My father describes himself as “ethnically Catholic” and on every official document lists his religion as “COSMIC.” What he observes, he observes from the promptings of Spirit. He lights a votive candle before Mary for his mother’s soul; he passes down a missal to his Jewish granddaughter; he utters the Lord’s Prayer (in Latin) when he feels lost.
And he passed me the stamped-tin rosary his Québécoise grandmother gifted him for his long-ago Confirmation in the Catholic Church.
As I held it in my hand, I could feel its spiritual weight. I’ve read Barclay and Penington, Fell and Mott. I know that no time or place or thing is any more spiritual than any other. Yet, times and places like Grace Cathedral at midnight, Wudang-shan on a bright snowy spring morning, or the presence of my wife singing and swaying Hebrew prayers on Saturday mornings – these times have more weight than other times. To say otherwise would be to deny my own experience. And my father’s rosary bears a spiritual weight.
Like most of us, I’ve endured long dry stretches, dark nights of the soul, spiritual deserts when the Divine seems so far away that it might as well never have been. David Johnson’s Quaker Prayer Life has helped me some. Other times, I’ve felt like I needed to take up training wheels again.
So, I took up my father’s rosary, and began to recite.
I am not Catholic. I don’t believe there is some objective spiritual power in the mere act of recitation. Even so, the multilayered rhythm of the rosary appealed to my monkey-mind.
It may be an “empty form” of the kind that sent Robert Barclay into conniptions, but as long as I know what it is and what it is not, I see no danger in it.
For those unfamiliar with the rosary, it is a circular strand of beads with a short strand extending outward. The circular strand comprises five sets of ten ordinary beads that alternate with five great beads. The short strand extends from one of the five great beads, and it holds three ordinary beads, one more great bead, and ends with a crucifix.
Bead by bead and finger by finger, I recite the words of long-gone Friends, and feel the life of their words open in me. Like a creedless creed, it’s an empty form, and through it, I get filled. Religious expression does tend to be rooted in paradox.
When I pick up my father’s rosary, I recite John Greenleaf Whittier’s “First-Day Thoughts,” to prepare myself in heart and mind.
"In calm and cool and silence, once again
I find my old accustomed place among
My brethren, where, perchance, no human tongue
Shall utter words; where never hymn is sung,
. . .
And, as the path of duty is made plain,
May grace be given that I may walk therein,
. . .
Walking as one to pleasant service led;
Doing God’s will as if it were my own,
Yet trusting not in mine, but in His strength alone!"
I let the beads fall from my palm and hold the crucifix. By tradition, one says the first prayer of the Rosary while holding the crucifix. As a Friend, I might instead hold a Quaker star or a yin-yang symbol. The shape of the symbol is not important; its place at the start is what matters. I hold it, and start, as the Society of Friends itself did, with George Fox:
"Stand still in that which is pure, after ye see yourselves, and then mercy comes in. After thou seest thy thoughts and temptations, do not think, but submit, and then power comes. Stand still in that which shows and discovers, and submit to it, and then doth strength immediately come. And stand still in the Light, and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone, and then, contentment comes."
On the great beads, I quote Margaret Fell:
"Truth is one and the same always, though ages and generations pass away, and one generation goes and another comes, yet the word and power and spirit of the living God endures forever, and is the same and never changes."
Those words, “the same and never changes,” always make me think of my grandfather’s aged face, when he came to live with us before his death, and my newborn daughter’s face, and how they both have the same guileless smirk.
I embrace a small bead, and quote Whittier again:
"The surest dependence must be upon the Light [of Christ] within."
This one varies the most. Sometimes it is the Light of Christ. Other times, “the Light, the Light within.” Sometimes I remind myself of areas of my life that remain unlit: “At the office, the surest dependence must be upon the Light within.” “In lovemaking, the surest dependence must be upon the Light within.” Even in this empty form, I go as Spirit leads, and it fills the form like water fills a cup.
On the snatch of cord before the next big bead, I ask Nayler’s question, and answer:
"Art thou in the darkness? Mind it not, for if thou dost, it will feed thee more. But stand still, and act not, and wait in patience, till Light arises out of darkness and leads thee."
I finish with the words of Penington:
"Give over thine own willing, give over thine own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything, and sink down to the seed which God sows in thy heart, and let that be in thee, and grow in thee, and breathe in thee, and act in thee, and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that, and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of life, which is God’s portion."
And as the last words fade from my lips, I sink into retirement (if I am alone) or turn to my family. For all the spiritual growth and deepening that happens in silence, my wife and daughter love to hear the rhythm and rhyme of Papa’s recitations. My infant daughter is always quiet and attentive by the time I’m finished, and welcomes Papa’s embrace. My wife doesn’t mind, either.
This Quaker spiritual practice, which I have developed for myself, is one that fulfills me. It is also there to catch me when the raw, unprocessed spirituality of worship deserts me. It is a place to retreat to when I am not ready or not able to step into the Light itself, nor into the gatheredness of worship in the Light.
Should you come into possession of a rosary, you might take it up, and infuse it with 59 prayers of your own. In conferring spiritual weight on the object, you might just acquire some yourself. ~~~
Roscoe Mathieu is a member of Central Coast Friends Meeting (PacYM).