Thursday, September 4, 2008

"To God Be the Glory..."

In 2006, I stared at the rosary beads in my hands and wondered how that string of beads could help me talk with my Father in heaven. How could something so foreign, so symbolically Catholic, be useful to a child of the Reformation? Unknown to me, those beads would let Christ’s bright mirror shine into a hidden place that had crippled my walk with Him. Moving the beads through my fingers, I pondered what I was about to explore and how strange it was that I had kept those beads, a reminder of my visit to Rome in the 1970s, for over 30 years.

As I began to pray, I felt uncomfortable using the Marian prayer of a traditional rosary, because it reflected the Catholic mind set I was unfamiliar with, loving Jesus with Mary’s heart, and because addressing the glorified Saints in heaven was prohibited to me for conscious sake.* Furthermore, I did not I want to repeat some phrases I might make up in my own mind. However, I wanted to honor the historic sense and use of the Mysteries (explained below) and the five (what are called) Decades of prayer that separate the Mysteries. (A Decade is comprised of ten beads).

I reasoned that since the rosary became a popular substitute for the Paternoster prayers early in its history, it seemed only right to center my rosary prayers on the Trinity. The three beads at the beginning of the rosary seemed an ideal place to start my prayer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Using a small reference card I’d bought in a local Catholic bookstore, I noted the basic elements of the rosary: making the Sign of the Cross to begin; on the crucifix, the Apostle’s Creed; recited in order on the next five beads, the Our Father (the Lord’s Prayer), three Hail Mary prayers, and the Glory Be (the Doxology). For each Decade, beginning the circuit with the Center (defined below), there is a reflection on the Mystery, an Our Father, followed by ten Hail Mary prayers (one Hail Mary on each bead), and, finally, a Glory Be. This pattern continues for all five Decades. The rosary ends at the Center with the prayer, Hail, Holy Queen, where additional petitions can be added as desired. Last of all, a person makes the Sign of the Cross.

I began my rosary with the Sign of the Cross and then I recited the Nicene Creed (instead of the Apostle’s Creed). I said the Nicene Creed because I was most familiar with it, since we repeat it at each Mass. Then, on the first bead, I said the Our Father. On the next three beads, I addressed the Trinity saying:

“Dear Father, Creator of the Universe, my God and King, have mercy on us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen. Lord Jesus, Savior, Lamb of God, have mercy on us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen. Sweet Holy Spirit, Teacher, Paraclete, have mercy on us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

Then I said a Glory Be on the fifth bead (next to the Center, which is usually a small metal image of Mary, Jesus, or a Saint). On the Center, I stated my petition for whomever I was praying the rosary (prayer intentions). At first, I prayed only for Mother Angelica because it was for her health I had promised to say the rosary, but soon I had a list of many prayer intentions.

On the Center, I recited the first Mystery. (The Mysteries are based on the life of Christ and take us through the Joyful, Sorrowful, Luminous, and Glorious sets of five mysteries. For example, the Joyful Mysteries take a person from the annunciation of the angel to Mary, the visitation of Mary with Elizabeth, the birth of the Lord, His dedication in the temple, and the Lord in the Temple when he was twelve. The Glorious Mysteries take us through the resurrection of Christ, His ascension to heaven, the descent of the Holy Spirit, Mary’s assumption into heaven, and the crowning of Mary among the saints in heaven). These last two Glorious Mysteries were difficult for me to consider at the time. I had no idea how I could relate to them as they were beyond my Protestant tradition. In their stead, I found it easier to reflect on the first preaching of the gospel at Pentecost and the first Gentile conversions at the house of Cornelius.

Since the card did not tell me that it was a common practice to say a particular set of Mysteries on certain days of the week, I initially chose to reflect on only the Luminous Mysteries: Jesus’ baptism, the wedding at Cana, Christ’s three-year earthly ministry, the Mount of Transfiguration and the institution of the Last Supper -- or, the Eucharist.

