Reflections on Rosarium Virginis Mariae - 2

Author: Jesus Catellano Cervera, O.C.D.


Jesus Catellano Cervera, O.C.D.
Pontifical Institute for Spirituality ‘Teresianum’

Rosarium Virginis Mariae

The Rosary, a contemplative prayer

A Letter under the sign of contemplation

The Pope's Letter on the Rosary gives pride of place to the language of contemplation. There are more than 30 references in the text to the contemplative dimension of this Marian prayer. Thus it desires to bring to the fore both the character of this purely Christian prayer, which aims directly at communion with the mysteries of the Lord on which it meditates, as well the very rhythm of the recitation of the prayer, insistent and persevering, which leads to a closer union with the Lord and with the Mother of the Lord.

Paragraph n. 12 of the Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae (The Rosary of the Virgin Mary) in particular is entitled: The Rosary, a contemplative prayer. However, the Rosary is already described in the Introduction as "a path ofcontemplation", and "a most effective means of fostering among the faithful that commitment to the contemplation of the Christian mystery which I have proposed in the Apostolic Letter NovoMillennio ineunte, as a genuine 'training in holiness'" (n. 5).

The word "contemplation" belongs to the language of Christian prayer. Etymologically, it conveys an echo of the vision of God in the temple where he dwells (cum templo). Historically, it calls to mind in spiritual literature a high rung on the ladder of prayer in the search for and experience of God, almost bordering on mystical experience, which, however, is a free gift of God. Paul VI, in his address closing the ninth session of the Second Vatican Council on 7 December 1965, had the fortunate insight to give contemplation, as it were, a definition for our contemporary age which exalts Christian humanism. In fact, he said of faith in the living God that it is a principle of genuine humanism: "The effort to fix the gaze of the heart on Him, which we call 'contemplation', becomes the most exalted and complete spiritual act, which still today can and must give priority to the immense pyramid of human activity". Thus, according to this definition, contemplation combines the gaze of the mind and the impulse of the heart, faith that knows and charity that loves. Sometimes it is the effort of believers, always aided by grace, that comes to fruition; they are granted the ability to fix the gaze of their intelligence and love on God and to be enriched by knowledge of him. Sometimes it is God himself who attracts with his grace those who pray, and unites them with himself in contemplative prayer of a mystical kind. Contemplation is the gift and fruit of the Holy Spirit. It has the value of the faith and love of which Christian prayer must be woven.

The contemplative dynamics of the Holy Rosary

The description of the Rosary as a contemplative prayer raises this exercise of devotion to the level of true experience of union with God—as if this were necessary—and lifts the character of a popular prayer to the heights of intimacy with the Lord. The faithful person lives that relationship by virtue of his baptismal priesthood, that qualifies him to listen to the word and for prayer but also, through the prophetic grace of the baptized, as in the true prophets of all times, admits the primacy of listening to and of contemplating the living God and, as a consequence, the proclamation of his word.

In a beautiful text from Marialis cultus (n. 47) quoted in the Letter on the Rosary, Paul VI said: "Without contemplation, the Rosary is a body without a soul, and its recitation runs the risk of becoming a mechanical repetition of formulas..." (The Rosary of the Virgin Mary, n. 12). Thus the Pope has desired to keep intact the genuine meaning of this Marian prayer and to defend it from the easy accusation of being an excessively mechanical repetition of formulas. John Paul II adds, "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" (ibid.).

However, the contemplative dimension of the Marian prayer is also full of strong allusions to the Gospel figure of Mary in the way she relates to the mysteries of her Son. This approach is imitated and interiorized by the Church in her prayer, and popularized in the recitation of the Rosary. In Luke, the double reference to Mary who ponders in her heart on the mysteries of her Son (cf. Lk 2,19.51) indicates the Virgin's inner, personal relationship with the mysteries of the Son, the contemplative quality of her life: an attitude the Church imitates in her prayer and which is a source of light for every believer, as Dei Verbum recalls (n. 8). Remembering the mysteries of Christ with Mary is a golden rule of true ecclesial prayer and one of the fundamental attitudes of the Church's Marian dimension.

