John Paul II marked the start of the 25th year of his papacy, now figured to be the fourth longest in history, with a startling announcement in St Peter’s Square: He does not intend to resign but will let the Boss decide when he should leave, and by the way he has decided to change the rosary, the daily devotion Catholics have recited for 900 years. Now the pope has many issues vying for his attention, including his decision Thursday for reject the American bishops’ plan for dealing with clergy sex abuse, but it is actually hard to imagine a more dramatic and far-reaching decision than the addition of the “luminous mysteries,” for it will literally change how millions of ardent believers pray each day for peace.
We have all seen rosary beads—a small cross, a series of beads, then a circular arrangement of five strands of 10 beads each separated by a lone bead. Each bead in the string of 10 gets a Hail Mary; the lone beads are the Lord’s Prayer. The point and purpose of the rosary, however, is not to recite rote prayers but to repeat prayers you know by heart as you contemplate—actively meditate on—a mystery of Christianity. A mystery in this context is an important event whose whole meaning you won’t fully understand in this world.
For 900 years there have been three series of mysteries: the joyous (Christ enters the world) the sorrowful (Christ is killed) and the glorious (Christ and Heaven). What the pope has done is add a new set of areas of contemplation—the luminous mysteries, which encompass Christ’s ministry, his teachings.
The most startling thing about his announcement is that it doesn’t seem so much an addition to a tradition as the filling of a gap. The new mysteries seem like something that had originally been there but was somehow lost to time. The joyful mysteries end with Christ being found, at age 12, teaching in the temple. The sorrowful mysteries start with Christ suffering in Gethsemane the night before his death. It was odd to contemplate the joyfuls one day and jump to the sorrowfuls the next; something was missing. That would be what he said and did as an adult. That is what the pope added this week.
But the rosary had been as it was for almost a millennium. Why did John Paul change it now? “He is making a statement at the end of his life about what’s important to him,” says Father C.J. McCloskey of Washington’s Catholic Information Center. “By adding these mysteries he is saying, ‘This is another invitation to look closely at the life of Christ—to contemplate and meditate.’ ”
“To think,” I offered.
“No, not to think. To let the life of Christ sink into you.”
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The timing of the announcement is interesting. The rosary is by long tradition a prayer for peace in the world. Of the church-sanctioned visitations of Mary—there have been more reported in the past 150 years than in all the previous centuries combined—she has asked in almost all cases that the rosary be said for peace. This week, for the first time in his roiling reign, John Paul dedicated the coming year to the rosary. And he made his announcements in a way that was embracing of other Christian traditions. He began by asserting that the rosary is “Christocentric,” a way of thinking about Jesus through and with the mother who gave him and witnessed his life. This was a not-at-all-subtle invitation to all Christians to take a new look at an old devotion, one Protestants, for instance, have found unhappily Mary-centered in the past.
And so this Mary-loving pope who, as all who know him will tell you, feels her hand literally redirected the bullet aimed at his heart when he was shot in St. Peter’s Square 21 years ago, and who had that very bullet placed in the gold crown of the statue of Mary at Fatima, has managed to show, at the end of his reign, his special devotion, and use it as a vehicle for ecumenical invitation.
In the pope’s letter he used the words luminous or light 29 times. That reminded me of something. In the unofficial but ever-interesting prophecies of St. Malachy, mystic of the Middle Ages, each coming pope is named with a phrase that seems to denote his work. The nicknames seem uncannily accurate. The pope’s predecessor, John Paul I, who reigned for a month, from waning moon to waning moon, got the nickname “Of the Half Moon.” John Paul II is “Of the Labors of the Sun.” Which is of course the brightest, most luminous star, the bringer of light to the world. I used to wonder what his nickname meant, but not now.
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It’s worth saying a few more words on the difficulties of contemplation. The pope said in his letter that he sensed a greater hunger in the world for meditation, and made clear he meant to help feed it in part with the offering of the new mysteries.
I am only a recent regular rosary sayer, but I have been struck by the difficulties of meditating and contemplating. I found some helpful counsel in the pope’s letter, and thought I’d pass it on.
