26 October 2021

The rosary: Meditation… oh, and prayers to Mary.

Some years ago a reader asked me about rosaries.

I gotta admit I don’t have a lot of experience with ’em. Rosaries are a Roman Catholic tradition, and I grew up Fundamentalist—and Fundies are hugely anti-Catholic, so any Catholic traditions are looked at with suspicion and fear. Many Evangelical Protestants are likewise wary of Catholic practices. Very few do rosaries.

Evangelicals assume a rosary is a string of prayer beads. Actually it’s not. The rosary is the super-long string of rote prayers you recite, and how you keep track of which prayer you’re on, and how many you have left, is with the beads. Each bead represents one prayer.

And most of these prayers are the Ave Maria/“Hail Mary.” It’s prayed from 50 to 150 times. Goes like so.

Hail Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee. Lk 1.28
Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Lk 1.42
Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.

Yep, it’s not a prayer addressed to God; it’s to his mom. You’re mostly praying to his mom. Whereas very few Evangelicals pray to saints. Okay yeah, some of us talk to our dead loved ones, like a deceased parent or spouse or child, and hope God passes along those messages to that loved one, whom we hope is in paradise. But passing such messages along to anyone else feels, well, weird and wrong. Praying to Jesus is one thing; praying to his family members Mary, Joseph, James, and Jude, seems strange (do we really know these people?); as is praying to his apostles, praying to medieval saints, praying to famous dead Christians like C.S. Lewis or Martin Luther King Jr.… I mean, at least those last two guys spoke English. Pretty sure Mary of Nazareth only knew Aramaic.

But Roman Catholics believe when saints die, they go to heaven, where they’re resurrected; they’re alive. Ain’t nothing wrong with talking to living people. That’s what we do when we pray; we talk. Talking to Mary is fine. Hailing her and calling her blessed is biblical. And asking her to pray to her Son on our behalf is fine too.

But most of the reason people pray a rosary (apart from those who incorrectly think it earns ’em salvation points with God) is meditation. We don’t just recite rote prayers while our minds remain unfruitful: We think about Jesus. Think about the scriptures. Pray silently with our minds, like we do when we pray in tongues.

That’s why some Catholics won’t just pray one rosary in a stretch: They’ll pray two. Or five. They wanna spend significant time meditating on God, and to help ’em focus, they keep their bodies busy with reciting prayer after prayer after prayer, and fix their minds on Jesus. And, if they’re huge fans of his mom, Mary. But if that bothers you, you don’t have to meditate on Mary, or even pray to her. The prayers in one’s rosary are optional, as are all rote prayers.

The mysteries of the rosary.

From time to time Catholics talk about the mysteries of the rosary, and if you’re Protestant or pagan and have no idea what Catholics mean by this, you’re gonna presume they have some secret teachings about it. And no they don’t. In the New Testament, a mystery is something which people didn’t previously know, but now God has revealed it to us Christians. It’s just another word for revelation, and again: That’s something God’s revealed. Not left unrevealed and confusing—although dense people will continue to be confused by it, ’cause they’re expecting something more.

The mysteries of the rosary are simply things you meditate upon while you’re praying a rosary. Traditionally, Catholics focus on Jesus.

  • The “joyful mysteries” are about Jesus’s first coming: His annunciation, or when Mary visited Elizabeth, or his birth.
  • The “sorrowful mysteries” are about his death.
  • The “luminous mysteries” are about Jesus being the world’s light.
  • The “glorious mysteries” are about Jesus’s ascension and establishing his kingdom. (And yes, about Mary going to heaven too.)

All this stuff is found in the bible, and it’s teriffic stuff to meditate upon.

As you’re concentrating on this stuff, go through the beads in order and recite the appropriate prayer for each bead. A common rosary is this one:

  • First the Paternoster/“Our Father,” a.k.a. the Lord’s Prayer.
  • Then the Gloria/“Glory Be.”
  • Then 10 Ave Marias.
  • Repeat 15 times.

If the Ave Maria trips you up, fine; swap it out for the Jesus prayer, or some other rote prayer addressed specifically to God instead of a saint.

Roman Catholics and Mary.

Like I said, most rosaries include lots of prayers to Mary, which trips Evangelicals up to no end… even though a lot of us are most definitely fans of Mary. I am. She’s an outstanding example of faith and devotion in the bible. We’re just worried Catholics go overboard in their fandom, and downright worship her.

And let’s be honest: A lot of ’em totally do.

