October 7 is the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, and so October is a month specially devoted to the rosary. We will take some time this month to consider some practical strategies, rooted in the medieval spirituality from which the rosary was born, in order to pray the rosary better.
This week, let us consider the Liturgy of the Hours.
The Liturgy of the Hours, you probably know, consecrates the day as a whole to prayer by giving special prayers to the main moments of the day.
Psalm 119 says, “In the middle of the night I will rise to give you thanks” (v. 62) and “Seven times a day I praise you” (v. 164). The Tradition fulfilled the first line with Matins: the name means “early in the morning,” but it was before Lauds, or morning prayer. And so as not to double-count Matins, they added to the natural six-fold division of the day (rising, mid-morning, mid-day, mid-afternoon, evening, bedtime) another hour, “prime” (literally “one hour into the day”), somewhere between lauds and mid-morning.
But notice, with regard to Matins, that the interpretation of the line is not as strict as it first appears. St. Benedict (c. 8), for example, says that during winter, “they should rise at the eighth hour of night, so that they may stop for prayer a little after the middle of the night.” They get to the Psalm’s “mid-night” by sleeping specifically “eight hours.” In the summer, “let the hour for the prayers of ‘waking’ be set so as to allow sufficient time for the brothers to attend to the necessities of nature before the prayers at the rising sun.” Here, midnight is frankly abandoned, replaced with early morning. He even says these prayers should be shortened “on account of the shortness of the night” (c. 10).
In short, the principle was not a rigid adherence to a divinely commanded schedule, but exactly the opposite: the principle was to scatter prayer throughout the day, at the most convenient times.
But note, with regard to Prime, the pure joy in fulfilling the Scriptural text. The Psalm says “seven times a day,” and they said, yes, let’s do it, let’s go all the way. Seven is in Scripture a number of completeness, and they embraced the Psalm’s encouragement not to stop short of praying at all the moments of the day, even bordering into the inconvenient.
And they did it precisely through the Psalms. They only are interested in fulfilling this particular line because they love the Psalms as a whole. The Liturgy of the Hours sanctifies all those hours of the day precisely by plunging into the divinely inspired prayers of Scripture.
What does all of this have to do with the rosary? Three things:
1. The rosary was developed in the Middle Ages precisely as a substitute for those who did not have the equipment (especially the books) for the Liturgy of the Hours. Its original spirit is not to be segregated into one part of the day, but to season the whole day with prayer.
2. The deeper insight of the Liturgy of the Hours was not only that each hour should have its prayer, but that prayer is done better when spread into shorter, more intense moments. Modern devotion seems simply to disagree: to prefer the Holy Hour (which is also good!) to this spirit of sprinkling prayer throughout the day, and to pray the rosary all at once. But the medievals insisted that we can pray more deeply when, rather than watching the minutes tick by till our hour is complete, we pray as hard as we can, even for just five minutes, and then return to do it again a few more times in the day.
3. The Liturgy of the Hours was Biblical – and so too is the Hail Mary. The words are not to be missed. It’s hard to pay attention to fifty Hail Mary’s. But if we pray just ten at a time, perhaps we could pray them really well, and discover the richness of the Biblical words.
What I am proposing, then, is that one way to get the most out of the rosary is to make it into a Liturgy of the Hours (and even a supplement to the “real” Liturgy, if we pray that too). The Creed and the first three Hail Mary’s are a fabulous way to begin the day with a profession of faith. Then scatter five mysteries through five separate times of day, if you can, so that your whole day is seasoned with the rosary, and so that you can pray each decade intensely. And end the day, as the monks long have, with the Hail Holy Queen—and with the conclusion of the rosary.
Are there ways you could pray more intensely, and more frequently?
“The rosary was developed in the Middle Ages precisely as a substitute for those who did not have the equipment (especially the books) for the Liturgy of the Hours.”
Although it is true that often the laity would often put together many different types of beaded prayers to aid their prayer, the original 15 decade Rosary was given in that form to St. Dominic by Our Lady herself.
To state anything to the contrary would be to disagree with notable figures such as Pope Leo XIII, St. Louis de Montfort, and Blessed Alan de la Roche. Taylor Marshal has an excellent post summarizing this entitled “Did Mary Give the Rosary to Saint Dominic?”
Thank you for your thoughtful and faithful note. A couple responses:
1. My main response is that nothing in my post remotely contradicts the possibility that the rosary was given to Dominic. To the contrary, my point is precisely that the rosary comes at the very least out of Dominic’s time and spirituality (a point I argued more directly on the feast of St. Dominic, and then again later in August) and that we should learn to pray it the way that it would have been prayed by St. Dominic.
The post was a little long, so I took out a disclaimer I’d considered including, that said its “development” might well have been by Dominic and Our Lady herself. In any case, my point is precisely that we should pray it like St. Dominic, not like “moderns.”
2. That said, I think there’s room for some reserve about what exactly happened between Mary, Dominic, and the rosary. Again, please don’t misunderstand me – and please read what I wrote on Dominic: I believe that the rosary is deeply tied up with the mission of St. Dominic, I believe, as all the contemporaneous stories say, that Mary was actively involved in Dominic’s mission, and I believe that the rosary is a gift from Our Blessed Lady.
The key problem, though, is that all the “evidence” for this particular version of the story comes centuries later, from Bl. Alan de la Roche (1428-1475; Dominic lived 1170-1221). The Dominicans were writers. There are several stories of St. Dominic from his time, full of wonderful miracles, many of them involving Mary, whom Dominic and the early Dominicans loved deeply. Bl. Jordan of Saxony’s Libellus is one of my favorite pieces of devotional literature (and I believe it’s all true!). Gerald de Frachet’s Vitae fratrum (written about 1252) is a long catalog of miracles; Part One is a truly astounding catalog of Marian apparitions at the founding of the Dominicans; Part Two is an equally astounding list of Dominic’s miracles. Read it! Why don’t any of these sources mention the rosary?
I believe Alan de la Roche is basically right: Dominic knew Mary intimately, including through many apparitions. Dominic preached the rosary – which even Alan still calls the “Psalter of the Glorious Virgin Mary,” because they saw it as deeply connected to the Liturgy of the Hours. The rosary (as I argued on the feast of St. Dominic) goes to the heart of Dominic’s mission and spiritual insight. And, though I don’t think every historical assumption made in passing by a pope is de fide, I think all of this is consistent with what Leo XIII says in his many wonderful encyclicals on the rosary.
But – like the Old Catholic Encyclopedia, like the 17th century Acta Sanctorum of the Bollandists, and like the most devoted Dominicans today – I don’t think the heart of the rosary is in rejecting historical scholarship. I think the heart of the rosary is in praying it. Which I strongly encourage.
Unfortunately, I don’t have time to get you all the links within this reply but I hope you find these resources helpful.