Because Catholics celebrate the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary on October 7, the whole month of October is dedicated to the Holy Rosary. Originally called the feast of “Our Lady of Victory,” it was established by Pope St. Pius V to celebrate the defeat of invading naval forces of the Ottoman Empire by far-outnumbered Spanish and Italian Christian navies at the Battle of Lepanto (near the western coast of Greece) on October 7, 1571. The outcome of this crucial battle secured Europe against Moslem occupation. Pope St. Pius V attributed the Christian victory to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom he arranged to be invoked on the day of the battle through a campaign to pray the rosary throughout the Christian world.
The rosary, whose use can be dated to at least 1300, is a handy, holy tool, an instrument of prayer. We pray with our minds and hearts and also with our senses. The rosary engages the most intimate and personal of senses, which is the sense of touch: We hold the rosary; our fingers move along the fifty beads. And on the beads, we repeat the most familiar Christian prayers—the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be. We can pray the rosary alone or with others; in churches or in cars; on sidewalks or in subways; sitting at home or lying down. The rosary is eminently portable. In our pockets, it reminds us that God is always with us. It can help in times of trouble.
I have a nice example of that. I know a brave and very strong young man who one night intervened to break up a nasty fight on the sidewalk outside a bar that he was passing in a bad neighborhood. He did break it up, but when the police arrived, they arrested him along with the two hoodlums, despite his protestations that he wasn’t part of the problem, but trying to be part of the solution. Then, as he was being booked at the station and emptying his pockets, instead of a weapon the police found this young man’s rosary, on the strength of which they believed him and he was released—delivered by our Blessed Mother!
Obviously, that’s not the reason for carrying a rosary. The reason is to pray with it. The familiar vocal prayers of the rosary are meant to instill a rhythmic beat to the activity of prayer, which is really not a matter of the lips or voice, but of the mind and heart. Repeating the sacred words, while moving fingers along the beads, has the effect of steadying and balancing the mind, to help it focus on the mysteries that correspond to each successive decade.
These mysteries—the sorrowful, joyful, luminous, and glorious—are food for mental prayer. They are mental snapshots of the Word of God: God the Father speaking to us through his Son, as he was seen by the most pure, most faithful and attentive eyes of Mary. Guided by her view of him, we follow Jesus through the scenes that brought her joy and sorrow, light and glory; with her mind, we ponder the mighty works of God our Savior; with her heart, we rest in his love.
Of course, our minds and hearts are very prone to wandering. The repetitive rhythm of the vocal prayers does help somewhat to steady them, but to really focus mind and heart upon the mysteries is often difficult. I use a method that is taught by a great apostle of the rosary, St. Louis de Montfort (1673-1716), in his book The Secret of the Rosary. He suggests that at each Hail Mary, we stop with the words blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus, and at the Name of Jesus add a phrase that focuses one aspect of the mystery. For example, in the first joyful mystery, the Annunciation, one might say, Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus, who received his human life from you.
This method has brought me some success in focusing the mind, so that my rosary becomes a way of meditation. But something more is needed for the rosary to be a way of contemplation, leaving words and thoughts behind to bring our hearts to rest in God. For that to happen, God himself, the Holy Spirit, has to take us from our vocal prayers and thoughts, and lift us up beyond ourselves. That’s not something we can do, but we can dispose ourselves to let God do it for us, through the rosary.
The end of prayer is simply for our heart to rest in God and his love. From that hidden place, beyond ourselves, comes all the energy we need to live a life of faith, and hope, and charity—a holy life. Many, many of the saints have used the rosary, this simple, tactile sacramental, to let Mary lead them to a point from which the Lord could take them up to rest in him, and in his love.