Reflections on Praying the Rosary (Kind of…)

When I was ordained back in September, one of my aunts gave me a rosary. She had purchased it in Italy and then had it blessed by a priest at Notre Dame in Paris. I appreciated the thought, but also didn’t know what to do with it at first, since, as a Presbyterian, I’ve never prayed the rosary before in my life. Then a couple weeks ago, the spiritual formation guide I”m working through suggested taking  a week to try a new form of prayer. So, I decided to try using my rosary for one week…. kind of…

As a Protestant, it was hard for me to pray the Hail Mary. Granted most of it is simply verses quoted directly from Scripture, but it still felt out of place for me, so I replaced each Hail Mary with a recitation of the Jesus Prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The main purpose of praying the Rosary is to meditate on the mysteries of our salvation – there are 20 in the Roman Catholic tradition. They’re all more or less events in the life of Jesus.

As I meditated on five of the mysteries each day while reciting the Jesus Prayer, the Lord’s Prayer and the Gloria Patri, I began to realize pretty quickly how “distanced” my mediation was. For example while meditating on each of the sorrowful mysteries (The Agony in the Garden, Scourging at the Pillar, Crowning with Thorns, Carrying the Cross, and the Crucifixion) I began to feel as if I was simply imagining the events in my head, viewing them in my imagination in the same way I would view a movie; thinking about the events in the same way I would think about the Civil War or any other historical event.

As I continued praying the Jesus Prayer, though, I came to a profound sense that Christ was in the room with me. Suddenly, I became convicted that the purpose of meditating on the mysteries is not thinking, but rather listening. My meditations changed from being a product of my own imagination to being an act of seeking to allow Jesus, the One who experienced these events, to tell me about them.

The result of this experiment has been some of the richest times of prayer I’ve had in a long time. Praying the Rosary (kind of…) has given me a “sacred space” of sorts in my time to be reminded of my union with Christ and all that entails. I think this is a practice that’s going to go longer than one week.

Worship Styles: What Dance is the Church Teaching?

This past weekend while I was in Massachusetts, I got to experience two worship communities different from my own. The first came on Saturday at my friend Susie’s weeding. Susie and her husband are both members of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, a more-conservative breed of Presbyterianism. One distinction of this denomination is it’s theology of music in worship. They believe that the New Testament teaches us to worship with all of our heart, and that musical instruments are a barrier to this. So they only sing a capella. They also believe that it’s only appropriate to sing divinely inspired words, so they only sing musical settings of the Psalms. So at Susie’s wedding, there was a string trio that played only before and after the worship. Once the actual wedding liturgy began, the only music to be heard was the congregation singing from the Psalter.

In theory, I disagree with the RPC on their theology of music in worship, but that’s not the point. The point is that even though I don’t share this belief, I’m still really glad that they believe it, because the results were beautiful. During the wedding, the wedding guests (most of whom were members of the RPC) sang two Psalms, and they were singing them in four-part harmony. It was incredible. At one point, I looked over at the string trio that played the prelude. I’m guessing they weren’t from the RPC, because they looked genuinely surprised and impressed that so many wedding guests were capable of singing so well.

This style of worship is anything but “seeker-sensitive.” I’m pretty competent in music, and am fairly good at sight reading (seeing music for the first time and singing it correctly without hearing it first), and I still had trouble at times, especially with the second Psalm, which was not only in harmony but also had some counterpoint. If someone were to join this worshipping community, it would take weeks, perhaps months, to become fully acclamated to this style of singing. At the same time, though, I didn’t feel as if my worship was inhibited. I wanted to learn. At times I just had to stop singing and allow my act of worship to be listening to the song of praise being lifted up around me.

My second worship experience was going to Roman Catholic mass on Sunday morning with my friend, Matt. I’ve been to mass a couple of times in the past, but there are still intricacies to the worship experience that I forget or altogether miss. I nearly forgot to cross myself with holy water when I entered the sanctuary. I definitely forgot to kneel before taking my seat. At one point I put the kneeler back up too soon. And there were a number of prayers that I had to half-mumble as everyone else recited them by memory. Again, though, I didn’t feel as if my worship was inhibited. I found the intricacies of the worship intrigueing, and wanted to learn them.

Thinking about these two experiences reminded me of an analogy that I’ve heard and read from a number of different sources comparing corporate worship and liturgy to dance. The point of the analogy is that you have to take time to learn the steps and rhythms of whatever dance you’re doing. Think of the Reformed Psalm singing or the Catholic Mass, or any other complicated style of worship as ballroom dancing. Whether you’re learning an elegant foxtrot or an intense, lively swing, the dances take time to learn. The steps are intricate and rarely come naturally. The first time you try it may feel awkward and will probably require a lot of thought. As you practice and learn, though, the steps and rhythm comes more naturally and the dance feels less forced and more free, and ultimately more beautiful and memorable.

As a mainline evangelical, I find it frustrating that in most churches of this color, the worship tends to focus on the least-common denominator and being “seeker-sensitive.” The music should sound familiar and be easy for anyone to sing and learn quickly. Practices that might not make sense to a first-time visitor, whether something as minute as the sign of the cross or as substantial as the Eucharist, are either dropped altogether or explained away so that any element of mystery is removed. To use the dance analogy, most evangelical churches aren’t teaching their congregations the foxtrot, or swing, or any other difficult dance. They’re teaching the hokey pokey… over and over and over again. A dance that’s easy to learn, and maybe even fun, but also a dance that lacks beauty and intrigue and ultimately gets old if you do it too often.

Perhaps evangelical communities needn’t fear about whether every element of their worship is easily understood or explained. Perhaps it’s better to focus on doing worship well, on making worship beautiful and intrigueing. Maybe that’s what draws people in. Maybe that’s what it’s really all about.