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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:

Often in my life as a European I have taken part in animated discussions on the pros and cons of the rosary. But in the end I was never fully satisfied. I was not in a fit condition to really understand this way of praying.

  “Its a meditative prayer,” some would say. Well, then, the young people are right to complain of the distractions which this useless repetition of ten Hail Marys brings to the meditation. Announce the mystery and leave me to my thoughts.

  No, its a prayer of praise,” others would say, “And one must think of what one is saying word by word.”

  But, it’s impossible! Who’s capable of saying fifty Hail Marys distracted by the pictures of five mysteries without losing the thread?

  I must confess that never in my life, although I have made the effort, have I succeeded in saying a single rosary without getting distracted.

  It was in the desert that I came to realize that those who discuss the rosary – as I discussed it in that way – have not yet understood the soul of the prayer.

  The rosary belongs to that type of prayer which precedes or accompanies the contemplative prayer of the spirit. Whether you meditate it or not, whether or not you get distracted, if you love the rosary deeply and can’t let a day go by without saying it, you are already a person of prayer.

  The rosary is like the echo of a wave breaking on the shore, God’s shore: ‘Hail Mary ... Hail Mary ... Hail Mary ... ‘ It is like your mother’s hand on your childhood cradle.

  The rosary is a point of arrival, not of departure. 1

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 ones soul is tantamount to speaking of ones 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 naturalor 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 mans 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-levelof existence and is therefore totally occupied with seeking physical pleasure or the man who is living exclusively on the “soul-leveland 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

Which reaches out to God’s presence. The lips and mind both come to rest: there is a simple gazing (looking) at the Lord while the heart reaches out in wordless prayer and the will seeks to be one with his.11

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 prayeramong 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:

The Rosary belongs among the finest and most praiseworthy traditions of Christian contemplation. Developed in the West, it is a typically meditative prayer, corresponding in some way to the “prayer of the heart” or “Jesus prayer” which took root in the soil of the Christian East.18


The Islamic “rosary” or subha is strikingly similar to theJesus prayer.” It is made up of 99 beads corresponding to the 99 names of Allah. One slips it through his fingers while repeating just one invocation selected from the 99.19

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 tonguesas a spontaneous gift of praise for ones 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:

Like the Jesus prayer of orthodoxy or the mantra of Hinduism, the ejaculation was a short prayer form repeated over and over again. This repetition of the same formula, slowly and quietly, can be a great help in stilling the distracted spirit ... Even the repetitive structure of the rosary seems to be a valuable prayer in the same way. Used in such a manner, the specific content of the rosary prayers or ejaculations or the Jesus prayer would not be so important; rather they would be seen primarily as a help to achieving a prayerful spirit and a tranquil and attentive heart.

  I have also found the divine office, or Prayer of Christians, helpful in achieving the same end … If ... the office is seen primarily as a way of coming to quiet before the Lord – of being reminded of his love and providence at certain pivotal moments of the day, rather than as a source of new ideas about God and his place tin our lives – then perhaps the repetition of familiar phrases can be seen in a new and more fruitful light.

  The means I have suggested – ejaculations, the rosary, and especially the divine office – are already properly prayer since they entail a coming to quiet before, or in the presence of God.26

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:

Such slow and regular repetition, provided that it is accompanied by attention – which it is also preferable not to strain unreasonably – of itself produces a tranquility not only psychological but also physiological, in which the concentration, the deepening of thought, takes place as if of its own accord. The verbal rhythm, in fact, along with the simplifying and unifying of thought, simultaneously begets a calming of the nerves and encourages a psychological tranquility which closely overlap each other. In these conditions, if the distractions which, especially for the nervous and sensitive person, so easily plague every effort at meditation do not disappear straightway, they will come to seem no more than marginal, and cease to be truly disturbing. 27

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:

I have reread that Story of a Russian Pilgrim many times, not merely because it is an authentic mystical text of great purity, but also because from it, as well as from other texts of the same kind, I have gleaned solid supporting material for my own attitude to spiritual childhood. The more involved I have found myself in the world of culture, or large scale concerns, or specialization, the more I have needed to simplify my spiritual life; the more contact I have with Christians with intellectual problems, the more I have tried to safeguard my prayer behind the curtain of lowliness and wisdom of heart ... Wishing to protect my poor soul from the babble of useless talk, I took up once more the simple rosary that my mother had wanted me to recite daily when I was a boy. 30

