I grew up Baptist, so the only thing I knew about rosaries was that Catholics used them to pray memorized prayers, like the Hail Mary. At church people said that the Catholics meant well—and surely the Good Lord hears their prayers—but their chanted prayers were not as meaningful as the more conversational prayers of our evangelical tradition.
When Baptists pray, it’s kind of like a business meeting. We set the agenda, call the meeting to order, and run through our list of talking points. When time is up, we wind down the meeting with some small talk, maybe about the weather, and close with a solemn amen. I’ll admit that’s an unfair characterization of Baptist prayer life, but it’s how I ended up praying for years. I probably wasn’t paying attention in Sunday School when we learned about prayer. That always was a fault of mine.
The problem came when I got into my late 30s and ran out of things to say. I ended up sitting in the back pew of the Church of Reconciliation in San Antonio on a Thursday afternoon, crying softly to myself. I felt too emotionally drained to come up with a prayer agenda. So I said to God, “Would you mind if I took a little nap here in the pew with you kind of watching over me?” I used one of the books of common prayer as a pillow and fell asleep for about 20 minutes. I woke up and felt at peace with God and with myself. The whole thing sounds a little strange, I know, but on that day it seemed perfectly right and good that a tired boy should take a nap in God’s house.
That event began to change the way I thought about prayer. I started reading outside of my evangelical tradition and discovered what some call contemplative prayer.
This is a simplification, but I think it’s fair to say that contemplative prayer is more about waiting than setting an agenda. It is more about listening than talking. Contemplative prayer has very few goals apart from learning how to abide in the presence of the Spirit of God. A contemplative person might sit quietly for 20 minutes, then softly chant a favorite scripture, probing it carefully for meaning, listening to the sounds of the syllables, and trusting that insight from God will come. If not today or tomorrow, then someday.
My First Rosary
About this time a reader of my blog sent me a rosary. He had made it by hand, just for me. I carried it around with me for a few weeks, uncertain what to do with it.
And then I lost it. So I made one myself. That one was stolen along with a number of items out of my backpack. I made the next one out of brightly colored beads. A little child at church, charmed by the colors, wandered off with it, and I decided to let it go with her. I made another one but impulsively traded it to a homeless man in Austin. I can't remember what he gave me for it. The next one I made out of large wooden balls and hemp rope. I hung it on a tree in the woods behind our church, where it weathered nicely and eventually disappeared.
I decided that making and losing (or giving away) rosaries was going to be part of my prayer life. I also started making rosaries in my own style. I use the classic form, but instead of five groups of ten beads, I just make one line of ten beads that I pray five times. It’s more compact and fits better in the pocket of my blue jeans.
My Pattern of Prayer
When you pray the rosary, you traditionally begin with the cross and pray up to the circle, then around the circle, which is five groups of ten beads, then you pray back down to the cross. I have come up with my own way of doing this. On all the big beads (blue) I quote Mark 8:34-36. On the way into the rosary, the bottom three small beads (red) are for the three parts of my life - husband, father, and my work. On the medallion (green) I pray the Lord's prayer. The five decades of small beads I use in the following way:
- First Decade - repeat the Shema 10 times.
- Second Decade - free association intercession. For each bead wait until a face comes to mind. Consider the person and sit quietly with them before God.
- Third decade - repeat Micah 6:8 10 times.
- Fourth decade - the same as #2 but for people in my extended family.
- Fifth decade - one beatitude for each of the first 8 beads. For the last two beads of that decade, I do whatever comes to me in that moment.
On the way out, moving toward the cross, the first big bead is for Jeanene, the three small beads are for my daughters, and the last big bead is for me. As I close I'm holding my family in prayer.
I rarely ask anything of God in my prayers. I try to speak as little as possible, unless I'm quoting scripture. I breathe carefully, listen to the sound of my voice, and wait to see what insights come to me. If it comes to mind that I should give away my current rosary to someone, I do so without question, and begin making another one.
That's how this Baptist uses a rosary for prayer.
If you use a rosary or some other discipline for prayer, I'd love for you to share it with us in the comments.
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