Sermon on the Rosary
Aidan Nichols, O. P.
Sermon given by Fr Aidan Nichols, O.P., at a celebration of the Holy Eucharist on 10th May 2003 at the French Church, Leicester Square, London. This Mass was organized by Radiant Light to coincide with an exhibition by the artist and writer Elizabeth Wang, entitled “The Rosary in Pictures – The Twenty Mysteries”
I want to speak about the Rosary as a way of prayer. My generation – the generation of the middle-aged – is not the first generation in the Church to be somewhat bemused about this!
In his Introduction à la vie dévote , Francis de Sales counsels Philothea:
St Francis is referring to certain widely diffused works providing visual images and textual meditations for the Rosary mysteries. Such works followed the adage, Rosarium magis est modus praedicandi quam orandi, ‘The Rosary is [even] more of a way of preaching than it is of praying’. These books were a miniature theology of the mysteries of the life of Jesus and the life of Mary, offered with a view to feeding minds and hearts. So they were not just accounts of how to meditate. But of course they did also set out to nourish prayer. Typically, they tell us that, in this prayer, we are to focus our imagination on the tableau – the icon – of each mystery, asking from God the grace to penetrate it, to understand it.
At the same time, though, since this is our own individual prayer, we also need to approach the mysteries under those aspects that suit us personally best. We cannot just rely on books, we must experiment for ourselves. This would be, I suppose, the Rosarian version of the well known advice given by Abbot John Chapman of Downside, Pray as you can, not as you can’t. That is normally good counsel, but notice how successfully the doctrinal and theological objectivity of the Rosary mysteries guard Chapman’s advice from a false subjectivism that would undermine its value. Though even here we must be careful to leave each person his or her due freedom. The French Dominican Jean de Menasce wrote:
There is, then, a very personal aspect to the Rosary, which the objectivity of the prayers by no means suppresses. As soon as one is struck, held, grasped, by some aspect of a mystery one should, surely, learn to rest in this aspect. This is how, in the Rosary, the prayer of simple regard comes about. We are drawn into a simple looking that is accompanied by what the French call complaisance, a deep satisfaction in that very looking. This is the central act of contemplation, when the work of the understanding is not suspended in the sense of brought to a finish but is, rather, held in a moment of suspense, held there by admiration, by wonder.
As in all prayer, we also have the freedom to interpose our own affectionate impulses towards God as and when we feel carried forward toward him in so doing. Then, in due course, we return to the ‘play’ of the mysteries themselves, this play where we shall never be masters of the game because we will always, even in heaven, be beggars asking God for their fruits.
That leads me on to say something about the significance of the vocal prayers in the Rosary. In his doctrine of prayer, St Thomas maintains that when we pray there is a sense in which we never get beyond the prayer of petition. Asking God for things is always the proper business of a creature and above all a redeemed creature: a creature that is, as it were, created twice over – not only created but re-created – and thus depends in a twofold way on the goodness of God. It is appropriate, accordingly, that each unit of the Rosary begins with the Our Father which is the petitionary prayer par excellence.
Of course, St Thomas did not mean to set petitionary prayer over against contemplative prayer: his insight here is that we receive what we contemplate by way, precisely, of petition. In the Our Father we ask for the fundamental object of all Christian prayer, which is the Kingdom. By saying the Pater in the Rosary we contemplate those mysteries in which the Kingdom is offered to us for the asking.
We can say in fact that the moment of the Our Father is the moment of the mystery contemplated. For St Maximus the Confessor, the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer summarise all that the Holy Trinity is and has done for us. They name God as the Father of the Son, in whom he is revealed by the Holy Spirit. We can say, then, that these words bring before us the entire saving plan of God in all those crucial events in which the Holy Trinity disclosed itself to us, events that the Rosary mysteries contain.
More particularly, as each decade opens, we should have Jesus Christ before our eyes, for all the mysteries are mysteries of the work of the One who said, ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’. He it is whom Origen of Alexandria called, ‘the Kingdom himself’, the Kingdom in person.
By contrast with the Our Father, the Hail Marys, I think, present the mysteries as something not only to contemplate but to participate in, as Mary did.
It is true that contemplation is not to be contrasted with participation. And yet there is a difference.
When we are driving along in a car, the way we see things could be compared not unfairly to watching television. We may be contemplating – a landscape, say, or a townscape – but the fact that everything is framed by the car window – just as it is on television by the screen - renders our observation to a degree passive. If we make the same journey on a bicycle we notice the difference immediately. Now the frame has gone, and we are in contact. On a bicycle, the sense of presence is overwhelming. And so in Rosary prayer we need to remove the frame. We are to make contemplation participation by inviting the Lord himself into our heart, and there is already something of this as we move from the Our Father to the Hail Mary.
The Angelic Salutation, the first part of the Hail Mary, proclaims how the Kingdom became interior in the one who was full of grace, reminding us how in Mary our race was divinely adopted, as human nature was united to the Logos. In the early patristic centuries contemplation was thought of as essentially a matter of being reminded. It was the ‘remembering of God’, God in his creative and redemptive activity. And for Scripture and the early Fathers, such remembering already includes an element of personal engagement. ‘I ponder all your works’, wrote the author of Psalm 118, the alphabetic psalm of the love of God, Pascal‘s favourite; ‘I muse on what your hand has wrought’. ‘Think on these things’, St Paul advises the Philippians. And in St Luke’s Gospel the Mother of Christ herself ‘kept all these things and pondered them in her heart’.
But then the Holy Mary, the second part of the prayer, goes beyond engaged remembering, even the engaged remembering of how the Kingdom became interior in Mary. The Holy Mary speaks of the way Mary’s interior appropriation of the Kingdom is now to be transferred from her to ourselves. ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us…’. Pray for us. We are invited to have Christ not just before our eyes but in our hearts as we open ourselves to the plan of God for us, a plan which should have its fulfilment ‘at the hour of our death’. In the words of the Irish poet W. B. Yeats, ‘Far-off, most sweet and inviolate Rose/ Enfold me in my hour of hours’. The Rosary concludes of course with the Salve Regina which tells of how our estrangement from the rose-garden will be ended when Mary gives us a vision of her Son. This is the reality in which all our doctrine terminates, as the English mystic Mother Julian of Norwich saw:
In the Rosary there is a special educational method which makes dogma pass through the hands of Mary, and it is at the same time powerfully supernatural and yet easily practiced.
All in all, then, these prayers – the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Holy Mary, as prayed in the context of the mysteries – convey the Church’s sense that the Incarnation of the Son of God is the most wonderful thing that has ever happened in history. In this way, they restore to our minds the joy which is at the foundation of the Christian life. That joy has its expression in the last of the vocal prayers, the doxology, with its pouring out of glory on the Father who holds out to us the Son and makes his work effective for us in the Holy Spirit. The overall mystery unfolds from the Father and returns to the Father again, and the entire Holy Trinity is involved throughout it.
Fr. Aidan Nichols is happy to recommend this link to the Radiant Light website.