The Rosary: An Incarnational Prayer

By Christian Bergmann

I’m probably not alone in thinking this, but if I were to be frank, I would say that the Rosary is for me one of the most challenging in the Catholic collection of prayers. There are a number of reasons for this, but one of the most prominent is that I find it difficult to do something so repetitively and attentively. It’s rarely something I look forward to.

However, my wife and I committed to praying the Rosary throughout Lent (a practice we upheld for the most part, by the grace of God), and are trying to keep a daily Rosary as routine. Its spiritual power is, by the testimony of the saints, immense. The more we prayed the Rosary throughout Lent, the more I began to appreciate it. I thought I might share one of the reasons why I have come to appreciate the Rosary in a way I hadn’t before.

The Rosary does not let me forget the historical nature of Christianity.

The distinguishing feature of Christianity, that separates it from all other religious creeds, philosophies, and spiritualities, is that God, the Creator the Universe, stepped into the course of human history as a man in order to redeem it. Christianity, particularly Catholicism, does not trade in abstract ideals or groundless spiritual sentiments. It claims, stubbornly, that something historical happened. As Saint Peter lays out during his opening sermon in the Acts of the Apostles: “this man [Jesus of Nazareth] . . . you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law . . . This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses” (Acts 2:23, 29). As Saint Paul also says, “If Christ has not risen, our preaching is useless and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). That God revealed himself to us in Christ, through the mystery of his life, death, and resurrection, is not optional. It is the heart of everything.

This is a refreshing thing to remember, especially in a time when identifying as ‘spiritual, but not religious’ has become so popular. Spirituality can be vague; it doesn’t require any robust sense of commitment on our part. The Incarnation, on the other hand, requires us to care quite a lot about history and about what actually happened historically. It requires us to think through and feel its implications, consider its ramifications, sense its importance.

This is why Catholicism has always resisted the tendency towards Gnosticism (from gnosis, meaning knowledge). Gnosticism always involved an indifference to history; what God wanted to do, it said, was break humanity free from history and from their bodies. Catholicism, on the other hand, with a refreshingly Incarnational imagination, says no: Christ came into history to redeem it, to fulfil it, to save our whole persons, body and soul.

This is why I have come to appreciate the Rosary as an anti-gnostic prayer – or an Incarnational prayer, to be more positive. All of the tendencies we have towards vague spirituality and towards thinking about “contemplation” in abstract ways – the Rosary grounds us in a basic truth: this actually happened in history.

What the Rosary is, therefore, is a contemplation of the historical life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Pope Paul VI, in his Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus, says that without this contemplation, “the Rosary is a body without a soul, and its recitation is in danger of becoming mechanical repetitions and formulas” (47). It has to be a prayer centred on contemplation of the Gospel. This is also why Pope John-Paul II called the Rosary a “compendium of the Gospel” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 18). Without the mystery of Christ at the centre of the Rosary, it is nothing of great import or power.

So, if I can end with a practical suggestion – something that helped me a great deal throughout Lent – I would say this: take the Scriptures in hand whilst you pray the Rosary. Take the time to not only say the Rosary, but read the relevant passages of Scripture prior to beginning each decade. Give yourself something concrete to contemplate. Ground yourself in the mystery of Christ, in history, this way. It helped me a lot, especially when I was growing tired of the Rosary. It revived me. It might do the same for you, too.