This story takes place about ten months ago on Christmas Eve, 2015. I was still in RCIA at the time and preparing for my confirmation and baptism into the Catholic Church. I was still learning about the different spiritual practices within Catholicism and thought that one in particular could help my grandma in her spiritual life and encourage her to learn more about Christianity. So I decided to gift her a rosary. Excepted that this was a last minute decision and had not bought one before I left DC (The Basilica has quite the selection). So, I knew finding one in semi-rural Georgia would be chore and set out on my adventure. I eventually found a child’s First Holy Communion rosary (it was literally the only one I could find) at the packaging and gifts store in town. I gladly bought the n0t-so-adult-appropriat-rosary, drove home and rapped it. I would give Grandma the rosary on Christmas Eve before midnight Mass.
So, Grandma had agreed that she would go with me to the local Catholic Church for “midnight” Mass, except “midnight” Mass was more like 6pm “midnight” Mass. I set out to collect Grandma at the senior home, picked her up and gave her the gift. She opened it on the way to church. Told me the rosary was beautiful. As I was driving I saw grandma pick up the rosary and try to force it over her head. I asked her what she was doing. Grandma told me that she was trying to put it around her neck. You can imagine that trying to put a child’s rosary over an adult’s head just isn’t going to work. I quickly told Grandma that the rosary wasn’t a necklace but a prayer rope to say prayers on. Grandma responded with, “Oh, so it’s not a necklace!” Nope, not a necklace. We laughed all the way to church.
For Catholics the rosary is a sacred gift given to St. Dominic by the Virgin Mary. The story goes something like this. Some during St. Dominic’s life the Virgin Mary visited him during a vision. Encouraged by the vision St. Dominic started to preach the use of the rosary in his missionary work amongst the Albigensians in Spain. While this is a nice story that explains the sacredness of the rosary amongst Catholics, this is not how the rosary came into being and people don’t wear rosaries.
Before I start talking about the rosary itself I want to step back and look at the use of prayer beads and ropes in various religions. Prayer ropes and beads can be found in many religions including Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. The purpose of prayer ropes and beads is to count the number of prayers, blessings or mantras being recited. These spiritual tools can also be used for meditation.
The rosary itself most likely developed from the prayer rope (Russian: chotki, Greek: komboskini) that is traditionally used to recite the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.) The chotki was developed at the start of monasticism in Egypt around the fourth century. During this time monastics would wander into the Egyptian desert to cultivate their prayer and devotional life. To help with recitation of the 150 Psalms and and other devotions, that turned into the Jesus Prayer (if one could not read), the prayer rope was developed with 150 knots. The Roman Catholic rosary, as mentioned before, was a further development of the chotki. The construction of the rosary would have changed over the centuries as the formula for the recited prayers was developed. You can see how the physical appearance of the rosary has changed over the centuries by looking at a few portraits in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and any other museum with portraits of bishops, cardinals and popes. Some medieval rosaries resemble the Eastern Christian prayer rope. From there, if your in a museum with many portraits of Catholic leadership, you can see the progression of the development of the rosary into it’s current form. The rosary is still developing to this day in formula of the prayers being recited. The most recent addition to the rosary was in 2002 when Pope John Paul II introduced the addition of the optional Luminous mysteries.
To this day the rosary is still viewed as a scared object and devotion to the Virgin Mary that is much loved by Catholics. Anyone is welcomed to try praying the rosary. It’s just not for Catholics.