And are in total denial about it. They revere her, they claim. Honor and love and respect her, as they should, ’cause she’s a great saint; probably the greatest. But just as certain C.S. Lewis fans will buy every book he’s ever written, and even go on pilgrimages to where he taught at Oxford and Cambridge, there are tens of thousands more Mary fans who think she’s so important Jesus couldn’t have saved the world without her. She deserves to be the queen mother of heaven. (“Queen of heaven” for short.)

There’s a really fine line between reverence and idolatry. We see it all the time with people who are huge fans of musicians or actors, who prioritize their money above all else, or who love their country a little too much. Some of the “veneration” we see among Catholics plays serious hopscotch with that line. To many, Mary’s their heavenly Mother—and they love her way more than their heavenly Father.

It’s not just Catholics either. Orthodox Christians love her too. Protestants as well: We might claim we like Paul more, or we’re fond of how Jesus interacted with Simon Peter… but we don’t put statues of Paul or Peter on our front lawns every Christmas. Nor get weepy about any apostles in the same way we do when we contemplate how Mary experienced Jesus’s birth… and was later there to watch her beloved son die.

But Protestants have really different ideas about Mary’s role in God’s kingdom than do Roman Catholics. Entirely different traditions. (Largely ’cause many of the Catholic traditions about Mary didn’t become official till the Protestant/Catholic schism in the 1500s.) The biggest difference comes from our differing views about the afterlife.

Like I said earlier, to Roman Catholics the saints aren’t dead. As Jesus put it, God’s “not of the dead, but of the living; for to him everyone is alive.” Lk 20.38 NJB So they believe when we die, we don’t go to paradise; we go to heaven, are resurrected, and live forever in God’s presence. And there’s nothing at all wrong with talking to living human beings. Why wouldn’t we wanna talk with them? They know God way better than we.

Whereas to most Protestants, Jesus is the only living human being in heaven. Well, other than Enoch ben Jared, who probably got raptured; Ge 5.24 and Elijah the Tišbite, who definitely got raptured. 2Ki 2.11 According to Christian myths, Mary got raptured too; either she was taken to heaven right before she would’ve died, or she died, was immediately resurrected, then went straight to heaven. Few Protestants believe these myths, but I don’t rule ’em out: God can do whatever he wants, and can reward Mary however he wants. If Jesus wants his mom with him, what business do I have telling him no?

But if you never grew up hearing these myths—many Protestants haven’t—you’d naturally assume Mary died same as everyone, and she’s in the afterlife, same as everyone. She’s dead, and we’re not to pray to the dead; Moses forbade it. Dt 18.11 We don’t pray to ancestors. We don’t petition the spirits of the deceased. We only petition God.

Yep, it’s not how Catholics imagine things at all. Unless we first need some time in purgatory, Catholics figure every dead Christian is alive in heaven, and predominant among them is Mary, ’cause the angel Gabriel straight-up called her the greatest of all women. Lk 1.28 So she’s in a particular position of honor: Jesus is our king, and Mary the queen mother, and Catholics treat her as such. Yeah, this weirds out Evangelicals to no end, but it stands to reason.

Because praying to saints isn’t in our tradition, we tend to equate prayer with worship. We only pray to God; we pray to no one else. (Even though the bible’s words for prayer were also used to describe petitioning kings, nobles, and any human authority figure.) Therefore praying to saints, Mary included, is worship, and we worship God alone, like the angel instructed John in Revelation. Rv 22.9 So to most Evangelicals, praying to Mary is Mariolatry, the practice of worshiping Mary—and idolatry’s a serious no-no. (And didn’t the ancient Hebrews once worship some pagan goddess called “the queen of heaven”? Jr 7.18, 44.17-19, 44.25 That doesn’t look good.)

Now yes, prayer can definitely be a form of worship. I certainly use it to worship God. Hopefully so do you. And yeah, some prayers to Mary are definitely a form of jumping back and forth over the line between veneration and worship. Mary’s a saint, not a god, and some of her fans forget this.

Still: Since Jesus is God, it’s totally valid to say she’s God’s mother. Doesn’t make her a god; doesn’t mean she made God; only means she gave birth to and raised our Savior. But he saved the world, not her. She supported him, but she’s no co-savior nor co-redeemer nor co-anything. And if she is indeed alive to hear prayers, all she can really do with our prayers is the same as I can do when you ask me to pray for you: Forward those prayers to the Almighty, who can definitely answer them better than I can.