For several years, family prayer night at our house went like this: We would shout, “Time to pray! Time to pray!” and everyone would slouch into the living room and hurl themselves onto the couch.
When everyone was sufficiently hurled and all screens were darkened, we would make the sign of the cross, then my husband or I would ask, “What are our intentions?” and the kids would mumble out a few names. Then we would say, “And what are we thankful for?” This was our stab at keeping prayer fresh, personal, and meaningful, and for our efforts, we invariably got the youngest child screaming out something like, ‘I’M GRANKFUL DAT ELIJAH GOT A NEW BUTT FOR A FACE” and we’d have to dampen the ensuing riot.
We would then launch into a rocket-speed recitation of a list of prayers that we kept adding to, because it seemed important that the kids knew more and more prayers. And it is important, except that even though I do not have the gift of seeing into hearts, I felt pretty sure that, while our lips were rattling out “our life, our sweetness, and our hope; to thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve,” we might as well have been saying “fadatta, fadatta, fadatta, beepum, boopum, bah.” It’s just human nature. Say the same words in the same order night after night, and after a while, you don’t even know what you’re saying.
We tried to correct it. We’ve made various stabs at liturgy of the hours, but keep discovering that we are both too lazy and too stupid to keep up with it. (Please don’t make suggestions about how to help this happen. I said “lazy and stupid” and I meant it.) We’ve tried this and we’ve tried that. And finally, back to the scriptural rosary we crept, like a dog to its . . . well-loved tennis ball that it keeps chewing on, because something in its poor simple brain makes it seem satisfying, comforting, and even worthwhile, and it was a gift from its owner.
I used to have no end of trouble with the scriptural rosary. I used to try to flog my brain into some kind of hyper-vigilant state where I would ferret out some new insight every time we revisited each mystery.
There we would be at the finding in the temple for the 723rd time, and I would give myself the space of ten Hail Marys to discover something I had never noticed before, some new little crumb of understanding hidden away behind Jesus’ sandal or some unexpected wrinkle in Joseph’s travel cloak. “This is good stuff!” I would tell my brain. “It’s a mystery, and you can never get to the bottom of it! So let’s find something new and wonderful! Go! Find it! Go!” This almost never worked, but I kept trying anyway.
Or I would sort of clench my emotional muscles and try to squeeze out some kind of spiritual fervor as we prayed. Sure, sure, we’re all familiar with the story of the wise men coming from the east to do him homage, but this time, let’s really feel it, let’s get right in there and get bowled over by the immensity of the amazingness of the incredibility of the thing that happened, nownit the hourv our death, amen. (That approach didn’t work, either, but I also kept trying anyway.)
I forget why we decided to try one more time, but we did. Despite these past failures, we have returned once again to this old practice of walking through the events of the life of Jesus of Mary, one bead at a time, a verse or two of scripture per prayer, just one decade a night, because that’s what’s sustainable. As with so many other things in my life these days, I’ve arrived at a possible workable solution by failing at everything else. The plan is just to respectfully witness what happened. Just speak the words if it’s my turn to lead, and listen if it’s not, and just be a witness.
What I’ve found is that the extreme familiarity is not a bad thing, any more than it’s a bad thing to be extremely familiar with the events and memories of my own life. In fact, that’s kind of the point: The mysteries of the rosary ought to be very close to our hearts, very familiar, very well-known. They ought to live with us. We do a different mystery each night, so it’s not the exact same prayers every night. The kids take turns leading, so there’s some variation there. There’s enough variety that you have to pay some attention, so we avoid the rocket prayer effect. But basically, it’s nothing new. And that’s a good thing.
I’m not arguing against taking the time to meditate deeply on the lives of Jesus and Mary. We’re robbing ourselves of a great richness if we only ever just zip past them and think of the mysteries of the rosary as a sort of decorative spiritual background. They ought to become personal at some point, and we ought to take the time to think about what they have to do with us, how they apply to us, how we can imitate them, what it must have felt like to live them, and so on. We ought to be open to insight, and we shouldn’t be closed off to emotional experiences.
But I don’t think it’s necessary or helpful to try to torment ourselves into some kind of jarring insight or ecstasy every single time we approach the mysteries of the rosary. Spiritual novelty, it turns out, is overrated, and probably has to do more with spiritual vanity than with a genuine thirst for holiness. Sometimes it’s more important to sit right where you are and just accept what God has given us, even if it’s just the same old same old. Especially if it’s the same old same old. (It’s called “humility.” Look it up, sweaty.)
I think that if God wants to tell us something new and interesting about the life of his mother and son, he absolutely will — maybe during the rosary, maybe at some seemingly random moment during the day. It’s all the more likely that it will happen if you’ve made the mysteries part of your life by reciting them faithfully every night. But you don’t have to go clambering after anything spectacular when you say the rosary. The lives of Mary and Jesus are a gift from God, and their comforting familiarity can be a gift, too. At this stage in my life, I’m more than happy to just chew them over one more time.