The Rosary, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and my Catholic Conversion

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In December of 2015, our first child, at 12 weeks gestation, was in danger. We had no idea what the future would hold as we rushed to the ER, my wife heavily bleeding. However, we did leave the ER that night with two consoling things: my wife held our daughter, safe, alive, and healthy, still in her womb–and would continue to do so for 16 more weeks until her premature birth–and I held in my hands our first rosary. A kind woman was there with her son, who had the flu. She saw how distraught and scared we were, prayed for us, and gave us a rosary. She later gave us her contact information to keep in touch. The moment she handed me that rosary, I formed a conviction  no doubt forged in me by divine grace, that I have not wavered from since: to pray the rosary every day for my family. In such a difficult time, and on such an inauspicious occasion, what was it that moved me to form such a lasting resolve?

I had attempted to pray the rosary before. In fact, I had been experiencing a growing desire to be Roman Catholic for about two years, beginning in May 2014 when I had an odd but profound experience visiting adoration of the blessed sacrament with a Catholic friend (see previous post for this story). Through my readings about Catholicism, I had been drawn toward Catholic thinking about Mary, and knew that, as with all things related to the faith, it had to be something that was not a mere matter of intellect, but also a matter of true, heartfelt desire, and true, concerted action in prayer. In other words, as I discerned toward Catholic conversion, I knew deep down that whatever I learned about in relation to the Catholic faith should always be tested in application to prayer, devotion, and worship. So, I felt compelled to try praying the Rosary. I ordered the cheapest rosary I could find on a Catholic website–which wound up being a pack of 10 string and wood rosaries that fell apart quickly in my clumsy hands. I learned the prayers, and always kept a rosary in a pocket for rainy days or dull moments.

There were no immediate fireworks. In fact, it took months for me to feel comfortable saying the same Hail Mary prayer over and over and feel like I was actually praying from the heart. I was not sure how all this worked. My only experience of prayer had been with my Protestant family and communities, in which our prayers usually involved spontaneous and extemporaneous expressions of our emotions, feelings, or requests at that given time. While these experiences had taught me the import of direct one’s desires and intentions to God, they left little room for training the soul to throw itself upon God’s Revealed Truth in prayer; I had no concept of how to pray from the heart using repeated, liturgical, or biblical language, or how to allow that repetitious prayer to raise into contemplation. Over time, learning to pray in this way helped me to accept that God really did know all of my requests, and there was no use reciting them over and over; in fact, doing so tended toward narcissistic self-focused prayer, not truly God-centered prayer. The rosary taught me to quickly make my requests known, and move on to mediate God’s truth, and contemplate his love for me, simply enjoying his presence. Learning to pray in this way was like a first date–exciting, but awkward.

The rosary begins with a recitation of the Creed, reminding us of what the life of a baptized Christian fully constitutes. An introductory Our Father and three Hail Mary’s are said, followed by a Glory Be. Then begins the first of five decades–five series of ten Hail Mary prayers: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” Each decade begins with an Our Father, and ends with a Glory Be. On each decade, a new mystery is contemplated–one spiritually chews on a scene from Christ’s life while reciting the ten Hail Mary’s. While the last sentence of the Hail Mary is derived from Catholic tradition–requesting Mary to pray for us sinners, especially as death approaches. However, the first two clauses are straight from Scripture, which was my first contact with those phrases. I had loved the Scriptures from a young age.

Since I loved Scripture, literature, and poetry, my first encounter with the Rosary had been in the Bible, where the prayers stem from: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee” are the words spoken by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary announcing her conception of Jesus Christ, known as the Angelic Salutation or the Annunciation (Luke 1:28). It seemed exciting to me to, in prayer, take on the role of an angel–to give an angelic address to a fellow believer, a fellow Christian, who was so highly favored as to bear my Lord and my Savior in her womb. I can think of no more fitting words with which to say hello to the Mother of God, the Mother of my Savior, the Mother of all mothers.

