The Rosary and Contemplative Prayer
by Father Paul K. Raftery, O.P.
The Rosary, as a gift
of prayer from the Mother
of God, leads us
to Christ in a way unique among the devotions in the Church.
Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter on the Rosary, Rosarium
Virginis Mariae, focuses with particular attention on the special way she is active on the soul
as we ponder or contemplate Jesus
through the eyes of His Mother. We put ourselves under her maternal guidance and allow her to direct
our hearts. "The
Rosary," he says, "mystically transports us
to Marys side as she is busy watching over the human growth of Christ in the home of
Nazareth. This enables her to train us and to mold us with the same care, until Christ is
fully formed in us" (Rosarium
Virginis Mariae 16). What is happening through this "contemplation of the face of Christ" in union with Mary,
is far more than just a dry and abstract exercise
of thought. The Rosary
brings us, through a devoted pondering of its mysteries,
into intimate union with the very Person of Jesus. Below we will discuss
this form of prayer called "contemplation," and the place the Holy Father
wants it to have in the lives of the faithful
through praying the Holy
What is Contemplation?
Too often the false impression people have of contemplation
is that it is some form of lofty mystical prayer that can be understood only by
those versed in mystical theology. Moreover,
there is the erroneous belief it is not something the ordinary Catholic can expect to experience; namely, that
only monks and nuns, whose lives are completely
dedicated to prayer, have the chance of
advancing to such higher forms of prayer.
A wise and assuring guide in these matters, who has written extensively on the spiritual life, is Father Thomas Dubay.
His book Fire Within (available from Ignatius Press) has
been recommended in a previous article, and it will be used extensively here. From his
experience he writes:
Father Thomas Dubay
(Fire Within, 57).
Over the years I have gradually come to the conclusion that one
reason so many people assume that contemplation is reserved for a select few is that they
imagine it to be what it is not. They presume that this type of prayer could not be for
them because in a vague sort of way they consider it to be something other than it is.
They equate it with oriental states of consciousness or with extraordinary phenomena such
as divine messages and visions. Being active and busy and little inclined to any lingering
reflection, natural or supernatural, they do not take seriously, as meant for them
personally, the mystical expressions sprinkled freely throughout the Scripture and
Saint Teresa of Avila, one of the greatest mystics of the Church,
gives us a thoroughly down to earth explanation of contemplative prayer. As Father Dubay
For her, contemplation is an experienced, mutual presence,
"an intimate sharing between friends," a being alone with the God Who loves us.
Hence, this prayer is a mutual presence of two in love, and in this case the Beloved
dwells within. Actually, it is an interdwelling, a mutually experienced indwelling. She
relates about herself how "a feeling of the presence of God would come upon me
unexpectedly so that I could in no way doubt He was within me or I totally immersed in Him"
(Fire Within, 58).
Natural and Supernatural
The way this takes place in the soul, Saint
Teresa will emphasize, is not through any efforts of the one
praying. Now there is indeed a way one can
speak of contemplation as an activity of the mind
and heart. A person can ponder with wonder
and amazement the night sky filled with stars, and be held in a kind of delightful,
prayerful state, admiring the greatness of the Creator.
This is a natural form of contemplation, and
genuine prayer. It has come through an
exercise of the human intellect
and will, considering how great the Creator of all that vast starry expanse must be.
When we are filled with a sense of the greatness, the goodness,
the holiness of God; when we are stirred by the beauty of
nature or by a magnificent celebration of the Holy Mass, we are experiencing this natural
contemplative activity of the mind.
But Saint Teresa is speaking above of a state
of prayer that has come through an act
of God on the soul.
She calls this contemplation
"supernatural". Another term that
spiritual writers will use for it is "infused," from the Latin word meaning to "pour in". God
into a soul in this higher supernatural form of contemplative
Father Dubay, however, goes on to say:
Even though contemplation is utterly divinely given and humanly
received, and as a consequence we can do nothing to force God to grant it, yet we can and
must prepare ourselves for the gift. God gives only to the extent that we efficaciously
desire, that is, not merely wish something to happen but take concrete means to fit
ourselves to receive it.
