Bernadette at Lourdes was fascinated by the beautiful string of beads which fell from Our Lady’s arm. She observed that they were a golden yellow, same colour as the rose on each foot and that “the Lady slipped them through her fingers.” To show the importance of the physical beads themselves, the Lady once asked the child why she was not using her own Rosary but rather, one loaned her for the occasion, by someone else.
Beads are beautiful. They are Mary’s own jewellery which she likes to share with us. And the amazing thing is that they are catholic in the widest sense of that word. For Bernadette, they were a golden chain linking heaven to earth, but research shows that they are also a silver thread binding many cultures together.
For the Rosary has not only a history, but also a geographical and cultural spread. It is to be found in some form or other among Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Jews. Some would suggest, that wherever you see a Rosary, there you find a Roman Catholic, while many sincere Protestants have a holy fear of the beads which they class as “Papish superstition.”
All this is far from the truth. The very term Rosary is in no way exclusive to Catholics. The fact is, that neither the restricted Roman Catholic view or the Protestant objection hold water. The fingering of beads and the accompanying meditation together with the very name, Rosary, are part of the spiritual patrimony of the world. So true is this, that it can be said without fear of contradiction, that to abandon or destroy the practice of the Rosary, would be an act of sheer vandalism, a kind of spiritual genocide.
Part of nature and of history
Pascal spoke of the beads as “part of the whole philosophy of the Church about man’s nature.” One can go further. They are part of the world’s philosophy!
Pascal continues “We are not pure spirit but composite beings made of spirit and matter. And so we need, if our prayer is to be true to our nature, to use material things: images either set before our eyes or fashioned in the imagination, the cross at the end of our beads, the blessing that makes sacred, the prayers we say on them. The world around us is one huge distraction from prayer. The very holding, the very slipping through our fingers of the beads, can be a powerful counter-distraction.”
Pious Hindus use the beads to keep count of invocations to their gods, but also as a means of promoting contemplation. Much store is put on the beads themselves, and some can be got only from an accomplished Yogi. There is an account of one old hermit exerting great physical energy in turning a large wheel with huge beads attached. The Rosary plays a part in the initiation of children to the cult of Visnu, and there are collections of invocations used on such occasions, such as: “Homage to the adorable Rama.” These invocations are repeated over and over, and are known as “mantras”. They are meant to still the wandering mind and induce harmony and healing.
In Tibet, the word for telling the beads means literally “to purr like a cat.” Contemplatives have always been attracted by the rhythmic hum of the pussycats and have often adopted them as companions. One Irish monk kept his Pangur Ban (white Pangur cat) in his cold monastic cell to keep him alert in his meditation and study. Personally, I love to say the Rosary, with a certain Black Beauty as a crooning comfort purring away on my lap. Her soothing vibrations make a rhythmic hum to the murmur of the Hail Marys, as well as keeping me in tune with God’s creation. (Not a bad idea for one who refuses to go Catharist!)
In Persia and India, the Rosary is called “tasbih”, deriving from the Arabic word meaning to praise, or to exalt. The Prophet Mohammed attributed great merit to reciting the names of God and giving praise to Allah a hundred times in the morning and again in the evening.
From Egypt comes a record of wakes for the dead with continuous recitation of rosaries, punctuated with strong coffee. At certain stages, the prayer-leader asks aloud: “Have ye transferred the merit of your prayers to the soul of the deceased?” The reply is: “We have so transferred them, praised be God, the Lord of all creatures.” Reminds one of the Rosary at an Irish wake!
In Greek monasteries, just as in so many Roman Catholic institutions, a knotted cord or string of beads is used as part of the religious garb, the laity use a smaller cord which is known as a “worry beads” to settle the frayed nerves and induce a restful and contemplative mind. They are treasured as a means to prayer and peace of mind.
Tension, they say, passes out through the extremities of the body. There is something basically human about touching and holding them. A glossy society magazine some time ago, showed the actress Sophia Loren with a “worry beads” in her hand, trying to keep cool as she watched her favourite football team. The proper Greek term for these beads, is “Kombologion” which indicates that a collection of holy invocations would be recited on them. The Russians use the word “Chotki” for this same form of Rosary. Some suggest that many of these eastern prayer- forms were picked up by the Crusaders, on their way to and from the Holy Land, and so found their way into Europe. Of this, we just can’t be certain. In any event, they seem to be basic and universal human practices.
Influence of the Irish
St. Patrick in the 5th Century, recited one hundred Our Fathers during the long nights on the mountain as he guarded his master’s sheep. Irish monks who followed him, would recite one hundred and fifty Paters, based on the same number of the Biblical Psalms. They must have provided themselves with some simple counting device, perhaps a string of stones or wild berries. The Paters were frequently recited in three sections, which gave rise to the expression: na tri caocait, (the three fifties.) It has been suggested, that this was a forerunner of the Rosary, with its triple division into Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious mysteries. Again, because of the association with the Psalms, the earliest title by which the Rosary was known in the Gaelic language was Saltair Mhuire (Psalter of Mary.) Strangely enough, the word “Rosary“, common to so many languages, does not exist in the Irish language. Quite likely, the Irish would have been influenced by the reform of the Dominican Order at the time of Alan de la Roche who himself disliked the word Rosary. “It smacked” he said of “profanity betokening the vain and florid practices of putting crowns of roses on young ladies.” He advocated instead the biblically associated title: The Psalter of Mary.
We have no record of a fixed number of decades, in the days of St.Dominic, but simply an account of how the saint would preach for a certain space of time and then invite his listeners to pick up the beads and ruminate over the teaching he had shared with them. This rudimentary exercise provided the nucleus for a future form of the Rosary. It was not until the pontificate of Pope Pius the Fifth, at the time of the battle of Lepanto, that the Rosary took on its present shape.
The Irish Folklore Commission has made a collection of rich prayers that accompanied the recitation of the Rosary, and Irish museums like other galleries throughout Europe display a variety of Rosary beads used over the centuries. Highly ornate beads were often handed down as family heirlooms. For those who might be put off by five or fifteen decades all at once there are some beautiful specimens of single decade beads and rosary rings, all part of our beads-beautiful heritage. Factory-made modern versions of these abound, including the lovely Connemara Marble Paidrin Beag (the Connemara Little Prayer Beads).