Two weeks after being elected as Pope, St. John Paul II gave the members of the Church a glimpse into one of his secrets to sanctity when he admitted that the “Rosary is my favorite prayer. A marvelous prayer! Marvelous in its simplicity and its depth.” Its simplicity is marked by its humanity. Unlike any other method of Christian prayer, it engages the entire person—hands, voice, imagination, memory, intellect and will. Its depth is unparalleled because of its content—the Mysteries of the Life of Christ offered to us food for contemplation. As Paul VI said, without contemplation “the Rosary is a body without a soul and its recitation is in danger of becoming a mechanical repetition of formulas and of going counter to the warning of Christ: “And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Mt. 6:7)…” (Blessed Paul VI, Marialis Cultus, 47). Unfortunately, for many of us who pray the Rosary regularly, this danger is ever-present.
Why do we refer to the events in which we contemplate as the Mysteries of the Rosary? What exactly do we mean when we use the word “Mysteries” when referring to the events in the life of Christ? Once we are able to grasp the meaning and implications of using this term, the Rosary comes alive and becomes a source of grace in the life of every Christian who prays it.
In his book titled Christ in His Mysteries, Blessed Columba Marmion defines mysteries as “human and visible signs of a divine and hidden reality.” He uses “mysteries” in the plural to differentiate from the Mystery of the Incarnation as a whole in order to refer to the fact that in Christ’s life there were no mere events or circumstances. Everything He did and said has eternal significance and dimension.
The truth that everything that the Word Made Flesh did during His earthly sojourn was charged with eternal meaning stems from the very nature of the Incarnation; time and eternity meet in each event in the life of Christ. He may have been performing the simplest human action but it was always the Eternal, Unchanging God Who did it. It may have been accomplished at a specific historic moment, but it is an act that reverberates through all times. This means that although the historical duration of His actions are past, “they still influence us because each of the mysteries brings its own special grace for our salvation” (Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei, 165).
Because of this, Blessed Columba says that all of Christ’s mysteries are meant to become our mysteries. Christ received the fullness of grace in His sacred humanity but it was not for Himself alone. Instead it is for us—“of His fullness that we have all received grace upon grace”(John 1:16). What he means is not just that we collectively receive graces from each of His mysteries, but individually. The Catechism, quoting John Paul II’s Encyclical Redemptor Hominis, says that “All Christ’s riches ‘are for every individual and are everybody’s property” (CCC 521—emphasis added). This means that I can say not just Christ came for us but echo St. Paul’s conviction that Christ “loved me and gave Himself up for me” Gal 2:20).
In order to take ownership of what Christ won for me, I have to come to the conviction Christ had me very specifically in mind when each of these events happened. Cultivating this conviction is the key to applying the events of the Gospel to our lives and to praying the Mysteries of the Rosary well.
This is where it is helpful to look at some of the effects of the Incarnation. Specifically, how could Jesus, a man in all things but sin, have had me in mind when He did something? After all, He was, like all of us, constrained by time. He did not have “time” to think of all people, at all times when He did something. But this was no mere earthly man, but the “man come down from heaven” (John 6:46) whose soul was united to the Second Person of the Trinity. In Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer in John’s Gospel, He says that eternal life is that the blessed should know God. When we speak of the beatific vision, what we mean is eternal union with God. Christ’s soul had this from the moment of conception because it was more closely united to God than any other soul. It was united in the Person. This truth is more than mere theological musing, but has very specific consequences related to our discussion. In Mystici Corporis Christi, Pope Pius XII says “[F]or hardly was He conceived in the womb of the Mother of God, when He began to enjoy the Beatific Vision, and in that vision all the members of His Mystical Body were continually and unceasingly present to Him, and He embraced them with His redeeming love. O marvelous condescension of divine love for us! O inestimable dispensation of boundless charity! In the crib, on the Cross, in the unending glory of the Father, Christ has all the members of the Church present before Him and united to Him in a much clearer and more loving manner than that of a mother who clasps her child to her breast, or than that with which a man knows and loves himself” (75). I never ceased to leave His mind during His earthly life even as I never cease to leave it today.
This awareness that I was present to Christ when a specific event was occurring changes the very tenor of my prayer. I am able to enter the event in the manner that He intended and participate it. I may speak to Him about the specific grace that He won for me and ask Him to prepare me to receive it. Without this, Christian meditation is always in danger of becoming merely pious sentiments or intellectual investigation instead of a Spirit-driven response to the Word made Flesh.
This is what make the Rosary such a powerful Christian prayer. By contemplating the Joyful Mysteries, I am able to be present in the “Hidden Years” of Christ’s life when He wins the graces of everyday life for me. By contemplating the Luminous Mysteries, I am able to be present in those moments when Christ sought to reveal Himself more fully to me. By contemplating the Sorrowful Mysteries, I am able to be present in those moments of His sufferings offering Him consolation. By contemplating the Glorious Mysteries, I am able to share now in the personal fruits of the Resurrection and Pentecost with Mary, the Queen Assumed into Heaven. The point is that the Rosary grows in depth in proportion to our habit of placing ourselves within the specific mystery, knowing we were already there in Christ’s mind and that He has something very specific He intended to give us personally.
Very often art can teach us deep truths in ways that mere words cannot. It seems that no artist captures this truth regarding our presence with Christ during His life than Blessed Giovanni of Fiesole, better known as Fra Angelico. In many of his paintings that depict scenes from the life of Christ, he also includes a well-known saint alongside Him to reveal this deep truth. May we too strive to take our rightful places in the life of Our Lord!