The gift of contemplative prayer, and the wonderful closeness to
God present in the soul that takes place, with the indescribable joy this produces, is
indeed for everyone as far as God is concerned. But a person must show God that he is
ready for and wants this kind of direct intimate contact with Him. And this is
demonstrated by living in conformity with His commandments:
Advancing communion with God does not happen in isolation from
the rest of life. Ones whole behavior pattern is being transformed as the prayer
deepens. So true is this that if humility, patience, temperance, chastity and love for
neighbor are not growing, neither is prayer growing. Hence, contemplation is not simply a
pious occupation in the chapel or in some other solitude.
The ordinary details of daily life, the choices made to love
God above all things and to grow in virtue and holiness,
are the necessary soil into which God plants
His wonderful gift
of contemplative prayer. And this is why contemplative prayer should not
be understood as being just for those relatively rare souls
who have the ability to live in monasteries. Monasteries
are indeed an ideal setting for the contemplative life
to prosper; but not by any means the only mode of life. Whether it
be life in the world or life in the monastery, all
have the opportunity to develop that good soil of
virtue and holiness into
which God "pours
in . . . infuses" His gift
of contemplative prayer.
Our Common Vocation
Due to an unfortunate misunderstanding by many spiritual writers of how the gift of infused contemplation is given by
God, Father Dubay observes
that "it is not commonly considered to be an activity meant
for plumbers as well as Poor Clares, for the married as well as for religious, for young
and old" (Fire Within, 57). In reality, it is for all Christian vocations. This is because contemplation is where prayer
is supposed to lead every member of the Church,
not just for an elite group. Like sanctity, contemplation is the goal
for every Christian life, and will be the
continuous state of prayer for
everyone in heaven. Both holiness and contemplation
are meant to be our future! The contemplative prayer
God calls us to in this life is simply an imperfect
prelude to the ultimate contemplation
of the Face of God in heaven.
As Saint Thomas explains, using a quote from Saint Augustine:
"The contemplation of God is promised us as being the goal
of all our actions and the everlasting perfection of our joys." This contemplation
will be perfect in the life to come, when we shall see God face to face, wherefore it will
make us perfectly happy: whereas now the contemplation of the divine truth is present to
us imperfectly, namely "through a glass" and "in a dark manner"
(II-II, 180, 4).
The Call for Contemplatives
Virginis Mariae Pope John Paul II begins in Chapter
One with the call that all Christians
have to a life of contemplation of Our Blessed Savior. As Saint Paul
has written, He came into this world to
become "the image of the invisible God" (Colossians
1:15). Through Him our minds
can rise to know and love
God in Himself. And this pondering of God through His
Incarnation cannot be considered as an optional extra for the Christian life. It is an essential
part of our calling, which is meant to culminate, as we have seen, in the contemplation of God
in heaven. As the Holy Father
To look upon the face of Christ, to recognize its mystery amid
the daily events and the sufferings of His human life, and then to grasp the divine
splendor definitively revealed in the Risen Lord, seated in glory at the right hand of the
Father; this is the task of every follower of Christ . . . (Rosarium
Virginis Mariae 9).
Drifting away from this contemplative gaze
upon the Incarnate Word is one of the great dangers of life in our modern world. The
hectic pace of life, the mesmerizing power of television, cinema, and all the many forms
of media we live with; the omnipresence of the market place with so many items to
tantalize us into making a purchase, these can so effectively draw our gaze away from God. These can turn us from contemplatives
of our eternal and glorious
God into contemplatives,
in a real sense, of transitory material things.
There is no shortage of examples: the young person spending hours on video games, the
shopaholic browsing compulsively through store after store, the vast numbers of people in
our culture spending entire days in front of the TV screen. With all these there is a
profound and addictive fixing of the gaze on material things.
Little do we realize how prevalent a kind of materialistic version of the contemplative
life is present in our culture. We are, in this way, a very contemplative society!