I didn’t know how to meditate when I began saying the rosary. So I’d just start out imagining particular scenes in my mind. In the first joyful mystery, for instance, the Angel Gabriel comes to girl of perhaps 14 or 15 and announces that she is to become the mother of God. She says Yes, what the Lord wants is what should be done. This scene is described in the Gospels. I try to imagine it as it was. Then the phone rings and I listen to see if the message light comes on, and an ambulance goes by, and suddenly I’m not imagining what we know anymore. Instead I’m wondering why Mary is never reported to have been shocked that an angel walked into her garden and started talking to her. Maybe she’d been seeing angels for years. Maybe she thought they were her playmates when she was a child. Maybe they were commonplace to her, and that’s part of the reason she seems to have moved through life with that rarest of qualities, an unbroken calm.
The third joyful mystery is the birth of Christ in a manger. It’s not hard to imagine this. It’s hard to control one’s imaginings. I imagine the trek to the manger, the disheartened young husband, the sound of the eating area of the inn as they trudge on, hungry and alone. And then a car alarm goes off. And suddenly I’m wondering: Did she have a hard labor? Did God want her to know from the beginning that her joy would be ever accompanied by pain? Did she weep him into the world? Maybe it was an easy birth. God knew she was barely more than a child, with a young husband and no help, just the two of them in the cold in a hut on a hill.
When the child was born, did he cry aloud with a great wail, and did the cry enter the universe? Did it become a sound wave of significant density? Is it still out there, radiating out into the stars, and did the Voyager II bump into it? If, as an astronaut, you traveled through that sound wave in the year 2063, would it jostle your space capsule and disturb your small universe? Would you hear something? What?
Did someone unrecorded by history see a light in the hut on the hill and come to help Mary and Joseph that night? Maybe there was an old woman with moles and wens and a sharp bent nose, a woman almost comically ugly, like a witch in a child’s Halloween book. Maybe she lived in isolation, never left her small hovel, but she felt called to assist, tugged by some wonder that pierced her estrangement. She helped with the birth, and hers was the first face he saw. Her outer appearance was an expression of the inner wounds he came to heal. As if she were the physical representation of the state of man’s soul. Maybe it was she who wrapped him in rags; maybe she bent down, breathed him in, her face bathed in the warm mist of a brutal birth on a frosty night. Maybe when she returned home she was beautiful. But no one knew, and it all went unrecorded, because she never left the house again. And never knew she had been made lovely.
Or maybe she did leave the house, and the next day in the market came upon a looking glass, and . . .
You see my problem. I can’t concentrate on what we believe we know. You’re supposed to contemplate about what happened. And I do, until there’s a sound or a thought or a ray of light hits a vase on the window, and then we’re off to the races.
What was Christ thinking about that night in Gethsemane? That is the first of the sorrowful mysteries. I start to think and then . . . Maybe he knew that in spite of the pain he was about to be subjected to, in spite of his self-sacrifice, the world was going to continue to be a miserable place. Maybe the evil one sneaked into his mind and showed him a film of the future—Thomas More being put to death as a Christian by Christians for the sake of Christianity, Edmund Campion and John Fisher the same. The Inquisition, the Holocaust, cardinals of the church who would be incapable of compassion for the families of children sexually abused by priests. Maybe all of that is what made him sweat blood.
Also: He must have loved life. He must have been in love with life on earth. Why else would he ask that the cup pass? He must have wanted to grow old. Why? Did he love bread, changes in the weather, wine, the feel of rain? He must have liked being a carpenter’s apprentice. Woodwork is satisfying: You can see the results of your labor; you can feel it in a smooth finish. Maybe he made a chair once. Maybe it’s in the Museum of Natural History now in a case with a card that says, “Child’s chair, circa 100 B.C.E.” Maybe there’s a guard in the museum who’s in love with the girl in the gift shop. Maybe they first talked in front of the case that houses the chair and something happened.
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You see where I am. But here is the pope in the letter on the rosary: To announce each mystery as you begin to pray, to focus on it, is “to open up a scenario.” The words you are saying direct “the imagination and the mind” toward a particular “episode.” In Catholic spirituality, “visual and imaginative elements” help in “concentrating the mind.” You said it, pops!
The pope cautions that the process is “nourished by silence.” “One drawback of a society dominated by technology and the mass media is the fact that silence becomes increasingly difficult to achieve.” You must try to both be silent, and find a quiet place to let thoughts come in and sit down. So try not to hear the phone and the siren; open your mind to the images and words with which you are feeding it; let your imagination go as long where it goes is a good place to be.
This seems good advice, and is a real relief, too. I’m going to contemplate it.