Sunday, October 27, 2002

The Rosary, History, and Change

Thinking about history can be strange -- it is like looking down a long tunnel, with the only source of light behind you, at the tunnel's mouth. Things close to the mouth are easy to see and we will notice all the differences and changes easily. As we peer farther down the tunnel, farther into the past, we will see less as the light will be dimmer, and things will blend together a bit. All we will be able to make out are the big bright items -- there will be lots of variety close by, but farther in change will be harder to make out. This is often how we see history -- centuries of relative stability with the cream of a century or so of frothy change on top. It really isn't that way -- a lot more was going on back then, and much of the apparent change now isn't that significant. Much of it is a matter of perspective.

A lot of the discussion about the new apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae reminds me of that. Some news writers, and some Catholics, have seemed to think that the Rosary somehow dropped complete from the hands first of St. Dominc then Pope Pius V and that no development or change took place before or since. As the letter itself points out, the Rosary is a technique of meditative and contemplative prayer of a type found in many religions. The idea of counting prayers using stones, a knotted cord, or beads on a string or chain is ancient. The history of the Christian Rosary goes as far back before its official approval in 1569 as 1569 is remote from us. (It was the attachment of indugences at that time, which required a prescribed form for the Rosary, which slowed, but did not entirely stop change.)
For some of you, this stuff is old hat -- the 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia article on the Rosary, for instance, makes no bones about comprehensively debunking the idea of St Dominc as author of the Rosary (althogh there is no doubt of the Dominican sponsorship of the Rosary, and it's importance.) In fact, there is also an article on the Franciscan Crown, or Seraphic Rosary, which is dated back to the 15th century itself. But I thought at this point in sharing some reactions that I have to the new apostolic letter, that some additional perspective might be useful. The Rosary developed over time -- here is an outline of some highlights:

  • St. Benedict prescribed in the sixth century that monks and nuns in the West should recite the 150 Psalms once a week. Memorizing all of them was too difficult for some (I doubt that I could do it) so a "psalter" of 150 repetitions of "Our Father" was substituted. A parallel "psalter of Our Lady" developed with 150 repetitions of "Hail Mary" (This prayer only consisted of its first section from the Gospel of Luke, with it's second section from Luke appearing in the 12th century -- more development later.) A simple string of beads was often used to count the prayers.
  • By around the time Thomas of Contimpre cointed the term Rosary for this prayer in 1250, the 150 repetitions had been broken up into three sets of 50 for morning, afternoon, and evening, and the beads were divided up in to groups of ten using larger beads to allow for the insertion of the Doxology at the end of each decade.
  • Within another century or so, the Carthusian Henry Egher of Kolkar is recorded as setting forth a Rosary of 15 decades with a scriptural antiphon for each Hail Mary -- this developed into the 15 mysteries.
  • In 1483, Our Dear Lady's Psalter was published by Dominicans, which started the long and strong association of that order with the Rosary. It was only in the Sixteenth century that the final form of the Hail Mary emerged, and the official acceptance for the Rosary given.
There have been further changes since Pope Pius V set forth the "official" Rosary. For example, following the lead of the Fatima visionaries, an additional prayer was added by many to the end of each decade. There are still differences in custom from place to place in the use of this technique, as Catholics have made the prayer their own. The idea of additional sets of mysteries, in particular concerning the public life and teachings of Jesus, has been proposed by many groups and authors from Blessed George Preca of Malta (who came up with the term mysteries of light in the 1950's) to the American bishops in the 1970's in the document Behold Your Mother (which I have not found on line yet).

Father M. Basil Pennington (better known for his relationship to Thomas Merton and centering prayer) has written an excellent book on the Rosary, Praying by Hand. In it he discusses the history of the Rosary, his own experience with it, and sets of meditations on the fifteen traditional mysteries, one based on a pilgrimage he made to the Holy Land. He does briefly explore some of the "alternative" rosaries such as the Franciscan Crown, the Servite Rosary based on the seven sorrows of Mary, and the Divine Mercy Chaplet. He also goes into alternative sets of mysteries such as:

The Mysteries of Christ - sets of mysteries based on the person, life and minisry of Jesus
  • The Hidden Life
  • Jesus' Encounters with Mary
  • Jesus' Ministry to Other Women
  • Table Talk
  • The Healing Mysteries
  • "I am": Jesus' Self Identity
  • The Foretypes of the Resurrection
  • Jesus' Resurrection
  • Our Sacramental Life
The Sacraments
  • The Eucharist
  • Reconciliation
  • Annointing of the Sick
On the Journey
  • Vocation
  • Contenplative Mysteries
  • Pregnancy
  • When We are in Mourning
One of my favorites is his last one, Mysteries of Social Justice:
  • Jesus Feeds the Hungry (John 6:1-15)
  • Jesus Heals the Sick (Mark 1:32-34)
  • Jesus Respects Women (John 8:3-11)
  • Jesus Reaches Out and Touches Outcasts (Mark 1:40-45)
  • Jesus Honors the Despised (Luke 10:29-37)
And there is no reason to stop there. The Holy Father has been very careful to say that the changes put forth in is letter are suggestions, as are these other ideas listed above. You don't have to pray the Rosary if you don't want to, and you don't have to pray it a different way than you do now, just because of this letter. But these notes may help some see that the Rosary is something that has developed over time, I believe with Divine guidance, and it continues to develop. There are great Christians and Catholics that have not cared for the Rosary. But, as I pointed out in my previous notes, if you are looking for a deeper, more meditative prayer life, the Rosary may just be what you want.

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