Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Ambivalent About...the Rosary

I did not grow up with the rosary.  Went to a Catholic school K-8, a good school where I learned plenty of truly important, foundational things:  love of neighbor, the Sermon on the Mount, social justice.  I can honestly say that I'm still a Catholic today (however ambivalent I may be) primarily due to the influence of my mom as well as what I was taught at the school where she enrolled me in the early seventies.

One thing I can't recall ever learning at that Catholic grade school, however, was the rosary.

My mom grew up praying the rosary.  She spent twelve years at a school called St. Mary's, after all, and that was a couple decades before the Second Vatican Council--a time heavy with Marian themes.  My mother was not obsessed with the rosary, not as far as I could tell, but she said one occasionally and seemed to draw comfort from it.  I have a vague sense she probably chided herself for not saying the rosary more often.

I too feel like I should try to say a rosary every now and then.  The thing is, I usually do not actually follow through.  I'll say a couple decades of the rosary a couple times a year, typically.  Some years, I may pick up the rosary three or four times.  Probably never with any greater frequency than that.  On a long road trip, perhaps, I will pull out my rosary.  (Yes, I keep it in the car.  You would suspect, from that factoid, that I use it every day.  Not the case.)  Occasionally if I have a friend with a serious health or relationship issue, someone who has asked for prayers, I'll pull out the rosary and say a decade for that person.  Most years I say a decade or two on the anniversary of my mom's death.  (On that day I also play "Danny Boy," a song she loved and which she had strong associations in the wake of her own father's death, and Warren Zevon's "Keep Me in Your Heart," a song that I love from Zevon's posthumous album, The Wind.)  In other words, I do associate the rosary with some meaningful prayer moments.  It's not completely irrelevant to my life.

Yet the repetition gets to me.  I suppose that's mostly why I don't say the rosary much.  Sometimes the repetition helps me to build a sense of momentum, a sense of timelessness.  More often, however, it makes me feel that I'm simply going through the motions, just waiting to be done.

That isn't to say I have anything against Mary, though my theology isn't steeped in the same type of Marian devotion that many in my mother's generation experienced.  As I say a decade of the rosary and think of the gospel scene for that decade, I'm concentrating not so much on Mary's iconic "queen of heaven" image which was so prevalent in my mother's upbringing.  Nor do I find myself attracted to the traditional idea of Mary pleading, sometimes tearfully, to her son Jesus on behalf of sinners.  (The Jesus we encounter in the gospels already has his ear turned toward sinners and the humble of heart.  He doesn't need to be talked into mercy.  Mercy is Christ's modus operandi.)  

Instead, I think of Mary as the woman who was down-to-earth, of this world yet holy--a woman whose holiness grew to fullness through her up-close and personal interaction with her son, Jesus.  She is St. Mary, yes, but she is also someone who was a peasant on this earth--marginalized, in a very real sense, as both a woman and someone whose youthful pregnancy no doubt had been talked about on her block--and yet she knew God (God!) just about as intimately as anyone can know God.  She carried the God child in her womb.  She nursed him.  She changed his diapers.  She tended his skinned elbow.  She soothed away his tears when the neighbor kid called him a name.  (Yes, Jesus must have cried--at least in secret, on occasion--as a boy.  As a man, he cried when he learned of Lazarus's death.)  She joined Jesus and his friends at a wedding; maybe she watched him dance.  She watched someone drive spikes through his hands.  (My heart convinces me that Michelangelo got it just right when he depicted Mary, in The Pieta, tending her son's dead body with great love.)  As I think of Mary in those contexts, growing closer to her son Jesus, getting to know him--well, I realize that I am called into a similarly close relationship with Christ.  Although God knows that I (unlike Mary) am a sinner, God wants me to be that up-close with him.  God wants me in his family (me, of all people!), just as he wanted Mary.  Pretty amazing.  Every so often, saying the rosary reminds me of that.  Christ wants to be part of the messy parts of our lives, the painful parts, as well as the joyous parts.  Emmanuel, God with us.

I wish the rosary always had that effect on me.  I wish it always drew me in, drew me closer to God.  But maybe sometimes--perhaps sometimes is enough.  Maybe prayer is like that--full of possibility, pregnant with possibility and opportunities for trust, like any relationship that is still growing; none of it fully developed or crystal clear.  (Ten years ago, while at the Jesuit retreat house on the banks of the Mississippi River just south of St. Louis, I think I had one of those hour-long, it's-so-very-clear moments. I remember sitting in front of the window in my retreat cell, watching the early December snow fall, and feeling completely at peace with and in love with God.  I don't expect that experience every day.  I'm not even sure I could handle it if it came once a week.)

Ambivalent about the rosary?  Yes.  Ambivalent about God's love for me, as well as the rest of humanity?  No, not really.  Except on the very worst days, I'm not ambivalent about that at all.

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