A Point of Arrival
The Rosary as Contemplative Prayer
Arthur Burton Calkins
Carlo Carretto (1910-1988), an Italian layman who eventually became a Little Brother of Jesus following to the rule of Blessed Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916) spent ten years as a hermit in the Sahara in the footsteps of his holy founder. Precisely because of his “desert experience,” he introduced a very interesting discussion on the rosary in his Letters from the Desert:
He spoke as one who knew both sides of the argument. But in his more mature wisdom as a contemplative, he emphasized that “the rosary belongs to that type of prayer which precedes or accompanies the contemplative prayer of the spirit,” that “the rosary is a point of arrival, not of departure.” In the course of this presentation, I will attempt to explain how and in what sense this is true in terms of my own research and experience. I would also point out that Caretto’s insight that the rosary is fundamentally a contemplative prayer was verified many times over in Blessed John Paul II’s magnificent Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariæ of 16 October 2002, from which I will cite frequently and which I highly recommend to the interested reader. 2
At the outset I would like to posit my assumption that man [homo] lives on three dimensions: that of the body, that of the soul and that of the spirit (cf. I Thess. 5:2; Ps. 16:9).3 Let us begin by considering the connotation of these terms as they occur in the New Testament.
I. The body is man considered as material, as related to the rest of the physical universe. St. Paul calls the physical body “the outer man” (II Cor. 4:16); it is man’s external dimension. Through the bodily senses man gathers data about the universe around him and communicates with it. The body, as created by God, is good, holy and beautiful; there is nothing evil about the body in itself (cf. Gen. 1:26-)1). The Platonic ideal of the body as “prison-house of the soul” is quite alien to genuine Christian doctrine. The principle of the Incarnation, i.e., the fact that the Son of God assumed a body like-ours (cf. Jn. 1:14; I Jn. 1:1-2), became like us in everything but sin (cf. Heb. 2:14, 17-8; 4:15) and in his human body is now seated at the right hand of the Father obviously contradicts such an assertion.
Consequently, to pray as an integral and integrated human being, man must learn now to pray with his body, 4 i.e., by means of his posture, his movements, the employment of all his physical senses and perhaps most especially by means of his words.5
II. The soul is man considered as self-conscious. To speak about one’s soul is tantamount to speaking of one’s self or “ego.” It points to the uniquely personal and unrepeatably individual dimension in each human being. According to the terminology of the New Testament, man as rational, as self-determining and as emotional, is described as psychikos. (Unfortunately, the English language provides us with no adjectival form that corresponds to the noun-form, psyche or soul. Hence this adjective which describes the “soul-level” or “soul-dimension” of human existence is sometimes translated as “natural” or “unspiritual” in contradistinction to the Greek term pneumatikos. 6)
You may have already noticed that speaking of rationality, volition and the emotions, which memory records as pertaining to the soul, is a very classical Scholastic way of speaking. Here I would simply submit that the classical Scholastic treatment of the soul corresponds to the data of experience as well as to the data of the New Testament.
Prayer in this dimension, then, has to do with what the great classical authors refer to as meditation7: the ruminations and deductions of the intellect, the employment of the imagination and memory and the aspirations and resolutions of the will.8
III. The spirit is man in terms of his capacity and consciousness of God and openness to Him. The spirit, pneuma in Greek, is the core, the deepest dimension of man’s being which Paul aptly describes as “the inner man” (II Cor. 4:16; Eph. 3:16). It is deeper even than his consciousness, his intellect and imagination, his emotional experiences and pleasures – for these are all, operations of the soul. It is true that the man who is living exclusively on the “body-level” of existence and is therefore totally occupied with seeking physical pleasure or the man who is living exclusively on the “soul-level” and is occupied solely with seeking intellectual pursuits, gratifying his emotions or his will to dominate may not even be aware of his spirit or the spiritual dimension of reality (I Cor. 2:13-4) because his body or his soul has virtually stifled and overpowered his spirit. Yet still if he allows himself to be laid open to the Word of God, it can pierce “to the division of soul and spirit” (Heb. 4:12) and he can discover a more profound dimension of reality and existence than he ever knew possible.