II. Secondly, the rosary is a form of “soul prayerinsofar 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 “mysteryin the proper theological sense of the word is a truth that is inexhaustible. Father John English, S.J. says:

The term mystery” should be correctly understood. By “mystery” we do not mean a detective mystery, a problem, nor do we mean that it is false or fictional. What we mean is that there is a presence here that is beyond us and our understanding. We are launched into the mystery of divine presence, the continuing mystery of the presence of Christ. Contemplation implies our ability to enter into the presence of Christ, and his ability to enter into ours.31

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-prayerbecause 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 Jesuspresence to the one meditating:

The presence of Christ to the one contemplating can be considered from two viewpoints. It contains some of the aspects of Christs presence in us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit given to us at Baptism. It also includes some aspects of his presence in the Eucharist. These two sacraments, then, can help us to understand somewhat how Christ may become present to the one contemplating the mysteries of his infancy and public life.

  Through our Baptism the Holy Spirit dwells in us as in a temple. Now, this Spirit is sent to us not only by the Father but also by Jesus himself ...

  The Spirit in our hearts through baptism is the Spirit of Jesus. We might say that the Spirit recalls to us everything that Jesus Christ taught to his apostles: in this sense his Spirit enlivens in us (an) “experiential memory... In a mystical way, therefore, I am able to recall and be present at the mysteries of Christs life ...

  In the Eucharist, on the other hand, under the appearances of bread and wine Christ makes himself really present to us. The risen Lord, because he is beyond time enters into our time at this Eucharistic moment. Christ’s presence before you in prayer is of the same order, and it depends in a similar way on the resurrection of Christ. In his resurrected state Christ is able to re-present the mysteries of his life just as he re-presents the Paschal Mystery of the Eucharist. There is a new dimension in the Eucharist that was not to be found at the Last Supper – the presence of the Christian! Obviously, you were not there at the first(institution, but you can be present at the Eucharist today; that is an important difference. Christ has brought the Paschal Mystery before you in the Eucharist. Well, in a way analogous to your presence at the Eucharist, you can be present at the mysteries you contemplate. The Lord can do this because in his resurrected, glorified life he transcends time and space. He is the Lord of history and of the universe.34

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:


The simple recalling, even quite implicit, before each decade and throughout its recitation, of one or another of these “Mysteries” and of all, one after the other, continually charges and recharges the names of Mary and Jesus for us with all their meaning, with all their reality. Thus, finally, in the single name of Jesus, united by His Mother to our humanity, is concretized everything that makes Him the unique but total object of our faith: the living Word of God Who creates and recreates us in His image.

  In certain countries, particularly in Germany, this “meditation” is aided by the addition, either to the name of Jesus or to that of Mary depending on the context, of a brief stereotyped formula expressing the reality of the “Mystery” which we have in mind during each decade: for example, “Jesus risen from the dead,” or “Mary crowned in heaven.” This practice can be useful particularly for those who are not yet fully familiar with the use of the meditated Rosary. But once such use has become familiar this practice might well tend to be dispensed with, the names of Jesus and Mary alone calling up very simply the whole content of the Mystery present to the thought that rests in them.35

Blessed John Paul II quite beautifully sums all of this up in these comments:

The contemplation of Christ has an incomparable model in Mary. In a unique way the face of the Son belongs to Mary. It was in her womb that Christ was formed, receiving from her a human resemblance, which points to an even greater spiritual closeness. No one has ever devoted himself to the contemplation of the face of Christ as faithfully as Mary. …

  Mary constantly sets before the faithful the “mysteries” of her Son, with the desire that the contemplation of those mysteries will release all their saving power. In the recitation of the Rosary, the Christian community enters into contact with the memories and the contemplative gaze of Mary. …

  As Pope Paul VI clearly pointed out:  “ … By its nature the recitation of the Rosary calls for a quiet rhythm and a lingering pace, helping the individual to meditate on the mysteries of the Lord's life as seen through the eyes of her who was closest to the Lord. In this way the unfathomable riches of these mysteries are disclosed”.36

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:

At the final stage, it would even seem as if these names (of Jesus and Mary), above all the first, should stand out from the phrase in which they are inserted to such a point that it could lose itself in them like a river in the sea. And, equally, the distinct meditation of the “Mysteries” should normally tend to lose itself in a vision, at once very simple and very unified, of the whole of the Mystery of Christ in us, in all its fullness. When this stage has been attained, contemplation might be said to emerge as the fruit of a meditation which contains it germinally.38

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”:

One thing is clear: although the repeated Hail Mary is addressed directly to Mary, it is to Jesus that the act of love is ultimately directed, with her and through her. The repetition is nourished by the desire to be conformed ever more completely to Christ, the true program of the Christian life. Saint Paul expressed this project with words of fire: “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). And again: “It is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20). The Rosary helps us to be conformed ever more closely to Christ until we attain true holiness. …

  The center of gravity in the Hail Mary, the hinge as it were which joins its two parts, is the name of Jesus.

  When we repeat the name of Jesus – the only name given to us by which we may hope for salvation (cf. Acts 4:12) – in close association with the name of his Blessed Mother, almost as if it were done at her suggestion, we set out on a path of assimilation meant to help us enter more deeply into the life of Christ. 39

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

In effect, the Rosary is simply a method of contemplation. As a method, it serves as a means to an end and cannot become an end in itself. All the same, as the fruit of centuries of experience, this method should not be undervalued. In its favor one could cite the experience of countless Saints.42

But there is a “lesser” form of contemplation, which is acquired by our own persevering efforts,

a simpler form of prayer which, owing to the absence of discourse and to the predominance of the contemplative act, or of loving intuition, we may legitimately call contemplation. It may also be called prayer of simple regard, again because of that predominance of intuition rather than of ratiocination; or again, prayer of simplicity, because in it the operation of the intellect and the will are simplified into a single affectionate attention to God.

  This is still ordinary prayer, on this side (in Marmion’s phrase) “of the common frontiers of the supernatural;” it does not need any extraordinary infused habit; faith is enough – that habitus fidei which accompanies the infusion of grace.43

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:


Meditation is excellent in its proper time, and highly profitable at the outset of the spiritual life; but one must not linger there, since the soul by its fidelity in mortifying and in recollecting itself, ordinarily becomes the recipient of a purer and a more intimate kind of prayer which one may call the prayer of simplicity, and which consists in a simple view, regard, or loving thought on some divine object, be it God Himself, or some of His mysteries, or any other Christian truth. The soul puts aside reasoning and employs a gentle contemplation that keeps it at peace, attentive and docile to the divine operations and impressions which the Holy Ghost communicates; it does little and receives much; its labor is sweet, yet very fruitful; and since it approaches nearer to the source of all light, of all grace, and of all virtue, it receives a still greater share in all these gifts.47

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

is a prayer of spiritual maturity. If a young man doesnt like saying the rosary, and says he gets bored, don’t force him. Reading a text from scripture is best for him, or maybe some more intellectual kind of prayer.  But if you meet a child in the remote country-side, or a peaceful old man or a simple old woman who tells you they love the rosary without knowing why, rejoice and be glad, because the Holy Spirit prays in their hearts. The rosary is an incomprehensible prayer for the commonsenseman, just as it is incomprehensible to repeat “I love youa thousand times a day to a God one cannot see. But for the pure of heart it is understandable; the person rooted in the Kingdom and living the beatitudes understands the rosary.48

There, once again, I’m convinced Carretto hit the mark.

I would like to conclude now with a marvelous quotation which summarizes everything Ive 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:

