Throughout the history of the Church, the faithful have put various implements to use in guiding prayer, study, and devotion.
Examples of these include:
- devotional crosses;
- icons and other imagery;
- prayer ropes, rosaries, and prayer beads;
- medallions to commemorate both the lives of saints and various feasts;
- as well as printed works such as study guides, commentaries, and inspirational literature.
Having previously written about Christian imagery and icons, my next few articles will focus on the use of prayer ropes, rosaries, and Anglican prayer beads; discussing why an Anglican might want to use such an implement, exploring their history, and providing a practical guide to use.
What’s the Difference between Prayer Ropes, Rosaries, and Prayer Beads?
- Prayer ropes are a simple knotted rope or string of beads which became popular among Eastern Orthodox Christians to count repetitions of the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner”).
- The Rosary is a set of beads grouped in five groups of ten called “decades” which is popular among Roman Catholics and some Anglo-Catholics.
- Anglican prayer beads are a more modern devotional tool which blends the traditions of the prayer rope and the Rosary. Anglican prayer beads started off in the Episcopal Church, but have seen regular use in other Protestant traditions.
Rosary vs. rosary
This article will focus on the Rosary. Typically, when capitalized, the word Rosary refers to the cycle of prayers, whereas, without capitalization, the word rosary refers to the physical string of beads itself.
In this article, I will be using the capitalized form exclusively to refer to both the cycle of prayers and the beads to cut down on confusion. So, anticipate “Rosary” throughout.
The Purpose of Devotional Items
First, it is important to define the purpose and right use of such devotional items in general.
Since Anglicanism is both catholic and Protestant, we regard many things within that tension. By this I mean that Anglicans uphold some Roman Catholic traditions, practices, and doctrine that were present before the English Reformation because they were in accordance with Scripture and the sure witness of the historic Church.
At the same time, Anglicans reject certain Roman Catholic traditions, practices, and doctrines that were present at the time of the Reformation because they were (and are) innovations and deviations from the witness of Scripture and the historic Church.
In particular, the Rosary and some of the practices that have grown up around it are rejected by much of the Protestant world.
I submit that this is both right and wrong.
- It is right that Protestants reject the superstitions about the Rosary, such as that praying it a certain number of times a day will somehow curry favor with Mary and therefore invoke special blessings from God.
- It is wrong that Protestants reject the use of the Rosary, as well as many other devotional implements, outright.
The key is keeping in view the purpose of these things. A person rightly uses a Rosary, a prayer rope, or prayer beads, to focus on prayer. The purpose of such devotional items is devotion—to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We approach that devotion through many avenues, but only when rightly turned on God are those avenues fruitful.
A Prayer Book Without Words
In many ways these items serve a similar purpose as the prayer book—they provide form and function to focus our prayer life on God rather than ourselves.
Like the liturgy printed in our Book of Common Prayer, these objects help to reinforce that prayer is more than just intercession, more than just repentance, and more than just contemplation—it is all of these and more besides.
At their core, prayer ropes, beads, and the Rosary are all physical implements to help the Christian with their private prayers, in much the same way that a bulletin leaflet or a Book of Common Prayer helps a congregant follow along with the corporate service.
To me, this is the greatest argument for an Anglican to use a prayer rope, Rosary, or prayer beads. Functionally, the usage of these is no different than corporate liturgical prayer, and if a person is comfortable with saying an Office out of the BCP, then it is no great leap to use these items for the same purpose – though the BCP has the advantage for the Anglican that it is the authorized and received resource we use to pattern our prayer life. In comparing the devotional items such as the Rosary to the Prayer Book, I am only trying to draw out similarities of function, not state or imply any form of equivalence between them.
All three of these devotional items serve as both memory aids to prayer and an opportunity to engage in contemplative meditation on the mysteries of God—the Rosary, when used rightly, is particularly good for this last exercise.
Because of their similarities to the liturgy, it should come as no surprise that just as there are similar benefits there are also similar pitfalls.
If I can become so familiar with the liturgy that my prayer turns to meaningless droning, or “vain repetitions” as Our Lord says (Mt. 6:7), then so too can praying with a Rosary, prayer rope, or beads become less about the One I’m supposed to be engaging in devotion to and turn to focus on the physical object, or supposed benefits about how often I engage in such devotion—a form of idolatry and superstition.
Therefore, the Christian should engage in whatever disciplines they would use to preserve their attention on God during both the corporate liturgy and personal prayer with a devotional object.
So long as the Christian who decides to use such an implement uses it as a guide or help for prayer and not in a vain attempt to gain some boon, indulgence, or special favor, then they will have no guilt and they could find enrichment in their prayer life.
The History of the Rosary
The Rosary started as an exercise of the mostly illiterate laity to say 150 repetitions of the Our Father (which is the same as the Lord’s Prayer found in Matthew 6:9-13) to emulate the monastic practice of the daily recitation of the entire Psalter during the Liturgy of the Hours. Those taking up this practice tended to use knotted ropes or strings of beads to keep track.
