweetness of the prayers wafting to the hearts of Mary and through her, to Jesus.
By and large, Catholics often associate the defining moment of the Rosary in its current form with St. Dominic, the founder of the Dominican Order, who lived in the 12th century A.D. It is a popular tradition among Catholics, though there is no conclusive evidence to support it, that the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to St. Dominic in an apparition and gave him the Rosary. It is said that she told him that if he prayed it faithfully and spread its devotion, his religious order would flourish.
St. Dominic was not the only one to ever receive an apparition of Mary. Many of these visions of Mary have taken place over the centuries. Among the most famous are Mary’s appearance to St. Juan Diego in Guadalupe, Mexico in 1531; to St. Bernadette in Lourdes, France, in 1858; to 3 children by the names of Francisco and Jacinta Marto, and Lucia Dos Santos, in Fatima, Portugal in 1917. There are many others of lesser fame, and some which are perhaps more well-known, though not [yet, if ever] “approved” by the Catholic Church, such as the Apparition in Medjugorje in Bosnia-Hercegovina – formerly Yugoslavia. The apparitions there began in the 1980s and are supposedly still going on (the Church does not approve an apparition until it has ended because it can always turn out to be false; the “approval,” or rather, “negative approbation,” of a private revelation is an indication by the Church that the apparition has shown nothing that disagrees with Church teaching, and the apparition appears to have good, lasting spiritual effects. With the Church’s negative approbation, the faithful are free to believe in the apparition if they wish to – or not; "private revelations" never become dogma in the Catholic Church. Only "Public Revelation," which ended with the death of the last Apostle [John], is considered to be "The Word of God" that we must adhere to). In any case, in each apparition, the “visionaries” (those who received the vision of Mary) have always been implored by Mary to pray the Rosary, which she always claims to be a very powerful prayer.
Some form of a “Rosary” has been prayed by different peoples of different religions from very early on, but as my topic is about the Catholic Rosary, I will relegate my comments to that. Though people often attribute its popularity to St. Dominic, the Rosary started out as a recitation of the Psalms. In the 12th century A.D. religious orders recited the 150 Psalms from the Bible as a way to remember, honor, and pray for the souls of those of their brethren who had died. (Over time, this recitation of the Psalms became the official prayer of the Church, called “The Divine Office,” which is still prayed even today by every priest and by lay people who have adopted its devotion). The lay people of those days wanted to share in this practice of praying in such a way, but the majority of them were illiterate. So praying a simpler prayer on a string of 150 beads or knots began as a sort of a substitute for praying the Psalms. One may surmise that, unlike the clergy who were required and expected to devote all their time to praying and serving the Lord in a spiritual way, lay people were busy with the work of everyday life and had little time to devote to deep and time-consuming prayer on a daily basis. But by praying a simpler form of prayer in a similar way as the clergy, the lay people could unite themselves in prayer along with their clergymen, and at the same time, they could perform a devotion to Jesus and His mother throughout their busy day.
In those days, the prayer that people would pray as they passed their fingers over the beads was usually the Our Father, the prayer given by Jesus for His followers to pray. The greeting of the Archangel Gabriel, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee” was often said along with the Our Father. Later, the phrase, “blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (the greeting of Elizabeth, Mary’s kinswoman, to Mary when Mary visited her after the Archangel’s announcement), was added to the Archangel’s greeting (that much of the Hail Mary, is purely biblical).
In about the 16th century, the phrase, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death” was added. This was probably a resulting factor of the common practice – still observed among Catholic Christians – of asking the saints, especially the Mother of Jesus, to intercede for their temporal needs.
During that general time-frame, the rosary was divided into 15 decades (sections of 10 beads each, all of which added up to 150, the number coinciding with the number of Psalms which were originally recited by the clergy) and “Mysteries” were assigned to each of those. These Mysteries were events in the life of Jesus and Mary, most of which were written in the gospels. By meditating on these events even the illiterate could know the stories in the Bible. Thus, the Rosary, in its development over time, has really become a mini-Scripture.
For 5 centuries there were 3 sets of 5 Mysteries (adding up to the 15 decades): the Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious Mysteries. In 2002 Pope John Paul II added and defined 5 new Mysteries that concerned events in the public life of Jesus during His 3 years of ministry. These he called the Luminous Mysteries or Mysteries of Light.
I wrote another article in which I dealt more specifically with the actual praying of the Rosary. For more details on a "how-to" explanation, you can take a look at the article here.
What about "repetition?"
Hopefully, by now a person may understand why Catholics do not consider the Rosary to be a useless exercise in futility, nor is it about vanity, nor is it using God as a scapegoat somehow. But there may still be some question as to the repetitious part of it. And, if the Rosary is a bunch of prayers, and yet it’s also a meditation on the mysteries of the life of Jesus, one may wonder… how can one concentrate on the Mysteries and the prayers at the same time?
To help give a possible explanation, there is an analogy I once heard in which the Rosary is likened to a song. The Mysteries are the words – the message – of the song, while the prayers are the background melody. The melody sets the tone and provides the song with its swell and its beat. That’s what the prayers do for the Mysteries of the Rosary – they provide a background. And the repetition? Often the background of a song is a melody that plays over and over, broken here and there by a few different notes, sometimes coming into the foreground, and usually having some kind of a pattern or beat. The Rosary has a beat, too. It leads off with the Creed and moves into an intro of an Our Father, 3 Hail Marys, and a Glory Be. Then the message of the song – the Mysteries – starts while the Our Father, Hail Marys and a Glory Be play in the background for 5 consecutive verses, so to speak. The Hail, Holy Queen, the Memorare, the Closing Prayer and the Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel, or whatever other variation or combination in prayers one might choose, round out and conclude the Rosary. All in all, it’s a beautiful song, a story of a holy woman and her Son for whom she gave her life in the living, while He gave His life for her and every other human being in death, and by rising, cemented His victory over that death. It’s a “There and Back Again” kind of a story… a story like that of the Phoenix, a story where “out of the ashes rises new life.”
Aside from the analogy of a song, on a practical note, repetition has its uses. Repetition helps us to learn (think of how we usually learn our ABCs and multiplication tables, for instance). It also helps us to re-direct our thoughts. Have you ever had a song play in your mind over and over and it drives you nuts because you can’t seem to get it out of your head? How do you get rid of it? For myself, the first thing I try to do is think of another song – over and over, repetitively, until the other one fizzles out. Re-directing. That’s exactly what the Rosary does in the repetition of its prayers: it helps us to re-direct our wayward thoughts from the worldly and mundane and channels them into a spiritual direction.
I would add that the Bible itself is full of "repetitious prayer." For example, every verse of Psalm 136 ends with “His mercy endures forever.” Is this repeated prayer considered “vain?” I’ve never heard it said so. Jesus Himself “repeated” prayers. In Matthew 26:36-44, the scriptural passage of Jesus’s agony in the Garden of Olives, verse 44 says: “So [Jesus] left them [Peter, James and John, who He’d found sleeping] and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing “ (emphasis mine). In Revelation 4:8 we find: “And the four living creatures had each of them six wings; and round about and within they are full of eyes. And they rested not day and night, saying: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come” (emphasis mine).
My point is that not only are repetitious prayers not necessarily vain, but they can even be found in the scriptures. I’m sure that there are those hardened anti-Catholics who will likely disagree with my whole premise, but to me, the Rosary is truly the best prayer I can think of.