Every time I get on an airplane, I pray the rosary. Flying is nerve-racking for me, even after several years of routine air travel. Praying the rosary comforts me and keeps me calm: I feel protected and able to trust that the plane will be a safe place for me, no matter what happens.
I did not grow up praying the rosary. It was not until I became an Episcopalian in my early 20s that I took it up as a serious devotion.
Some people would probably find that surprising. The rosary is not a particularly common devotion for Episcopalians. In fact, the invention of the so-called Anglican rosary in the latter half of the last century was intended to give Episcopalians a way of praying with beads without being associated with anything that seemed too Roman Catholic.
Nonetheless, my first rosary was purchased at the gift shop of Washington National Cathedral, an Episcopal parish. A Roman Catholic friend in college had shown me how to offer the prayers, but it was through Anglo-Catholic devotionals like The Practice of Religion that I really became proficient at it. In the last 14 years, the rosary has become a powerful force in my life. I believe that more Christians of all kinds, including Episcopalians, ought to take it up as a spiritual discipline.
The practice of praying with beads goes back even before Christianity. No one knows exactly where the rosary as we have it today came from, but there is a tradition that suggests it has its roots in an appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Saint Dominic in the 13th century. Regardless of how much truth there is to that, it is clear that Mary is the heart of the rosary.
It has become fashionable in some Catholic apologetics to weaponize the rosary. It is spoken of as a tool of great importance in spiritual warfare. St. Padre Pio famously called it “the most powerful weapon against Satan and the evils of the world today.”
I can understand the impulse, but for me the value of the rosary has never been its offensive capabilities, but its ability to protect and comfort. It is Mary, the Mother of God and the Mother of the Church, who stands at the center. The love that she offers us in the rosary is given by her son, but because it comes through her it takes on a maternal character. A mother’s love is formidable, to be sure, but it comforts and nurtures even as it fiercely defends us from all enemies. You don’t mess with Mom.
The tactile nature of the rosary makes it easy for me, as someone who does not sit still easily, to engage with it. At the same time, the repetition of the prayers focuses my mind and allows me to pray on two levels, one conscious and one almost beneath consciousness, as if my whole mind and body are drawn together into a single purpose.
These are great advantages, but the main reason I would encourage Christians today to take up the rosary is that it will guard your faith. In our current cultural and ecclesial landscape, that is no small thing.
Some Christians will undoubtedly see the rosary and any similar Marian devotion as superstitious nonsense. They will object that such devotions are not scriptural and that they have the potential of turning our attention away from Jesus. I can understand and respect these concerns. But in point of fact, the rosary does the opposite. The prayers of the rosary are faithfully grounded in Scripture. (In fact, the least “scriptural” prayer in the rosary is arguably the Apostles’ Creed.)
The prayers of the rosary are designed, not to give us a way of bypassing Jesus, but to take us right to him. It is the blessedness of the “fruit of [her] womb” that gives Mary her power. It is Christ’s kingship that makes her the queen of heaven.
Jesus is all that we need, he is all-sufficient, yet he chooses to offer himself to us through his mother, making her a channel of his grace, and in so doing gives us an example of how he works through all Christians to share his love and his light with the world. We are not merely empty vessels. Our Lord has given each of us unique gifts that he puts to his service whenever we answer his call to share the Gospel with the world.
God gives us what we need. And right now, what we need is our mother.
We live at a time when our faith is threatened almost daily, when secularism and materialism seek to rob from us the pearl of great price. God has sent us as Christians to be his ambassadors in a culture that is not only foreign but hostile. We need our mother to protect us, to guide us, to keep the spark of our faith lit and to help it to grow.
I reach for the rosary whenever I am in danger or trouble, whenever I feel threatened or insecure. It always brings me back to being centered in the love of God. It never fails. Sometimes even just holding it is enough.
It is not because I think of it as some kind of talisman with magic powers. I know that the plane could just as easily go down after I have prayed the rosary as it might have if I had not. But I feel different after I have prayed it, because I know that my mother is looking out for me.
She will never stop praying for me. She will never stop feeding me a steady diet of the spiritual food that is her son. Her heart is bigger than my problems, fears, and doubts.