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The rosary is a powerful spiritual tool for meditation. While meditation grows in popularity as a means to better mental, physical, and spiritual health, many people, including many Catholics, overlook the rosary as a meditative tool. It is sometimes seen as too simple and therefore as superficial. The rosary is simple, but the gentle repetition of its prayers makes it an excellent means to moving into deeper meditation. It gives us an opportunity to open ourselves to God's word, to refine our interior gaze by turning our minds to the life of Christ.
By focusing on the lives of Christ and Mary through meditation on the mysteries, we learn about ourselves in relation to God. Mary herself is an excellent model for the daily practice of meditation. She received the word of God through Gabriel. She pondered God's word in her heart. She took in the events around her, capturing them internally and carrying them within her like a treasure. This is the essence of meditation—receiving God's word and making it our treasure.
And our choice. As Richard Foster notes, “in meditative prayer God is always addressing our will. Christ confronts us and asks us to choose. Having heard his voice . . . we are called to life-transforming obedience." Meditation gives us the option to be transformed. We must choose it.
You may have objections. "I'm not a monk living in seclusion. I don't know a thing about meditation. How can someone like me meditate?" But meditation is for all believers, not just for monks like Thomas Merton. As Merton himself reminds us, "We must not imagine the early monks applying themselves to a very intellectual and analytical ‘meditation' of the Bible. Meditation for them consisted in making the words of the Bible their own by memorizing them and repeating them, with deep and simple concentration." We don't have to make meditation complicated to make it meaningful. The rosary contains the necessary elements for simple meditation. Praying it with "deep and simple concentration," recalling the events of the mysteries and pausing to think about them for a moment, can draw us into a deeper relationship with God—the goal of meditation.
Indeed, many people use the rosary in precisely this way.
Francesco, a college student preparing for the priesthood, uses the rosary in a variety of ways, but particularly as a means to meditate. Rosary devotion was passed down in his family from his mother, and her simple meditations gave him greater insight into his faith and his relationship with God.
"As a kid, I would always turn to the rosary as something to pray," he said. "It was a very Catholic thing to do that we did in our house all the time. It's very simple, but when you pray it, you feel close to God."
It was from this simple, childlike relationship with the rosary that Francesco's meditations matured.
"Every time I visit the meditations they get deeper and deeper and deeper," he said. "You grow in the meditations."
Francesco's own meditations are not necessarily cerebral or complicated, but they are rich and deeply felt.
"The agony in the garden is a very powerful meditation, where you experience how the agony must have been almost more agonizing than the Crucifixion itself. The anticipation made the Crucifixion more agonizing because Christ had a choice to make. It helps you with the different choices you have to make. The rosary is a very, very deep prayer. It's complex because the situation is beyond words, the things God does for us are beyond words."
Francesco grew up with a passionate love for the rosary, and he seems to have a gift for meditation. That is not the case with everyone. It is not the case with me. Meditation did not come easily for me, nor does it still. I think that my experience of struggling with rosary meditation is perhaps the more common experience. I have had to learn about meditation and have had to practice it diligently.
How to Meditate
Thomas Merton wrote that "meditation is really very simple and there is not much need of elaborate techniques to teach us how to go about it." Nevertheless, Merton wrote prolifically on the subject. We can begin to understand meditation by learning about the basic principles that govern it.
The first principle is that meditation is learned through practice. Like Francesco, many people who practice rosary meditation begin very simply and gradually develop a more sophisticated meditation. The meditator learns to hear an interior voice, the voice of God. The church calls meditation a “quest.” It is an experience of prayer that reaches beyond the experience itself to something deeper. In the Catechism, the church teaches that “Christian prayer should go further: to the knowledge of the love of the Lord Jesus, to union with him.” This takes time, and it demands that the one who is praying focus on God's love for us, a love he demonstrates through union with Christ.
Solitude and a routine can greatly assist meditation. Find a quiet, private room where you can light a candle or play soft music. Many people find it helpful to set aside a specific time each day for meditation. Enter your meditation dates into your calendar or put a note on the refrigerator: “Meditation for ten minutes at 3:00 p.m.” Fight the urge to feel guilty about taking time for something as “useless” or as “silly” as meditation might feel at first. Start simply. I suggest that you begin any meditation with a prayer to the Holy Spirit asking for guidance and for freedom from distractions.
Once you've selected your posture and created an environment that is fit for meditation, close your eyes and take a few deep, slow breaths. Try to relax your body; become aware of your breathing. Then begin the rosary. As distractions or problems come to mind, simply acknowledge them and move on. If you are plagued by thoughts of problems or of people, invite them to “have a seat” while you pray. They can sit there while you continue to meditate. Don't struggle to rid your mind of all distractions or to force every troubling thought out of your head. Acknowledge these distractions and bring them to God.
Gently focus on each mystery as you reach it in the course of praying the rosary. You might find it helpful to read some devotional material about the mystery. You might also listen to music, write, or practice exercises of the imagination.
Because the traditional mysteries are so visually oriented, I will sometimes begin my meditation by painting the scene in my imagination. For example, I might think about what kind of a brush and what colors I would use for the nativity of Jesus. I would think about painting the picture, about how I would depict the gentleness and innocence of a newborn. As I would begin to work on the picture in my mind, my meditation might settle on the virtues of gentleness and innocence. Where in my life is Jesus teaching me how to be gentle, tender? Where in my life can I model the innocence of a newborn child? In what area of my life do I need to place my total trust in Jesus, relying on him for my every need, or to become more childlike and less childish?
Many people find music helpful in rosary meditation. If you are especially moved by music, find a favorite piece of music that lends itself to joyfulness, luminosity, sorrow, or glory, depending on the mysteries you are praying. Choose a hymn to accompany each mystery or choose lyrics that call to mind the scene of the mystery. Several people I know pray the rosary with the help of the “Ave Maria” and other Marian songs.
If your imagination is stirred more by words than by images, write out a description of the scene of the mystery or read the full Scripture passage describing it. Read them, and choose a verse that particularly strikes you.
For example, I read this verse while praying the mystery of the Nativity: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). I was struck by the phrase “she gave birth.” I realized that to give birth means to give to the world what was exclusively yours for nine months. Preparation is over; it's now time to give away. I asked myself if I am being called to give something away, not physically like Mary, but creatively. How am I offering my creativity, my imagination, my self, my gifts to God?
Meditation proceeds in this way. It means reflecting on the words or images that each mystery brings to mind and remaining open to what God would have us understand about how those events relate to our lives.
Don't try to force meditation, and don't make it complicated. Simplify it. Rosary meditation has shown me that some of the greatest soul-stirring moments take place in the gentle, ordinary events of everyday life. Mary had an everyday life—in her simple, humble ways, she had a child, cared for him, and was a mother and wife. I have an everyday life—I get up each day, write out my morning pages, go to Mass, pay bills or clean house, say the rosary, and go on about my day. It is in these simple, ordinary things of life that meditation finds the great spiritual drama.