It may well be that a much wider and better-informed use of the rosary would prove highly beneficial to the spiritual life of many Christians, because of the great variety of approach which any who use this devotion with regularity almost unconsciously develop. It is a practice so much taken for granted by our two authors [Teresa and John of the Cross] that they do not feel it necessary to mention it, but it certainly provided the foundation for their own prayer. Attention to the words of the Paters and Aves provides a background of vocal prayer for those who are helped by such an exercise. The discursive element may predominate for others as a consideration of the Mysteries comes to the fore. In this case there is no point in paying great attention to the words of the Paters and Aves, which are now being said more or less unconsciously. They still serve a useful purpose, for whilst they do not disturb the discursive activity of the mind, they now perform the valuable function of allaying distractions, physical and mental. At the best, in using the rosary both discursive and vocal activities are merely subsumed, and affective prayer prevails, as it should, without any self-consciousness on the part of the soul. If the soul is really lost in love for God, it matters nothing that the words and Mysteries are no longer making any impact on the consciousness. They continue as before; engaging only those parts of the mind which can function without any consciously willed effort, much as we may go on walking or driving a car without ceasing to give the main part of our attention to a conversation with a companion. This is not to say that the vocal prayers are now superfluous or vain babblings”; rather they form a kind of musical continuo which pacifies the mind and lifts it again to the affective level when from time to time it flags. Should the affective element flag considerably, then discursive or vocal prayer re-emerges and so saves the soul from having nothing to do,with the consequent invitation to distractive thoughts. Whether or not we use a rosary, however, it is necessary to recognize that in this or some other way we have to reproduce those conditions which the rosary is designed to encourage.49

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:

You will remember me as sweeter than honey, better to have than the honeycomb. He who eats of me will hunger still; he who drinks of me will thirst for more (Sir. 24:20-1).

It is a gift from her who unfailingly leads us to Him who says:

If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as scripture has said, “Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water” (Jn. 7:37-38).


1. Carlo Carretto: Letters from the Desert, trans. Rose Mary Hancock (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1972), 53-54. (Emphasis my own.)

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.

5. Cf. Jordan Aumann, O.P.: Spiritual Theology (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor Press, 1980) 316-318.

6. Cf. the various renditions of psychikos in English translations of I Cor. 2:14.

7. Cf. Aumann 318-324.

8. Cf. Aumann 324-327; Venard Poslusney, O. Carm.: The Prayer of Love: The Art of Aspiration (Locust Valley, N.Y.: Living Flame Press, 1975) passim.

9. Cf. Optatam Totius (The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Training of Priests) #15-16; Gravissimum Educationis (The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Christian Education) #10.

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).

11. James Borst, M.H.M.: Contemplative Prayer: A Guide for(Todays Catholic (Liguori, Missouri: Liguori Publications, 19790 18; cf. also Aumann 329-337.

12. Carlo Carretto: Blessed Are You Who Believed, trans. Barbara Wall (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books; 1983) 12.

13. Hans Urs von Balthasar: The Threefold Garland, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982) 122. On the “Our Fatherand “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 ImageBook, 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).

16. A Monk of the Eastern Church: On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus (London: The Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, 1949) 1.

17. Ibid. 5.

18. Rosarium Virginis Mariæ #5.

19. Carretto, Blessed Are You Who Believed 83-85.

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.

22. Cf. Ensley 6-7, 12-14, 116-117; Sullivan 147.

23. Ensley 124.

24. Sullivan 144.

25. Carretto, Letters from the Desert 53.

26. Green, Opening to God 63-64.

27. Bouyer 92.

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

29. Sullivan 141-143.

30. Carlo Carretto: In Search of the Beyond, trans. Sarah Fawcett (Garden City, NY: Doubleday “Image” Book, 1978) 83.

31. John J. English, S.J., Spiritual Freedom: From an Experience of the Ignatian Exercises to the Art of Spiritual Direction (Guelph, Ontario: Loyola House, 1979) 15.

32. Cf. Aumann 318-326.

33. Cf. Green, Opening to God 90-96: Ibid., When the Well Runs Dry:  Prayer Beyond the Beginnings (Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria Press, 1979) 12, 40, 48.

34. English 148-149.

35. Bouyer 93-94.

36. Rosarium Virginis Mariæ #10, 11, 12.

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.

38. Cf. Bouyer 94.

39. Rosarium Virginis Mariæ #26, 33.

40. Aumann 329-337; Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro: Methods of Mental(Prayer, trans. T. F. Lindsay (Westminster, MD: Newman (Press, 1957) 247.

41. Cf. Mura 169.

42. Rosarium Virginis Mariæ #28.

43. Lercaro 251.

44. Ibid., p. 247; cf. Aumann 327-329.

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.

46. Lercaro 250.

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.

48. Carretto, Letters from the Desert 54.

49. E. W. Trueman Dicken: The Crucible of Love: A Study of the Mysticism of St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross (NY: Sheed and Ward, 1963) 509-510.

Version: 20th January 2014

Copyright ©; Msgr Arthur Calkins 2014.


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