As time went on, there grew up another practice of saying the Hail Mary in five groups of ten repetitions. The earliest record of this practice is the Ancrene Wisse, a twelfth century monastic manual for English women anchorites (a type of Christian ascetic whose rule usually bound them to a stability of place, typically church grounds, where they could lead an intensely prayer-focused life).
Over time it appears that these two practices merged, and the groups of ten Hail Marys (also known as decades) came to be preceded each by a repetition of the Our Father.
In the late fourteenth century, a monastic in modern-day Germany named St. Dominic of Prussia (not to be confused with St. Dominic who was the founder of the Dominican Order of monks) added in the practice of meditating on the life of Jesus during the repetition of the Hail Marys. This is probably the origin of what are known as the Mysteries of the Rosary. St. Dominic of Prussia called this the Life of Jesus Rosary.
The Rosary was given official status as a recognized form of devotion by Pope Pius V, when he called on the entire Catholic Church to pray for victory involving the Papal States (i.e. the Vatican).
From the sixteenth to the twentieth century, the content and structure of the Rosary was largely unchanged; in the early twenty-first century, Pope John Paul II added a set of mysteries (part of the meditations on Jesus) called the Luminous Mysteries, which focus on the miraculous works of Jesus and how they relate to the story of Salvation.
Today, most western Christians are familiar with the Rosary prayer, though I would speculate that most American Protestants (especially from an Evangelical background) are most familiar with the Rosary as a physical object.
Within Catholicism, the Rosary is known and taught as an effective devotion on the life of Christ through the lens of Mary; though at various times priests and Popes have overstated this devotion and its importance to the level of being a necessary devotion for proper piety.
These assertions about the Rosary, as well as some of the Dominican traditions about benefits given as a result of reciting the Rosary, are what have caused much of the suspicion among Protestants regarding its use in individual devotion.
However, these teachings and practices are recent innovations that took a useful devotional practice and turned it into something both more and less than what it really is—more by ascribing benefits to the devotional act that are outside the bounds of Scripture, and less by taking away the pure focus of the devotion from Christ and placing it fixedly on Mary (either by overt or inadequate instruction communicated to the lay pious).
Should Anglicans Pray the Rosary?
I have omitted parts of the history above that focus on the objectionable teachings of the Rosary.
The form of the Rosary seems to have evolved pretty much as I described, while the emphasis and teachings about the Rosary (e.g. supposed benefits, Marian apparitions extolling its use, Papal decrees elevating its use to necessity, etc.) pepper its history and take a right practice and taint it with attitudes and expectations which do not conform to Scripture (and are thus rejected by Anglicans and other Protestants).
Again, I contend that it is both right to accept the Rosary as a valid form of devotion (with certain modifications), and also to reject the false teachings about what its use merits the one praying the Rosary.
There are two core advantages to praying the Rosary:
- it assists in the practice of Christian meditation (though it is by no means the only resource) and
- the use of the Hail Mary in the Rosary does help the Christian to constantly recall the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
The Rosary encourages us to recall specific events from the life of Christ, and to meditate on them—seeking God-given knowledge, understanding, and wisdom from the Word made flesh.
How to Pray the Rosary
There are many online resources on how to pray the Rosary formulated by Roman Catholics. One example is from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Anglo-Catholics who pray the Rosary typically use the same form as Roman Catholics, though Anglican forms of the prayers are used.
Many of those who are reading this article do not come from a background that is favorable to the Rosary in the first place, so I will suggest some practices for those just starting out with the Rosary so that they are not led into trouble right at the start.
I do not suggest that what I recommend is the only way to pray the Rosary, or the most correct, but I do commend it as a practice that I believe will have the most benefit and provoke a minimum of confusion or distress.
The key changes to the common use of the Rosary that I will propose are with the form of the Hail Mary and the Mysteries.
The Hail Mary
Over the years since the start of the English Reformation, Anglicans have had different opinions on the practices of prayers to or for the saints, and this has involved different views on the Hail Mary.
Anglicans have a variety of views on how and whether to involve the saints in prayers, but the general consensus is that praying for the saints (such as prayers for the dead in a burial service) is encouraged, as is praying to participate in the same rewards as the saints (called comprecation). However, asking in prayer for saints to pray for us (called invocation) is neither encouraged nor discouraged, but is not appropriate for public worship within Anglicanism (see Article XXII of the Articles of Religion).
Prayers to the saints asking for a boon or favor from the sainted dead is even more dubious within Anglican practice and teaching. It is within this understanding that I now talk about the Hail Mary.
Prior to the Council of Trent (1545-1563 AD), the Hail Mary consisted only of the Scriptural reference: “Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” (Gabriel’s words in Luke 1:28 with the addition of the name Mary, and Elizabeth’s words in Luke 1:42)
In this form, the only additions are the insertion of the proper names Mary and Jesus. It was not until around the Council of Trent that the petitionary clause (“Holy Mary mother of God pray for us sinners…”) was added.
