Why did the Blessed Mother ask us to pray the rosary at many of her approved apparitions such as at Fatima? Why are we supposed to pray at all?
We know that God is perfect and perfectly happy, so he doesn’t really need our prayers or affections… but he loves us and wants us to be happy. And he wants to have a loving relationship with us both now and for eternity.
God is potentially the greatest source of happiness we can possibly have as God is the greatest, the most beautiful, most loving, all-powerful and all-knowledgeable being in existence… much greater than we can even imagine (even potentially greater than falling in love with someone here on earth). We can get glimpses of what God is like through the good things he has created, hopefully without letting them sidetrack us from loving and putting God first as we should.
Prayer is a way to help us get in touch with God and to develop a relationship with him. In prayer we not only talk with God, but God communicates with us. As we continue to pray, our relationship with God grows, and we are transformed more into the people we are meant to be.
Psalm 1:1-3 in the Bible tells us how to be happy:
“Blessed (happy) is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water,
that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.”
So why pray the rosary?
One reason the Blessed Mother asked us to pray the rosary might be because it can benefit anyone at any stage of the spiritual life from beginners to advanced. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches about various types of prayer including vocal prayer, meditation and contemplation. The rosary is a vocal prayer, a meditation and can lead to contemplation as Pope John Paul II mentioned in his encyclical Rosary of the Virgin Mary. Here is a quote from that encyclical:
“A path of contemplation … But the most important reason for strongly encouraging the practice of the Rosary is that it represents 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 Novo MillenioIneuente as a genuine ‘training in holiness’: ‘What is needed is a Christian life distinguished above all in the art of prayer’. Inasmuch as contemporary culture, even amid so many indications to the contrary, has witnessed the flowering of a new call for spirituality, due also to the influence of other religions, it is more urgent than ever that our Christian communities should become ‘genuine schools of prayer’. The Rosary belongs among the finest and most praiseworthy traditions of Christian contemplation.”
The rosary is not only a vocal prayer but also a meditative prayer.
What is meditation?
Catechism of the Catholic Church #2708: “Meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire. This mobilization of faculties is necessary in order to deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ. Christian prayer tries above all to meditate on the mysteries of Christ, as in lectio divina or the rosary. This form of prayerful reflection is of great value, but Christian prayer should go further to the knowledge of the love of the Lord Jesus, to union with him.”
It was interesting to me that the Blessed Mother appeared in the St. Anthony Church at Fatima to seven-year-old Jacinta, one of the Fatima seers. There she taught Jacinta how to meditate on the mysteries of the rosary by showing her 15 tableaus (pictures) of the joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries. Mary taught her to meditate on the mysteries by forming images of the mysteries in her mind as she prayed the Hail Marys.
Praying the decades (10 Hail Marys) of the rosary is not about focusing on the meaning of each word of each prayer. Rather it is about pondering the mystery for that decade. For example, the first sorrowful mystery is the Agony in the Garden. While a person says the 10 Hail Marys for that decade they might think about how Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane and what Jesus said and did there. To do this it helps to know the Gospel passages regarding the mysteries. The rosary is a prayer of the gospels as we not only meditate on the gospel scene, but most of the prayers are also taken from Scripture verses.
How does contemplation fit into this?
While meditation is a very good form of prayer, and even necessary, contemplation is a higher form of prayer. By contemplative prayer I’m referring to the type of contemplation that the saints talk about. St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross are both experts on contemplative prayer and they not only experienced it but taught about it in their writings. They say that contemplation is not something we can produce through a method or when we want to, but is given by God and is a gift of God. Also called “infused contemplation”, it is something we can’t produce, nor can we prolong it, since it is God’s action.
What is contemplation?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church #2715 defines contemplation in this way: “Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus. ‘I look at him and he looks at me’: this is what a certain peasant of Ars in the time of his holy curé used to say while praying before the tabernacle. This focus on Jesus is a renunciation of self. His gaze purifies our heart; the light of the countenance of Jesus illumines the eyes of our heart and teaches us to see everything in the light of his truth and his compassion for all men. Contemplation also turns its gaze on the mysteries of the life of Christ. Thus it learns the ‘interior knowledge of our Lord,’ the more to love him and follow him.”
Some of the saints have said that if we are meditating or praying vocally and feel God is leading us to contemplation, that we should allow this to happen rather than trying to force ourselves to meditate at that time or finish our devotions if we run out of time.
Along these lines, the Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena in 1370, said something which I think directly applies to any devotional prayer including the rosary. Here is a quote of what the Lord told her while in ecstasy:
“Sometimes the soul will be so ignorant that, having resolved to say so many prayers vocally, and I, visiting her mind sometimes in one way, and sometimes in another, in a flash of self-knowledge or of contrition for sin, sometimes in the broadness of My charity, and sometimes by placing before her mind, in diverse ways, according to My pleasure and the desire of the soul, the presence of My Truth, she (the soul), in order to complete her tale, will abandon My visitation, that she feels, as it were, by conscience, rather than abandon that which she had begun. She should not do so, for, in so doing, she yields to a deception of the Devil.
“The moment she feels her mind disposed by My visitation, in the many ways I have told you, she should abandon vocal prayer; then, My visitation past, if there be time, she can resume the vocal prayers which she had resolved to say, but if she has not time to complete them, she ought not on that account to be troubled or suffer annoyance and confusion of mind; of course provided that it were not the Divine office which clerics and religious are bound and obliged to say under penalty of offending Me, for, they must, until death, say their office.
“But if they, at the hour appointed for saying it, should feel their minds drawn and raised by desire, they should so arrange as to say it before or after My visitation, so that the debt of rendering the office be not omitted. But, in any other case, vocal prayer should be immediately abandoned for the said cause. Vocal prayer, made in the way that I have told you, will enable the soul to arrive at perfection, and therefore she should not abandon it, but use it in the way that I have told you.”
St. John of the Cross in his writings gives three signs which taken together indicate the beginning of contemplation in our prayer life and when to set meditation aside at least for the moment. For more information, see St. John of the Cross’ signs explained in my book, How to Pray the Rosary as a Pathway to Contemplation. This book also includes more about how to meditate on the mysteries of the rosary and has scripture passages and artwork for each mystery. It also has tips on how to help children want to pray the rosary with the family.
To sum up, the rosary is a prayer highly recommended by the Blessed Mother herself as well as popes and saints. It has very many levels to it from vocal prayer, to meditation and is also a pathway to contemplation. The goal is a greater love for God and union with God.