A close reading of the Greek reveals that the angel is not, as some opponents of Catholic teaching about Mary suggest, implying that Mary is somehow receiving grace or receiving the Lord’s presence with her only now at the moment of the salutation. Rather, it implies that she has always been full of grace, and has walked with the Lord continually for the entirety of her life–as the Catholic Church teaches as authentic Revelation, she is the Immaculata, the Immaculate Conception, without sin from her own conception, given a special and serious grace to be prevented from Original Sin so as to be a pure and holy vessel, a pure and spotless bride, for the Incarnation of our Lord (2 Corinthians 11:2, Ephesians 5:27, Revelation 19:7). The two parallel phrases take on the flavor of titles, not mere descriptors, in the Greek: Χαῖρε, κεχαριτωμένη, ὁ κύριος μετὰ σοῦ [Chaire, kekaritomene, ho kyrios meta sou]. The first phrase is a past perfect participle, grammatically, suggesting that Mary has been and continues to be “full of grace.” Modern Protestant bibles that translate this phrase “highly favored” are intentionally side-stepping the full force of this word and its obvious implications toward Catholic doctrine. In reality, there is no way to translate the word with a root charis in any other way than “full of grace,” since the word charis is the same word translated elsewhere as “grace” in both Catholic and Protestant bibles. Mary is, and has been, so full of grace, that it is spilling over into this very moment, it is bearing the fruit of allowing her to be a new Ark of the Covenant, bearing the real and true, body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, the true presence of God come among humanity.

Furthermore, the second phrase takes on a similar character of a title–the Greek would sound almost like “Lord-with-you,” as if one of her nicknames. Indeed, this resonates with St. Elizabeth’s reaction when the pregnant virgin Mary visits her: “Why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43). Many scholars, including Edward Sri in his book Queen Mother, note how a Jewish audience would hear clear overtones related to the Ancient Near Eastern figure of a “Queen Mother,” or gebirah in Hebrew, who possessed even more power, dignity, and honor than the wife of a King (rf. 2 Jeremiah 13:18, 2 Kings 10:13). The mother of a King, for Israelites and ancient peoples, was the true Queen, and possessed massive power and influence. This was in part because of the tradition of polygamy, which God was slowly attempting to weed out of Israel–since a King would have many wives, no single one of them possessed distinction, but the distinction fell upon the mother. Queen Esther is in many ways the model of a holy Queen mother; Jezebel, Sidonian wife of King Ahab, is in many ways the archetype of an evil Queen mother. In any case, the Queen’s power and influence included interceding on behalf of subjects who had a request for the King. This is seen most powerfully in 1 Kings 2:13-21, when Adonijah asks Bathsheeba, wife of David and mother of Solomon, to intercede on his behalf to King Solomon, asking for Abishag the Shunamite as a wife. Indeed, this image of Mary as the Queen Mother of Christ the King is reinforced by the angel’s salutation, Elizabeth’s humbling question, and Mary’s words at the Wedding of Cana when she asks Christ to do something about the wine that runs out; he appears to show no interest, but then Mary turns to the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you,” and he proceeds to request water that he turns into wine (John 2:5). If Mary is the Queen-Mother of Christ the King, and the Queen Mother, the gebirah, was known to have an especially potent influence in interceding to the King on behalf of the King’s subjects, then the Gospels are cluing us into a powerful spiritual reality: we, the subjects of the King, can request particularly powerful intercessions from the Queen Mother, Mary, and can thus obtain a special granting of our desires–Christ, in his love for his Queen Mother, wills that she play a special role of powerful intercessor on our behalf; Christ himself desires that we should approach him through Mary, just as he came to be Immanuel, God-with-us as one of us, through Mary.

Indeed, with all of these overtones of Queen Motherhood surrounding Mary, it would do one well to slowly and thoughtfully re-read the accounts of the Nativity and the Holy Family in the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke, and notice how, despite the humble and quiet setting, the birth of our Lord is indeed described as a heavenly throne room, a royal spiritual event. Both St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary are, as the genealogies in St. Matthew’s Gospel and St. Luke’s Gospel clarify, descendants of David, successors of the royal line of the Household of God, Jewish royalty–and their son (Joseph’s adopted son) is the true promised King, Messiah, anointed one. Christmas is a holiday redolent of royalty, kingship, and noble lineage. The cave in Bethlehem–which literally means “House of Bread,” the true bread from heaven, Jesus Christ–becomes the House of God, becomes a heavenly palace, a royal temple, where we may meet the true fulfillment of the royal Davidic line, the Queen Mother of Queen mothers, her loyal virginal spouse, and Christ the King of Kings.