If my presentation of the reality of soul corresponded to the scholastic treatment, here in the area of spirit one must be prepared to make more nuanced distinctions. In many ways Scholasticism and especially Thomism may be seen as a baptized form of hylomorphism, which has served and continues to serve the Church and Christian theology and philosophy very well in many areas9, but in this I believe that further clarification is invaluable. In fact, St. Thomas and many of the great Scholastic authors often do distinguish between the higher and lower portions of the soul, which would correspond to the spirit and the soul. The New Testament deals with body, soul and spirit (I Thess. 5:23). This third category, namely that of spirit, has no corresponding category in Aristotelian hylomorphic theory and consequently spirit and soul have come to be considered as more or less synonymous.10 Many of the great mystical writers, however, speak about the “apex of the soul,” the “higher part of the soul,” the “center” or “core of the soul” etc., thus effectively referring to what I describe here as the spirit.
The Scholastics, true to their Aristotelian heritage, have consistently insisted that the soul cannot have direct contact or communication with God and, indeed, that is correct as far as it goes. But the spirit can because the spirit is man’s “contact-point” with God, his in-built orientation to Him. It is only at this level that genuine prayer takes place. As Jesus said to the Samaritan woman: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (In. 4:24; cf. also 4:23; I Cor.14:14-5). The human spirit, then, is the “locus” where God infuses grace into our being (cf. Gal. 6:18; Phil. 4:23; II Tim. 4:22; Phlm. 25) because the Holy Spirit dwells in the spirits of the baptized (cf. I Cor. 3:16; II Cor. 6:16; Rom. 8:11, 15-6).
Prayer in this dimension, then, where the role of the soul and the body is subordinate to the role of the Holy Spirit in his communion with our human spirit (cf. Rom. 8:15-6), is properly called “contemplation,” a prayer of the human spirit activated by the Holy Spirit
Now, you may well ask: “What does all of this exposition have to do with the rosary?” Stay with me, please, and we shall see. As you will no doubt already have gathered, any prayer worthy of the name must have a spiritual dimension. However, for the sake of our analysis, we can conveniently speak of the prayer of the rosary on each of these three levels.
I. First, the rosary is a form of “body-prayer” insofar as it is vocal and most frequently also involving the sense of touch by the use of beads or even fingers for the purpose of counting. (Our friend, Carlo Carretto, in the midst of a fascinating narrative can say with “child-like” simplicity: “Mary’s presence was now in my rosary. I held it in my hand and it invited me to pray.”12)
It is primarily on the vocal level that I would like to point to the rosary as “body-prayer.” We have those magnificent prayers of our Catholic heritage as building blocks: the “Our Father,” the “Hail Mary” and the “Glory be.” Hans Urs von Balthasar speaks of the first two of these as “prayers of the Spirit,”13 dictated, as it were, by the Spirit of God through the lips of Jesus, Gabriel, Elizabeth and the Church. Blessed John Paul II offered beautiful insights on each of these prayers in Rosarium Virginis Mariæ in #20-23.
On this same vocal level I would like to suggest a similarity that is shared by the Marian rosary about which we are speaking, the “Jesus prayer” of the Christian East, the charismatic practice of “prayer in tongues” and even the Islamic practice of invoking the ninety-nine praises of God and the Hindu use of the mantra.
