Mary and the Mystery of Salvation: the two dimensions of the Rosary

The Rosary is a Marian devotion. For many people it is through the Rosary that Mary enters into their Christian existence in a conscious way, so much so that when the Rosary is dropped Mary too tends to fade out of their spiritual lives. That in itself is an argument in favour of the Rosary, for if Mary has, as we believe, an objective role to play in the communication of the graces of redemption, this must surely be reflected in some way in our spiritual lives.

It is the recitation of the ‘Hail Marys’ that introduces this Marian dimension. In greeting Mary we make our own the words of Gabriel and of Elizabeth. Maisie Ward draws our attention in this connection to the delightful comment of the thirteenth century Dominican Cardinal, Hugh of St. Cher: “If we salute her she is not so ill-bred as to dismiss us without saluting us back. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost when she heard Mary’s salutation. So Mary is often to be saluted, that by her salute we may be filled with grace.”[fn] Maisie Ward, “The Splendour of the Rosary”, Sheed and Ward, London, 1948 Pp 186-187[/fn].

In addition to this Marian dimension, the Rosary is also the great means by which we enter into repeated meditative contact with the mysteries of salvation. Paul VI has reminded us[fn]Marialis Cultus n. 45[/fn], how the sequence of Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries corresponds to the three stages in the unfolding of the work of redemption as outlined by St. Paul in Phil. 2:7-9: in the sequence of decades we contemplate in turn how Christ ‘took the form of a servant’, how he became ‘obedient unto death’, and how God ‘highly exalted him’. Were it not for the Rosary, Christians might only very rarely be led to reflect on these key moments of salvation history – perhaps only once a year, in the context of liturgical celebration. And such a situation would surely result in an impoverishment of their Christian lives, for these events remain even now sources of grace for us whenever we contact them through living faith. Thomistic theology, heir of patristic tradition on this point, assures us that the events of Christ’s life do not merely provide models of behavior for our imitation, but that the glorified Lord who once lived these events pours out abundantly upon us the graces which he merited for us by them, or which they signify for us, whenever we establish spiritual contact with them by a faith which lovingly contemplates them. This we do again and again through our meditation on the mysteries of the Rosary. In this way, “beholding with unveiled face the glory of the Lord, we are being transformed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).

Both of these dimensions – the Marian and the soteriological – are essential for the Rosary. It is precisely in their combination that the uniqueness of the Rosary as a Christian prayer consists. But it is precisely here too that many people experience difficulty with the Rosary. For them it seems to presuppose some sort of spiritual split consciousness, whereby one can focus simultaneously on two quite distinct objects of attention, the ‘Hail Marys’ and the mysteries of salvation. In practice, perhaps, some resolve this tension by simply suppressing one or other dimension of the Rosary – either focusing their attention on saying the ‘Hail Marys’ well, and neglecting meditation on the mysteries; or else concentrating exclusively on the mysteries, using the ‘Hail Marys’ as no more than a sort of technique for measuring a fixed period of time for meditation on each mystery (and in the process finding them perhaps more of a hindrance than a help in the task of concentrating). I would not wish to fault either of these procedures; if people have found in them pathways to true prayer, then that is really all that ultimately matters. But I would suggest that the Rosary will reveal its full richness as a method of prayer when we hold on both to the ‘Hail Marys’ and the mysteries, and that in fact the combination of these two elements is not really as difficult as one might imagine at first sight. On this point we may be helped by reminding ourselves of some points made in the traditional theology of vocal prayer.