The second part of the Hail Mary prayer- “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb” – is uttered by St. Elizabeth just before she wonders why she is so blessed as to receive a visit from the Queen of her Lord (Luke 1:42). She goes on to report that the miraculous child in her own womb–St. John the Baptist, the one appointed to “prepare a way in the wilderness (Is. 40:3)–lept for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice, and concludes her greeting by saying, “and blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk. 1:45). Mary enjoys a status of distinction among all other women by virtue of her faith in the proclamation of her calling, securing a blessing for herself that offers grace to the whole world. This most truly fulfills Protestant German theologian Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s critique of “cheap grace,” a grace that makes no demands of us–rather, it is the grace of God’s real, intimate presence in, with, and for mankind, a new creation conceived in Mary’s virginal womb. St. Elizabeth describes how the blessing is by virtue of Mary’s faith, or belief – in Greek, the same word, pistis, which suggests not mere intellectual acknowledgment, but faithfulness, fidelity, or trust–a complete devotion of the totality of one’s life to someone. In Luke 1:45, the word for belief is used similarly to the verb kecharitomene in that it is also a past perfect participle – pisteusasa  – suggesting that her act of believing originates in the past and is complete or perfected or on-going in the present. Mary’s total surrender of her life to God–her total belief–has put her in a place similar to that of Abraham, who by his faithful trust in God’s calling embarked on a courageous journey that would result in blessing all nations and the propagation of a new multitude, the nation of God’s people, Israel. Just so, Mary’s faithful trust in God’s calling allowed her to become a blessing to all humanity through the founding of a new spiritual community, the Church, bought by the precious blood of her Son, Jesus Christ. Abraham is the Patriarch of God’s Old Covenant, Jewish community by the flesh; Mary is the Matriarch of God’s New Covenant, heavenly community, the Church, by the Spirit.

These biblical dimensions of Mary’s significance in the economy of salvation could be extended and deepened with attention to many other texts in Scripture–for instance, the appearance of a star-crowned woman with child in Revelation 12, who goes into hiding in the wilderness due to the threats of a great serpent. But for now it is sufficient to say that the role that Mary plays in Scripture worked powerfully, but slowly on my imagination, such that it eventually trickled into my prayer life, into a highly personal awareness of Mary’s love for me as her spiritual son bought by the precious blood of Jesus Christ. In addition, as a lover of poetry, I was excited and enthralled by G.K. Chesterton’s poem Lepanto, recounting the epochal naval battle between Muslim and Christian forces at Lepanto in 1571. This battle decisively dictated the future of Europe as Christian, not Islamic. Pope Pius V instructed many Catholics of the time to pray the rosary for victory, and the Christian league he established credited victory to their own intercessions to Mary through praying the rosary. Pope Pius V instituted a new feast day in gratitude to the Virgin, Our Lady of Victory, which is now called Our Lady of the Rosary (October 7). I was further intrigued to learn about the origins of the rosary: Our Lady revealed it to St. Dominic, founder of the Dominicans, or the Order of Preachers, who worked tirelessly to battle the Albigensian heresy. Apparently he was struggling to convert souls, but praying the rosary proved a powerful weapon in that battle. The rosary includes 5 decades of beads–50 beads total, which came to replace the 50 psalms that many monastic orders recited weekly, sometimes daily. The rosary was even referred to as the psalm-book of Our Lady, and extended contemplative practice to lay-people. Indeed, the rosary itself is not meant to merely be repeating Hail Mary’s – for each decade, a single “mystery” is contemplated, or meditatively explored. These mysteries include moments from Christ’s life and Mary’s life, and are an excellent way to explore a personal spiritual connection to the life of Christ and the life of his Holy Family, which we are all called to be a part of in his Church.

So, these were all of the biblical, historical, and poetical impressions swimming through my mind on that night in the ER when a kind woman offered us a rosary. Our 15-week old en utero baby daughter was in danger, and would remain in danger until her birth at 28 weeks. But she was kept completely safe, and was completely healthy before and after birth”. She was born premature, but has remained as healthy as she could possibly be for what have now been her 2 ½ years of life outside of the womb.

However, after we went home from the hospital that night, we had more scares, and more bad news. The doctors told us that our daughter had a less than one percent chance of surviving, and we should “abort and start over.” We rejected this offensive advice, as if the life gifted to us in my wife’s womb and consecrated with a soul by God could be discarded and “start over” at the whims of merely human invention and power. Nonetheless, we were told to go home and wait for our child to die. So we went home, and I prayed the rosary every night. We went in to the high-risk doctor for weekly scans, which showed that our daughter had almost no amniotic fluid around her. If she did survive, we were told, our daughter would have major deformities of limbs and internal organs. But each week, our daughter kept growing normally. We would go home, and I would pray the rosary every day.

My wife’s water broke for a second time at 24 weeks, and we were admitted to a large hospital about an hour and a half away, where my wife stayed on bed-rest for a month. I commuted to work and back and slept in the hospital room. Each night in that hospital room, by my wife’s bedside, I prayed the rosary. Our daughter was born at 28 weeks via an emergency C-section, surviving a potentially lethal infection in my wife’s womb. She was completely healthy, had no abnormalities, and was doing so well that she was transferred to a hospital closer to our home after one week. And each day, I prayed the rosary.