The pre-Tridentine (before the Council of Trent) form is most likely the original use of the Hail Mary in the Rosary prior to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and is the one that I suggest, omitting the petition to Mary. In this mode, it is less a prayer of invocation, and feels more like an antiphon, the short verses from the psalms or sentences from Scripture that are sometimes said or sung before portions of the liturgy (as an example, in Daily Morning Prayer, the following is sung or said before the Venite: “The earth is the Lord’s for he made it: O come let us adore him.”).
Since Anglicans do have a variety of opinions related to this topic, I would recommend that anyone who does not feel comfortable even with this form instead say the Jesus Prayer instead of the Hail Mary (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God; have mercy on me, a sinner”).
The Mysteries of the Rosary
In Roman Catholic use, there are four sets of five “Mysteries” to be contemplated, where each Mystery is contemplated for one of each of the five decades of the Rosary.
The four sets of mysteries are called
- the Joyful (which focus on Jesus’ nativity and childhood),
- the Sorrowful (focusing on the events from the Garden of Gethsemane through the Crucifixion),
- the Glorious (focusing on the Resurrection and the life of the Church with a focus on Mary), and
- the Luminous (focusing on the miraculous works of Jesus).
These are points for the one praying the Rosary to pause and meditate on a part of Jesus’ human nature, his earthly ministry, his final sacrifice upon the cross, and his promises to the Church. Typically, the different sets of mysteries are contemplated on different days of the week, or at various times of the year.
In the interest of simplicity, and to facilitate introduction to the correct devotional practices of the Rosary, I recommend a single cycle of five major milestones in Jesus’ life to contemplate:
- The Baptism: The revelation to the world of Jesus as the Incarnation of God
- The Transfiguration: The meeting of divine and temporal on the mountain
- The Crucifixion: The final atoning sacrifice of God for the people of God
- The Resurrection: The first-fruits of the promise of eternal life
- The Ascension: The reign of Christ at the right-hand of God the Father
You might be wondering “what about the Nativity?” When using these milestones while reciting the Hail Mary as outlined above, you remember the Nativity and the Incarnation of the Word as the man Jesus Christ throughout the Rosary prayers and meditation.
Praying the Rosary
A Rosary is composed of a crucifix connected by a short string of three beads or knots to a joiner bead or knot from which the main loop of five decades of beads or knots is connected. In between each decade is a bead (usually larger and many times separated from the decade beads on either side by a knot).
Since there are different styles of rosaries (though they all follow the same basic pattern), I am going to refer to the following pictures (of my own Rosary) as a reference. There may be small differences with other rosaries, depending on who made them. The typical difference is that the Our Father beads are a different size or shape from the decade beads, and the knots separating the decades may be absent altogether.
To begin the prayers, you hold the crucifix in one hand (usually the left) and say an appropriate invocation. I say, “In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” while making the Sign of the Cross, and then recite the Apostles’ Creed.
Following the crucifix, on the first bead, say the Our Father. Optionally, on the knot between the crucifix and the first bead, I say “O Lord open our lips, and our mouth shall proclaim your praise” or a similar verse.
Next, you say a form of the Hail Mary as detailed above (or the Jesus Prayer if it seems more appropriate) on each of the three beads.
On the knot following the beads, say “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.” This is also called the “Glory Be.”
On the last bead before the joiner, say the Our Father. On the first round of decades (called a “chaplet”), the joiner isn’t used, so after this bead, skip over the joiner to the first knot ahead of the first decade.
On the first knot after the joiner, announce (if in a group; silently call to mind if praying individually) the first mystery (or milestone as I have outlined above).
Repeat the Hail Mary on the next ten beads, while contemplating the mystery.
On the knot after the last bead of the decade, say the Glory Be. This is the end of the first decade, so on the next bead, you will say the Our Father, followed by announcing the mystery or milestone, followed by the next decade of Hail Marys.
This cycle repeats until you reach the joiner, to conclude the chaplet. If you decide to do another chaplet, you say the Our Father on the joiner and then proceed like normal.
When you decide to close out the Rosary prayers, there are a few options.
Roman Catholics and some Anglo-Catholics will say the Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen). For reasons similar to my suggestion about modifying the Hail Mary, I recommend that Anglicans instead use an appropriate Collect. If you wanted to stay close to the tradition of the Rosary, I would suggest the Collect for the feast-day of Saint Mary the Virgin (August 15):
O God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Alternatively, you could say one of the collects from the daily office, or the Prayer of St. John Chrysostom.
It is my hope that this examination of devotional objects in general and the Rosary in particular has been useful.
So long as the use of the Rosary (or any similar devotional object) is for the facilitation of prayer, and not an end or purpose of prayer in and of itself, there is no more danger in patterning our prayers using a Rosary than there is in using a written liturgy for that purpose.
And if after having read this article you are not convinced of using a rosary, I encourage you to look for my next article, which will examine the prayer rope as used by Eastern Orthodox Christians.