In fact, the profound conviction that the Rosary is a contemplative prayer has even entered the simple language of the people. The faithful often spontaneously announce the mysteries of each day with these simple words: "Today let us contemplate ... thejoyful, sorrowful or glorious mysteries...". Yet the temptation to lessen devotion, the risk of making the repetition mechanical, the lack of an appropriate atmosphere or place for the recitation of the Rosary, carelessness about the necessary moments of silence are real, and the Pope's salutary reminder commits us to restoring to this prayer the full dynamism and fervour of authentic Christian contemplation. It has also had the surprising result, experienced by many, not only of encouraging personal but also community contemplation; in addition, it has rescued the meaning of contemplation from certain spiritually aristocratic connotations, thereby enabling all the holy people of God to enjoy it.

Inasmuch as Christian contemplation is the summit of life and meditation and inner assimilation of the mysteries of Christ are the aimof prayer, the Rosary becomes a school of prayer, but also an experience of close communion with the Father, through Christ and in the Spirit. It helps to deepen the grace of the sacraments and to reach the goal of fostering a Christian life that may be an assimilation of the sentimentsof Christ and Mary, a vital communion with Christ the Lord in Christian life, a spiritual devotion, an apostolic mission.

A mystagogy of the art of contemplative prayer

As befits its contemplative character, throughout the Apostolic Letter, a magnificent exaltation of the way of praying the Rosary is offered, described, and insistently suggested. It is therefore necessary to evaluate properly what is possible and essential in order to succeed in true contemplative prayer. The Pope spells out the requirements and proposes the means, especially in the third chapter of the Letter which is a kind of "mystagogy" of the prayer of the Rosary, a noble introduction to the art of contemplative prayer with the Rosary.

But let us try to illustrate some conditions for this noble work of contemplation.

First of all, it is necessary to create an atmosphere of silence, recollection and real awareness of being in the Lord's presence. This is a preliminary and indispensable condition for encouraging an intense moment of contemplation that demands of the person praying the recollection of both mind and heart

In all Marian prayer, and in every individual part of it, the person praying is asked to pay special attention to what is being said and to whom he/she is praying. In this way, St Teresa of Jesus, who had a special devotion to the Rosary, asserted the contemplative nature of the vocal praying of the Our Father and Hail Mary, based on the simple pedagogical observation that when we pray we must know what we are saying and to whom we speak, in order to adhere fully, with our heart and mind, to the words that are on our lips. The invocation of the Our Father, the repetition of the Hail Mary, the doxological pause of the Glory to the Father, are moments that call for an ability to savour what is being said, to enjoy now one, now another, word or attitude of prayer: the invocation of the Father, the blessing of his Name, the request for his Kingdom, the total acceptance of his will ... the greeting and blessing to Mary, the invocation of the Holy Mother of God ... or the glorification of each of the persons of the Trinity. Simply letting ourselves be moulded by the biblical and ecclesial formulas, we enter into communion with the Trinity and with Mary, if our lips express what our heart dictates or if we allow our heart and mind to be guided by the words on our lips. The repetition of prayers, sustained by a simple attention of mind and heart, encourages deepening, sinking into intimacy, remaining, as in contemplation, conscious that we are living in spiritual communion with the Lord and with the Virgin Mary.

The announcing of the mysteries of Jesus and Mary is an invitation to contemplate what the word of God announces, both when the mysteries are preceded by a biblical passage and when a short sentence effectively sums them up. Mary who with her motherhood made visible the mystery of the invisible God, is our guide in this loving interior meditation. At times, as the Pope often says, in contemplating the mystery of the Son with the eyes of the Mother, from Nazareth to Bethlehem, from Egypt to Jerusalem, from Cana to Calvary, from the Mount of Olives to the Upper Room, in the joyful, sorrowful, glorious mysteries and the mysteries of light in which she took part, from close at hand or from afar. However we can also extend the analogy and plunge with Christ's sentiments into contemplating the mystery of the Mother in certain typically Marian mysteries in which she is the subject: from the Annunciation to her Assumption and her coronation in Heaven.