Probably nothing has done more to popularize the “Jesus prayer” among Christians of the West than the translation of the nineteenth century manuscript discovered on Mount Athos and rendered into English in a well-known translation by R. M. French as The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way.14 There we learn of an anonymous Russian pilgrim whose desire to learn how to pray without ceasing leads him to the constant invocation of the Name of Jesus in its classic developed form: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”15 In its simplest form it consists simply in the loving and attentive repetition of the word “Jesus.”16 For many monks, nuns and even lay people of the Christian East the “Jesus prayer” has become a comprehensive program of the spiritual-life.17 It was actually on discovering the beauty, the power and the depth of the “Jesus prayer” that I began to have a new appreciation of the rosary as a Marian form of the “Jesus prayer” since the fundamental prayer of the rosary is the “Hail Mary” which may be thought of as a beautiful Marian setting for the Name of Jesus which is at its very heart both figuratively and literally. Blessed John Paul II confirms this insight beautifully in stating:
Perhaps of all the spiritual gifts, which St. Paul lists in chapters 12 and 14 of his First Letter to the Corinthians, the least appreciated and the one arousing most suspicion is glossalalia or the “gift of tongues.” Further, there are those who would distinguish between the gift of tongues in public worship, which Paul speaks of when he tells his Corinthian flock: “If any speak in a tongue, let there be two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silence in church and speak to himself and to God” (I Cor. 14:27-8) and “tongues” as a spontaneous gift of praise for one’s own edification (cf. I Cor. 14:2-5).20 Father Paul Hinnebusch, O.P, Abbot David Geraerts, O.S.B., Eddie Ensley and Father Francis A. Sullivan, S.J. associate this latter use of the gift of tongues for private prayer with the gift of tongues as it has come to be known in charismatic prayer groups today in the various Christian Churches and ecclesial communities and with a kind of prayer well known in the early Church and for well over a millennium thereafter: jubilation, a kind of spontaneous inspired vocalization of wordless praise.21 A musical vestige of this is to be found in the long melismas of the final syllable of the “Alleluia” in the Graduale Romanum.22
All of these forms of vocal prayer, I would like to suggest, are rooted in verbal formulas – even glossalalia and jubilation may be described as “a unity of wordless vocalized prayer”23 – which, while they may be important in themselves, may also become a vehicle for the Spirit of God to pray in our spirit (Rom. 8:26-8) thus “freeing the depths of the human spirit to express audibly and vocally what it cannot find words to express in conceptual language.”24
It is precisely at this vocal level that most people complain about the rosary as a “drudgery” and “boring” or, to use Carretto’s words, as the “useless repetition of ten Hail Marys.”25 The great majority, I suspect, may abandon this prayer precisely when they are on the verge of beginning to benefit from it in terms of growth in prayer.
Father Thomas Green, S.J. shares with us a valuable insight about repetitive prayers like the rosary and other prayer formulas of this genre:
Father Louis Bouyer, Cong. Orat. in his brief but masterful treatment of the rosary in his Introduction to Spirituality speaks in a similar vein about the value of repetition of the basic rosary prayers:
As “body-prayer,” then, the rosary makes use of two of the most important prayers of the Christian tradition. As the words and meaning become internalized, they may become vehicles of the spirit, helping us to establish the atmosphere that leads to a deeper level of prayer. True, it requires discipline, as does the “Jesus prayer” to which I have compared it or the Hindu mantra or the Islamic subha. As “body-prayer” it requires asceticism, but what student of yoga or Zen would not expect that it would not take years of discipline to reach the state of a master?28 On this score alone, many Catholics who jettison the rosary after a few attempts at saying it, have hardly seriously tried it at all.
Again, as “body-prayer” the rosary like the glossalalia prayer of the New Testament and the jubilation of the Church’s long tradition might seem too simple for the sophisticated, indeed downright foolish and even humiliating,29 but we must remember the words of Jesus: “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18:3). As Naaman, the Syrian leper, shows us by bathing in the Jordan (II Kgs. 5:1-14), God uses seemingly trivial things to confound the wise and bring true wisdom (cf. I Cor. 1:18-2:16). Let us listen once again to Carretto on this matter:
II. Secondly, the rosary is a form of “soul prayer” insofar as it leads us to meditate on the mysteries of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the intimate association of Mary with her Son in bringing about our Redemption. On the rosary as a meditative prayer, I need say very little because literally hundreds, even thousands of books have been and continue to be written as aids to help one to meditate on these fundamental mysteries of faith. This is possible because a “mystery” in the proper theological sense of the word is a truth that is inexhaustible. Father John English, S.J. says:
No matter how often one considers these fundamental “saving events,” they can continue to yield up new treasures as well as old (cf. Mt. 13:52). Hence the proliferation of rosary meditation books.
I would also like to clarify a matter of terminology here. In the strict sense discursive reasoning on truths of faith or imaginative pondering and “mental re-creation” of the historical events of our salvation both belong to this second stage of prayer which I am calling “soul-prayer” because both the intellect and imagination are faculties of the soul. In classical works on the spiritual life this kind of prayer is referred to as meditation.32 However, within this degree of prayer St. Ignatius of Loyola distinguished between the prayer of the understanding and the prayer of the imagination, calling the former meditation and the latter contemplation.33 This does tend to lead to a certain confusion of terminology. Jesuit writers such as Fathers Green and English, whom I quote, following the tradition of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, use the term contemplation to refer to the prayer of the imagination whereas I use the word contemplation exclusively in terms of the third degree of prayer, “spirit-prayer.”
