The first time I met with my spiritual director after entering the Jesuits, he asked me how I pray. One of the things I mentioned was regularly rattling through Hail Marys. I told him that I tend to pray them throughout the day – on the bus, on walks, during dinner – whenever. I also tend to pray them during set times of prayer, and sometimes with the Rosary.
I remember being embarrassed by that response. I felt like I should have been engaged in “deeper” forms of prayer – meditation, contemplation, or imaginative prayer with scripture. But I had little experience with those. I felt that my prayer was in some way inadequate.
I prayed Hail Marys because I didn’t know how else to pray. I’d had other experiences of prayer, but when it came down to it, rattling through some memorized words was the easiest way for me to pray when I knew I needed to or when I felt a desire. The Hail Mary and the Rosary were like training wheels, and I thought eventually they’d come off.
They haven’t yet.
I still say Hail Marys all the time. Most often, I say them in times of stress or anxiety. When I am walking into a room full of people, walking into a classroom the first day of a the semester, or waiting to get feedback on a paper I worked hard to finish. I pray them when I finish conversations with people on the street, every morning when I look at the cover of the New York Times, or whenever I hear news of someone’s death.
It’s not uncommon for me to recognize myself going through Hail Marys and wondering, “How long have I been doing this for?” My Hail Marys can be subconscious. Praying them seems to be my first reaction to most things. My Hail Marys and my Rosaries are frequently unexciting, unmoving, imageless, and emotionless.
Yet, there is a simple gratification in the touch of Rosary beads and the sound of ancient prayers. They don’t bring me into an immediate conscious connection with God or His Blessed Mother. They often fail to satisfy a never-ending desire to hear God speak or to feel His touch. Sometimes, it is hard to even sense His presence in the moment of my rote praying. Nonetheless, I find that it continues to be a most valuable use of time and a sincere act of devotion. The Rosary is helping me learn that the fruit of prayer is quite often experienced outside of itself. Sometimes in completely unrecognizable ways.
I met Dorothy Day’s granddaughter once. She left the Catholic Church when she was younger and eventually came back. When I asked her why, she told me that some old priest told her to pray the Rosary every day. She took his advice, and there you have it.
St. Therese of Lisieux said that the Rosary is a long chain that links heaven and earth. That feels true for me. Hail Marys and the Rosary are indeed like training wheels, but ones that I will need forever. They train my mind, my body, my eyes, and my heart to live as though I am linked to heaven. Linked by things that may seem meaningless – touching beads and uttering words – but that do have a supernatural effect on my life.
It is often the moments outside of my Hail Marys when I can most feel their impact. I notice a deeper calm, less anxiety, and greater peace. I can more easily see God at work because my Hail Marys so frequently remind me of His existence.
And so, I continue rattle to Mary my needs, wants, and fears. In turn, she helps me remember the long vision, the deeper desire, and the Fruit of her womb. Through my rattling to Mary, I’m reminded that there is much more to life than the present.