Our daughter grew and grew in the NICU at Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz, CA for 71 days; every day, I would go home and pray the rosary in her nursery she would one day come home to. And she did–she came home, and has been a healthy and wonderful blessing to us for 2 ½ years since, during which time I have prayed the rosary every day. And now, before bed-times, I still pray the rosary daily–now, with my precious daughter, who in her own childish, innocent, and inchoate way, is learning to pray the rosary with me. Medical professionals had classified my daughter, because of an extremely low prognosis, as unfit to live, as worthy of death. She continued to grow and thrive despite the prognosis, and with very little amniotic fluid. She grew in a complicated and abnormally shaped uterus. She remained strong as my wife’s body was failing. She survived a potentially lethal uterine infection. And my wife survived the same potentially lethal infection. I believe that the life of my daughter and the life of my child are favors granted to me by the powerful intercession by our spiritual mother, our heavenly Queen, the Virgin Mary, who knows our frailties, weaknesses, needs, and desires, and implores the King, her son, to help. We are part of a grand, royal, holy family indeed.

I will never forget the first time I tried praying the rosary, two summers before our daughter was born. On vacation in Tahoe, I went for a long walk by myself early in the morning with the rosary in my pocket. I had just learned about how to pray the rosary while contemplating the mysteries, and wanted to try it for myself. While on the walk, I prayed through each decade while contemplating the sorrowful mysteries–holding in my heart, mind, and soul, 5 major scenes from the passion of Christ: his agony in the garden, his scourging at the pillar, his crowning in thorns, his carrying of the cross, and his crucifixion. When I arrived at the crucifixion, by myself in the mountains around Lake Tahoe, I burst into tears. After 25 years of being a Christian, the immensity, profundity, and utter generosity of the sufferings of our Lord hit me afresh like a tidal wave, and I was overcome with sorrow, joy, sadness, delight, gratitude, and penitence all at the same time. It was a fresh invigoration of my faith like I had never experienced before–a deeper identification with the sorrows and sufferings of our savior, imploring his mother to pray for us that we may be more like him in our own sufferings. 

Praying the rosary for my own faith, my own salvation, for my family, for my friends, and for my world has gradually been teaching me how to suffer like Christ, how to have faith like Mary, and how to always trust in God’s providence. I dare you to pray the rosary daily–not merely to recite the words, but to contemplate the mysteries. You have no idea what exciting spiritual adventures God will take you on and prepare you for if you do–like Abraham being called to father a new nation, like Mary called to mother the Son of God, like Pope St. Pius V called to defend the Christian faith in Europe from hostile take-over, like St. Dominic called to convert an entire generation of heretics–and even like me, called to devote to his wife, raise a precious daughter, and  defend both of their lives. Just like all of these stories, you may receive an exciting and noble call through praying the rosary. The rosary is the spiritual weapon of choice. The journey it takes you on will require much courage, but has as its consolation and goal the fountain of all true delights, the glory of heaven, which the Blessed Virgin now enjoys, and to which she beckons us, pointing us the way to her Son.

All of this happened before I was formally received into the Catholic Church. Our daughter was born on April 11, 2016; it was not until the Easter Vigil, March 31, 2018, that my wife and I were confirmed, received first Eucharist, and were welcomed home to the Roman Catholic Church. Even before being received into the Catholic Church, the rosary powerfully opened us up to receive greater and greater grace and life from God; what even more marvelous things can praying the rosary do for those already within the Catholic fold, already within the stream of the authentic Apostolic tradition flowing from Christ! This is devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary: asking for her intercessions to Christ and the Father in the Holy Spirit. Such devotion not only presents us with a model for discipleship, but also grants us effective, actual grace. The Virgin is the ultimate disciple of Christ, and her prayers are powerful, since the prayer of the righteous “hath great power in its effects” (James 5:16). The Virgin’s total surrender to God, her utter humility, teaches us humility in form and content, in model and in power, in word and in deed, beautifully expressed in perhaps the greatest poem ever written, the Magnificat, Mary’s prayer of praise after hearing St. Elizabeth’s greeting:

My soul doth magnify the Lord,
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.
For he hath regarded
the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold from henceforth
all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me,
and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him
throughout all generations.
He hath showed strength with his arm;
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel,
as he promised to our forefathers,
Abraham and his seed for ever. (Lk. 1:47-55)

You can read more about our daughter’s story here: https://www.liveaction.org/news/premature-baby-thriving-1-percent/

You can review basic instructions for praying the rosary here:

https://www.marian.org/mary/rosary/howto.php

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