For the five sets of ten beads (Decades) I chose scripture passages because I remembered how often in Protestant Bible studies I had been encouraged to pray the Scriptures. After much thought, I chose five portions of Scripture that seemed random at first but which I now see fit me perfectly. For the ten beads of Decade one, I prayed Romans 8:28-39, Decade two, I Corinthians 13:1-13, Decade three, I John 4:7-21, Decade four, Ephesians 6:10-20, Decade five, Matthew 6:1-15. On some beads, I prayed two verses so that I could complete my Scripture recitation in one Decade. After each Decade I recited the Glory Be but opted not to recite the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of each Decade. However, by the end of that year, I’d finish my rosary with one last prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord for Mary, her willingness to embrace the will of the Father and her steadfast resolve to accept her role as the mother of Jesus the Messiah.

True to my pledge, I prayed each day, or if I missed a day, two the next.

I was surprised; the rosary prayers did not generate boredom. In fact, I found nothing boring about them. My concentration was on Jesus and reflection on the words I was praying. Hour by hour and from day to day, I discovered my familiarity with the prayers allowed me to explore their nuances. For example, each word of the Our Father became a topic of reflection in relation to my attitude and life as a Christian. How and why did I address God as Father? What was my responsibility to the body of Christ when I acknowledged that relationship with the word Our? Did I honor the Father’s Personhood and His reality when I voiced the word Who?

I found the rosary to be not only a string of prayer beads, reflections on the Mysteries, praises, and petitions, but a prayer during which I contemplated Jesus, and my life in Him. I discovered a deeper connection to His Passion and ministry. Time seemed to stand still as I met with Jesus over the rosary beads, and I was energized to live a more circumspect life for Christ after each prayer circuit.

The Holy Spirit is relentless in His instruction. He so enjoys teaching us. He delights to share with us all good gifts and wisdom that are ours in Christ Jesus. Each time I prayed, I learned something new about my life in Christ. I was often convicted of my sins and instructed in the virtue of godly love.

Then came a particular evening as I prayed the rosary… a deep heaviness filled my heart.

As clearly as looking into a mirror, I saw the fear that tormented me. It was the fear of being different that had been planted in my heart as a child and nurtured by the unkind acts and words of others. Their sins had buried a barb deep in my heart, crippling its native abilities. The Lord made me aware that the tainted splinter had festered, that it influenced my self-image, and fostered a timid, fearful nature. That fear was keeping me from expressing my love for Christ to others and it was a barrier to my developing friendships within the Catholic community.

This experience came at a time when I was reeling from yet another foray into Catholic culture. Rich and I had recently returned from a retreat among Charismatic Catholics. We believed that our shared experiences in Pentecostal worship and in the blessed presence of the Holy Spirit would make us both feel “at home” at the retreat. It was not so. While Rich was surrounded and engaged in friendly conversation and making new friends, I was politely tolerated by some, and cautiously engaged by others. Even though a few people genuinely tried to interact with me, the temptation for me to think negatively about the experience overwhelmed me. And the fear of being different blotted out any positive elements of our weekend. I became stressed and physically ill by the time we left.

Thomas a Kempis, in his classic, The Imitation of Christ, wrote, “As long as we live in this world it is impossible for us to be without trials and temptations. Thus, Job writes: Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery? (Job 7:1). Everyone, therefore, should show great concern about his temptations and watch and pray lest the devil, who never sleeps but prowls about, finds an opportunity to ensnare him (1Peter 5:8). No one is perfect or so holy as to be without some temptation; nor can we ever be totally free of them.”

Jesus offered me a way out of the snare, the fear of being different. His wounded hands, feet, and side testified to His concern and desire that I should be restored to health. Jesus could see what I could not; under the influences of that barb, I continued to receive its poison keeping me isolated from the good offered me by my loving Lord.

I was helpless, but He had prepared a way for me.

Prompted by the Holy Spirit, I was instructed to attend weekday Mass the next morning. I believed Jesus would heal me there. I waited in expectation through the opening, the homily, and the consecration. When I returned to my seat after processing forward for a blessing, I stood in the pew and watched others going forward for the Eucharist. Suddenly, I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit. An unseen hand seemed to reach into my chest and pull that ugly splinter from my heart. I actually felt it being drawn out. And in a moment, it was gone! I immediately knew I was free! My fear of being different was gone. I experienced at once, peace and quiet joy.

I remember walking to my car…stunned.

*See my post: Saints, Beads, and Me