Although I finished reading Gary Willis’ book The Rosary just this year, the book and I crossed paths eight years ago. Shortly after Cassie and I married, her paternal grandmother, Pauline (Mom-mom), passed away at the age of 96. We traveled by way of Ohio to Newark, Delaware to attend the funeral.
Mom-mom and her oldest daughter, Maria (Aunt Maya) were devout Catholics. They were sure to find a local Church to attend Mass when they visited Cassie’s family in Ohio. Mom-mom’s funeral Mass was the first time I’d ever set foot inside a Catholic church. I remember being, funeral aside, my interest in seeing what a Catholic church was like.
I recall the small fountain of water in the vestibule where people dipped their fingers and genuflected. I also noticed people bowing and kneeling at, what seemed to me, random spots in the church or before they entered their pews. Everywhere there were icons, crosses, and Christian religious symbols. There were a few prayer cards with different Saints on them, which I collected.
When mass began the priest entered the church swinging a large, smoking metal ball that filled the air with incense. I don’t remember much about the Mass except surprise that it didn’t feel “ungodly” as I had I had believed it might. I also remember there was a strange communion where the Priest handed each person the bread and everyone drank from the same cup. For some reason I do remember knowing that I wasn’t allowed to take part. I also remember my father-in-law participating in communion. It seemed strange to me at the time considering his views on church and Christianity, but looking back it makes sense. Being a bit older I can see it as beautiful and broken moment between mother and son.
After the mass I asked Aunt Maya a few questions about Catholicism. I don’t remember the specifics except for about the kneeling. She told me that it was proper to bow in reverence when passing in front of the alter. Suddenly all the kneeling didn’t seem so random anymore. She seemed excited to answer my questions and since religious knowledge is my drug of choice I was happy to receive.
Sometime after the funeral, during a visit to Ohio, Cassie’s dad handed me a book about the Rosary. He said that Aunt Maya had requested it from the Columbus library for me to read. It had a wonderful painting of muscled angels pulling men upwards with a beaded rope. The image was set against a striking blue back drop, the hue of which has never left my mind. The most striking thing I remember is the big red, gilded badge that held the book’s title and author’s name. The red circle against the alien blue was seared into my brain.
I took it home to Kentucky, but I’m not sure I read a full chapter. I flipping through a few pages and had some judgmental thoughts about about worshiping Mary. Flash forward to 2014. While browsing the basement shelves in my favorite used book store I see something standing out among the spines of the other books. It was like glittering topaz, so I pulled it out and saw the ruby-red badge. All those forgotten memories of Aunt Maya’s Rosary book came rushing back in an instant. Being a different person than I was eight years prior I bought it and committed to reading it this time.
I expected a historical or theological account of the Rosary, but I was pleasantly surprised. Willis relegates those two aspects to the introductory chapter, instead focusing on contemplative prayer. The entire feel like a guided contemplative journey.
For those unfamiliar, the Rosary isn’t just a hip piece of jewelry, it’s a tool for contemplative prayer. The crucifix, and each bead represent a creed to recite, prayer to say , or event to contemplate. The book gives cursory overview of the prayers and creeds. Spending a little time explaining how to pray the Rosary and giving a brief historical overview.
If you’re interested in knowing more about those things I’ve created a quick and dirty write up on the Rosary. You can read it here.
What Willis devotes his time and energy to is contemplating the events of Christ’s life. In the context of the Rosary, those events are The Mysteries. Each set of ten “Hail Mary” beads on the Rosary is separated by a single bead. That single bead marks where the supplicant is to contemplate The Mysteries.
There are four sets of Mysteries, the Joyful, The Luminous, the Sorrowful, and the Glorious. The Joyful mysteries recount events in Mary’s life from the Annunciation through Jesus’ childhood. The Luminous Mysteries focus on events and miracle from Jesus’ ministry. The Sorrowful mysteries remember events from Christ’s trial and crucifixion. The Glorious Mysteries reflect on Jesus’ resurrection, ascension, sending of the holy spirit.
For each Mystery the author first gives the reader the related biblical accounts of the event in his own translation. Then he spends 5-10 pages discussing various contemplative insights of those events in order to show how contemplation of the Mystery leads to the fruit of the Mystery. For example, contemplating the circumstances and characters of the crucifixion account may increase the spirit of forgiveness.
Willis also offers the paintings of Renaissance artist Tintoretto as another point of contemplation for each mystery. It may seem strange to include guidance in contemplating paintings as well, but it fits well with the intent of the book. The author’s goal is to encourage contemplative prayer, so by including the paintings he encourages readers to seek beyond the Rosary. He says: “Perhaps the most time-tested aids to meditation are visual images. The use of visual images to help one meditate on the gospel event is recommended by John Paul II who said: ‘Using a suitable icon to portray [the particular mystery] is, as it were, to open up a scenario on which to focus our attention’”
Given my past reasons for discounting this book, my favorite parts were about Mary. Most protestant children only know “the facts” about Mary, her viginity, her meek nature, her devotion to God. Willis’ contemplative thoughts about Mary go well past this low hanging fruit. He even goes as far to suggest that “facts” of Mary are inconsequential to the truth and meaning of her life. In my favorite passage, he explains:
“Christ was born of the Holy Spirit as well as of Mary. This is not a gynecological datum but a theological one. For the evangelist it was a visible sign of God’s gracious intervention in connection with the becoming of His son.
What is emphasized in the theological sense of [Mary’s] virginity is the fresh start being given to history, God breaking in on the run of human affairs with new things to be seen and done.Mary’s acceptance of this mystery is a model for us in staying open to the incursions of the divine into our life.
Christ will even make it possible for those in his mystical body to have their own kind of virgin birth. That is the meaning Saint Augustine found in the Annunciation: ‘You who are astonished at what is wrought in Mary’s body, imitate it in your souls inmost chamber. Sincerely believe in God’s justice, and you conceive Christ. Bring forth words of salvation, and you have given birth to Christ.’ We are taken, by the mystery of our rebirth into Christ in baptism, into the inner drama of the Incarnation, receiving Christ along with Mary and bringing him forth to others in our risen life. “
As I’ve said before, It’s a shame how much beauty and depth Protestant theology loses by discounting Mary. That little section still rocks my mind when I read it.
I think this book does a great service to the Rosary as well as other tools of religious contemplation, Christian or otherwise. When contemplative tools, like the Rosary get reduced to mechanical parsing of beads or rote repetition of prayers, the beauty and usefulness are lost. Contemplative tools (icons, altars, symbols, etc..) are not magic baubles, but if treated as such becoming just decoration. They are useful in so far as they help the devotee to focus their mind. This book does well to bring that to light.
I’m thankful that Aunt Maya planted the seed way back when. I’m grateful that this book re-found me later in life as well. Even if you have no interest in the Rosary, Catholicism, or contemplative prayer I still recommend this book. It’s filled with beautiful prose and challenging thoughts and readers will see the benefit of engaging contemplatively with the things they read. And hey! Isn’t reading a form of prayer anyway?