Unfortunately, all our loving gaze is fixed not
on God but on material
In a culture, then, pervaded by this obsessive
and disordered contemplation
of materiality, Pope John Paul encourages us to
return to the Rosary. Through it we must once again fix our eyes on our God made visible, the Word made flesh:
But the most important reason for strongly encouraging the
practice of the Rosary is that it represents a most effective means of fostering among the
faithful that commitment to the contemplation of the Christian mystery which I have
proposed in the Apostolic Letter "Novo Millennio Ineunte" as a
genuine training in holiness (Rosarium
Virginis Mariae 5).
The Rosary and Contemplation
It must be admitted, however, that this contemplation
of the face of Christ encouraged by
the Holy Father in his Rosarium
Virginis Mariae and the contemplative
union of the soul
with God described by Saint Teresa
above are not entirely the same thing. One
is a meditative, loving
gaze on the Savior, His life, and His
work of redemption. It
is for the most part an activity of the mind
and heart, a natural form of contemplative prayer, arising from ourselves. This
is what lies at the foundation of the Rosary,
as Pope Paul VI has taught in a quote used by Pope John Paul
in his Apostolic Letter:
Without contemplation, the Rosary is a body without a soul, and
its recitation runs the risk of becoming a mechanical repetition of formulas, in violation
of the admonition of Christ: "In praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles
do; for they think they will be heard for their many words" (Rosarium
Virginis Mariae 12).
Very much different, as has been pointed
out, is the infused, supernatural
contemplation described by Saint Teresa, and
marked by a mutual indwelling of the soul in God
and God in the soul.
As related in the quote above, this occurred for her in such a full
and rich way that "I could in no way doubt
He was within me or I totally immersed in Him." No mere imaginative
exercise this, but a profound encounter with
the very Person of Christ Himself present in
These two (2) forms of contemplation, however, are not
unrelated. One leads to the
other and is a preparation for the other. The intense and serious
prayer life of infused
contemplation does not begin immediately, but
(usually) only after years of persevering
in meditative prayer such as the Rosary. As Father Dubay
. . . a serious prayer life does not begin with fullness. It
commences humbly with small steps. Oak trees emerge from acorns, and scholars first learn
the alphabet. While God is supremely free to give in a divine manner when and how He
chooses, He ordinarily prepares the soul through the human mode of meditation upon His
works of creation and redemption (Fire Within, 49).
In Union with Mary
Nevertheless, with souls who are
dedicated to prayer, and to the constant struggle to overcome sins and failings,
the greater gift of
infused contemplation will come. It is in the normal
course of growth in the life of the Spirit.
It is simply what happens when one is faithful
to prayer and
striving for holiness. "Infused contemplation," Father Dubay
writes, "is the normal, ordinary development of discursive
[mentally produced] prayer. The former gradually and gently replaces the latter when
reasoned thought has run its course as a method of communing with the Lord"
(Fire Within, 69).
One of the special contributions of the Holy Father in Rosarium
Virginis Mariae is to the understanding of the powerful influence Our Lady has on the contemplative
activity of the soul while praying the Rosary.
In a special way, this puts us under the maternal guidance
of she who, above all others, was given over
to the contemplation of
His Sacred Face:
Christ is the supreme Teacher, the Revealer and the One revealed.
It is not just a question of learning what He taught but of "learning Him." In
this regard could we have any better teacher than Mary? From the divine standpoint, the
Spirit is the interior teacher who leads us to the full truth of Christ. But among
creatures no one knows Christ better than Mary; no one can introduce us to a profound
knowledge of His mystery better than His Mother (Rosarium
Virginis Mariae 14).
We must remember that the Rosary, as the
Holy Father has pointed out, brings us into a kind of union with Mary
in which we see "the mysteries of the Lords life as
seen through the eyes of her who was closest to the Lord" (Rosarium
Virginis Mariae 12). We join her
in contemplating her
Son and His
deeds, as she did so
many times herself while on
earth. Mary "kept
all these things and pondered them in her heart" (Luke
2:19). Thus, we can say that the Rosary is a
form of contemplative prayer where we are
receiving an extraordinary assistance from
the Mother of God to ponder
the Face of Christ her
Son. In this she
leads us, over the years, to that depth of prayer that is truly a gift
from God, and a loving
union with the very Person
of Christ dwelling in the soul.