Meditating on the mysteries of the rosary is not meant to be a mere static exercise of thinking about a past historical event, but rather an entering into the event considered which becomes mystically present to the one praying. It is meant to be a living encounter with Jesus and Mary. Here is Father English’s description of the reality of Jesus’ presence to the one meditating:
Even if for a few moments at the beginning of each decade of the rosary we pause to recollect ourselves and be present to the particular mystery we are about to recite, the prayers of that particular decade can take on the “color” or that saving event and help us to truly meditate. Keeping this in mind and our description of the rosary as a Marian form of the “Jesus prayer,” let us listen to the words of Father Bouyer:
Blessed John Paul II quite beautifully sums all of this up in these comments:
III. Thirdly, the rosary is meant ultimately, I believe, to be an expression of “spirit-prayer.” Only on this level can it be fully grasped in its depth and beauty. In the past, however, all too often it has not been presented as a form of contemplative prayer or at least.as having the potential of leading one who says it frequently and with devotion to the threshold of contemplation. As far as I can determine, there are relatively few exceptions to this statement, the most notable perhaps being St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort.37
Happily, Father Bouyer is also such an exception. Let us allow him to take up the skein of thought he was developing above:
With regard to the simple lingering on the names of Jesus and Mary, let us listen attentively to these beautiful words of Blessed John Paul II, who effectively illustrates that the rosary is a Marian form of the “Jesus prayer”:
Insofar as it is a pure gift of the Spirit of God which cannot be merited or deserved in the strict sense, contemplation is called “infused.”40 At this elevated stage, where the Spirit of God has assumed total control, the recitation of the rosary will probably cease, at least from time to time41 and John Paul II agrees with this conclusion in stating that
But there is a “lesser” form of contemplation, which is acquired by our own persevering efforts,
This latter form of contemplative prayer from the seventeenth century onwards has been known as “acquired contemplation.”44 In the language of the great St. Teresa of Avila this kind of prayer is called the “prayer of recollection.”45 But by whatever name it is called, it consists primarily of two acts: looking or contemplation and loving. Here it is described by Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, the “eagle of Meaux,” who promoted this approach to prayer as the “prayer of simplicity”46:
Once again, our friend Carretto reduced all of these carefully framed theological considerations to their most fundamental – even homely – application. “Normally,” he says, the rosary
There, once again, I’m convinced Carretto hit the mark.
I would like to conclude now with a marvelous quotation which summarizes everything I’ve tried to present about the rosary as a vocal prayer, a meditative prayer and ultimately a contemplative prayer corresponding to man's three dimensions of body, soul and spirit. It is lengthy, but deserves, I believe, to be quoted in full. It is by the Anglican theologian E. W. Trueman Dicken and is based on his study of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross:
What a breathtaking insight! When I discovered this passage, I knew I had the conclusion of this presentation. Dicken confirmed all my hunches, intuitions and experiences. The rosary, seen in the light in which I’ve tried to present it, as a three-dimensional prayer for three-dimensional man, provides us with a veritable synthesis of the grades of prayer. Like the manna in the wilderness, it provides food suited to every taste (Wis. 16:20). But surely this should not surprise us because it is a gift from her who says:
It is a gift from her who unfailingly leads us to Him who says:
2. This document may be readily found on the Vatican website: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_letters/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_20021016_rosarium-virginis-mariae_en.html
3. This exposition on biblical anthropology is further developed at http://www.christendom-awake.org/pages/calkins/biblanth.htm
4. A book like Anthony de Mello, S.J.: Sadhana: A Way to God (St: Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1978) points quite clearly to the often underestimated role of the body in prayer. Not surprisingly this insight is often a gift of the East to the West for the Western emphasis on prayer has been so largely “intellectual.” Cf. also Thomas H. Green, S.J.: Opening to God: A, Guide to Prayer (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1977) 60-66.