While the prayers of the Hail Mary are flowing, the mind and heart are invited to fix their gaze on the mysteries as they are described as if to relive them, remembering the pertinent Gospel passage. Sometimes pedagogically, we are invited to look at an icon of the mystery, while continuing to interiorize in our heart the mystery we are now subjectively appropriating so that it may become ours. Because the mysteries of Christ and Mary are moments in their lives, the invitation that every mystery of the Rosary addresses us is to turn our eyes to the faces of Christ and Mary. We are to do so with one of the simple formulas of contemplative prayer which St Teresa of Jesus expressed in the concise mystical formula of being looked at by the Lord even before we can turn our gaze to him: "Look at who is looking at you" ("Mira que le mira", in Spanish: Libro della vida [Book of the Life], chapter 13,22). For while we turn our contemplative gaze to God, we are surprised to encounter the gaze of the Lord who is already looking at us; just as, moreover, we ask Mary in Hail Holy Queen to turn her eyes of mercy toward us.

In the same way that the well-known formula of LectioDivina invitesus to take a logical route through Christian prayer with the four steps of "lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio", the Rosary gives us the opportunity for a concentrated "lectio" of the mystery; it initiates us with a brief meditation; indeed, it makes us speak the intimate "you" of prayer, addressed to the Father or to Mary, and it is resolved in the Trinitarian doxology of the final Gloria of every decade of Hail Mary's; and in the heart it leaves a synthetic vision, with faith and love, of contemplation.

The ascent of contemplation and the descent of service

If contemplation leads us to enter into the mystery of God as the goal of our ascent, from God it also looks down on the world and life with the same divine gaze, so that we may descend from the mountain peaks of contemplation, as indicated by the logic of the fourth mystery of light, the Transfiguration of the Lord. Being close to God in contemplation encourages persons praying to gaze upon man, the world, the Church, with the same sentiments as those of the mother's heart of the Virgin Mary. Sometimes, therefore, every mystery of the Rosary can be prayed with a special intention that brings us back to the Church today and in the world. This was popular with Pope John XXIII, and to our world, as John Paul II suggests it when he urges us to pray the Rosary for peace in the world and for the family.

Thus the Rosary becomes a prayer which contemplates the mystery of Christ and the mystery of man, as the Pope suggests in n. 25, and an ecclesial prayer of intercession for the needs of humanity, as in the practice of groups when they recite the Missionary Rosary with ten Hail Mary's for each continent. The sensitivity of the persons praying, the needs of the present, harmonization with the mysteries meditated upon can offer many suggestions for this prayer, thus making it both contemplative and apostolic, with the missionary power of praise and of intercession which are inherent in the prayers of the Our Father and the Hail Mary, and especially in the last part of the greeting to the Virgin: "Pray for us sinners ...".

The contemplative character of the Rosary is also revealed in one of its most genuine values. The prayer of Christian life accompanies the spiritual journey of the Christian through his bright days and dark nights, moments of participation in the joy of presence and in the cross of absence. But the journey of the Christian is none other than the journey of Christ; and spiritual life, with its struggles and graces, is the life of Christ in us under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The contemplative dimension of the Rosary is therefore on a par with the Christian journey of perfection, which is the way of Christ and the way of Mary. A life rich in communion with God and of generous service of the brethren.

We can interiorize every day what revelation and the liturgical celebration offer us, especially in the context of the liturgical year, in harmony with our journey on the paths of time through the prayer of the Rosary. Its personal and ecclesial nature, the possibility of saying it together, united in the name of the Lord and enjoying his presence, the commitment it offers us to help one another take this path together, make it particularly apt for a spirituality of our time suitable for both the person and the group.

Great good can come to us from the renewed vision which the Pope offers us of this most popular of all Marian prayers. For this reason it entails great spiritual demands. For this reason the quality of its recitation and possibly of a more solemn celebration of it should be encouraged, based on the theological quality of the prayer itself, that is, the dedication to and gift of contemplative prayer.

For all these reasons, the Pope can conclude his exposition with his last, effective appeal which confirms what we have attempted to describe: "What has been said so far makes abundantly clear the richness of this traditional prayer, which has the simplicity of a popular devotion but also the theological depth of a prayer suited to those who feel the need for deeper contemplation" (n. 39).  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
12 February 2003, page 10

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