10. Many Scripture scholars have made the same assumption too. Cf. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “Pauline Theology,” 79:120-121 [p. 821] in Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J. and Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm (eds.): The Jerome Biblical Commentary where he says: “If anything, pneuma suggests the knowing and willing self of man and as such reveals him to be particularly apt to receive the Spirit of God. Sometimes, however, it is a mere substitute for the personal pronoun (Gal. 6:18, II Cor. 2:13; 7:13; Rom. 1:9; Phlm. 25).
13. Hans Urs von Balthasar: The Threefold Garland, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982) 122. On the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” as optimal prayer formulas, cf. also Louis Bouyer: Introduction to Spirituality, trans. Mary Perkins Ryan (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1961) 88-91.
14. Translated from the Russian by R.M. French (New York: Seabury Press, 1965. 4th printing, 1972. His translation of The Way of a Pilgrim was first published in 1930. A second edition with his translation of The Pilgrim Continues His Way was first published in 1952. There is also an English translation by Nina A. Toumanova in George P. Fedotov (ed.): A Treasury of Russian Spirituality, Vol. II of The Collected Works of. George P. Fedotov (Belmont, Massachusetts: Norland Publishing Co., 1975) 280-345. A more recent English translation is that of Helen Bacovcin with a foreword by Walter J. Ciszek, S.J. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday “Image” Book, 1978).
15. On the “Jesus prayer” cf. A Monk of the Eastern Church: The Prayer of Jesus: Its Genesis, Development and Practice in the Byzantine-Slavic Religious Tradition (Tournai: Desclée, 1967); Irenée Hausherr, S.J.: The Name of Jesus, trans. Charles Cummings, O.C.S.O. (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications Inc., 1978).
20. Arnold Bittlinger: Gifts and Graces: A Commentary on I Corinthians 12-14, trans. Michael Harper (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1967) 99-106; Francis A. Sullivan, S.J.: Charisms and Charismatic Renewal: A Biblical and Theological Study (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1982) 122-127.
21. Paul Hinnebusch, O.P.: Praise: A Way of Life (Ann Arbor, MI Servant Books, 1976) 5, 37-52; Eddie Ensley: Sounds of Wonder: A Popular History of Speaking in Tongues in the Catholic Tradition (NY: Paulist Press, 1977) 1-18, 24-30, 47-63, 73-119; David Geraets, O.S.B.: Jesus Beads (Pecos, NM: Dove Publications, 1973) 58-62, 66-72; Sullivan 145-148.
28. In making this comment I am not proposing either the disciplines of yoga or Zen and I refer the interested reader to the document of the Congregation of Faith, Orationis Formas, “On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation” of 15 October 1989: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19891015_meditazione-cristiana_en.html
37. Cf. St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort: The Secret of the (Rosary in God Alone: The Collected Writings of St. Louis-Marie de Montfort (Bay Shore, NY: Montfort Publications, 1988) #6, 51, 76-78 (pp. 155, 179, 189-191); Ernest Mura, (F.S.V., In Him is Life, trans. Angeline Bouchard, “Cross and (Crown Series of Spirituality,” No.8 (St. Louis: B. Herder(Book Co., 1956), pp. 163, 169-171; Victorino Osende, O.P.: Pathways of Love, trans. Dominican Sister of Perpetual Rosary, “Cross and Crown Series of Spirituality,” No. 12 (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1958) 73-74.
45. Cf. Green, Opening to God 64, n. 5; St. Teresa of Ayila: Complete Works trans. and edited by E. Allison Peers (London: Sheed and Ward, 1972): Life, chap. 16 (Vol. I, 96-100); Way of Perfection, chaps. 28-9 (Vol. II, 113-23); Relations, V (Vol. I, 327-33); Haneman, Sr. Mary Alphonsetta, C.S.S.F.: The Spirituality of St. Teresa of Avila (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1983) 36-39.
47. Quoted in Adolphe Tanquerey, S.S.: The Spiritual Life: A Treatise on Ascetical and Mystical Theology (Tournai: Desclee & Co., 2nd ed., 1930) #13, pp. 637-8; for the whole work, cf. Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet: A Short and Simple Manner of Making Our Prayer in the Spirit of Faith, and in the Simple Presence of God in Jean Grou, S.J.: Manual for Interior Souls (NY: Benziger Bros., n. d.) 408-415.