We spend a great deal of time in this life waiting around for things to happen. When something we’re waiting for is particularly urgent or critical, many of us get more nervous and more upset the longer we have to wait for it. It’s very easy in these moments to come to sympathize with the Psalmist. “How long, O Lord,” we read in Psalm 13, “will you utterly forget me? How long will you hide your face from me?”
Yet how often do we stop to think about the fact that He is asking us the same question: “How long do I have to wait for YOU?” Prayer, of course, is the way back, when we’ve forgotten that He is not our plaything, to be put down or taken up as we wish. And one of the most powerful forms of prayer there is comes in the form of a set of beads.
Today Catholics celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. The rosary is, of course, an object which Catholics and non-Catholics alike are very familiar with. It is not some sort of amulet or talisman, nor is it simply “worry beads” to numb the consciousness. Rather, the rosary is a tool for remembering and meditating on the love that God has for all of us, in recalling the Incarnation of God the Son through some of the major events of His life and that of His Mother. It has been a lifeline for Christians for centuries, and today’s feast day recalls one particular instance of that.
On October 7, 1571, as the Ottomans were conquering their way into Europe, they were defeated by a naval armada led by Spain and a coalition of smaller Christian kingdoms at the Battle of Lepanto. Knowing that the Christian forces were hugely outnumbered, and recognizing the implications for Christianity if the Ottomans were to invade Italy, Pope St. Pius V called for all of Europe to fast and pray for the success of the effort, particularly encouraging people to pray the rosary and ask the Virgin Mary to intercede with Her Son. In thanksgiving for the defeat of the Ottomans, Pius dedicated October 7th on the Church calendar to Our Lady of Victory; his successor, Pope Gregory XIII, changed the name of the feast day to honor Our Lady through prayer of the rosary.
This is all very grand and heady stuff, of course. Saints having visions, popes issuing decrees, battling imperial forces, and so on are enough to fire anyone’s imagination. Yet we have to remember that a lot of what went on here, albeit on an international scale, was waiting, and then waiting some more. Because of this, the rosary was absolutely the right tool for the job at that time, as indeed it is on both an international and personal level today.
Most of us are not sitting around waiting to be conquered and slaughtered by the hostile armies of a different religion, although in fact many of our Christian brothers and sisters actually are, at this very moment. For them, the rosary provides protection greater than any number of drone strikes or missile launches (let alone a politician’s misguided speech in rather poor taste.) It reminds them that God’s promise works its way out in God’s time, not in the time we might like it to, and often not without great suffering. Sometimes amazing things may happen, as at Lepanto on this day 443 years ago; other times, the outcome is not so obviously joyful.
For those of us whose suffering-while-waiting is more personal rather than geopolitical in nature, the rosary is just as powerful a reminder that we are loved, but also that we have to accept God’s Will whatever it may be, and whenever it may be revealed. As we anticipate news of the job or school application, the mortgage approval, or the biopsy report from the oncologist, the rosary reminds us that this, too, is just a passing moment, even if it seems to be taking a long time to pass. The rosary can accompany us in those moments, as we wait for the phone to ring, the letter to arrive, the person to come down the hall and tell us the news that we’re waiting on.
The real example for Christians to take from reflecting on the life of the Virgin Mary through praying the rosary is two-fold. First we must accept that our life as Christians, like that recalled in the rosary, must have Christ at its center. All that Mary does and witnesses, which we recall in the prayer of the rosary, is centered around her relationship with Him. If we do not get that, then we do not “get” the point of the rosary.
Second, the rosary serves as a reminder of how we must humbly accept God’s Will in our life, even when things are not as we would necessarily like them to be, or when we don’t see how everything is going to work out in the end. It took Mary but a moment to say yes to the invitation to become the Mother of the Messiah brought by the Angel Gabriel. It took her a lifetime for her to see how God’s promise to her, and indeed to all of mankind, would be fulfilled.
Whatever you are waiting on, then, no matter how great or terrible the news, or how long it takes to arrive, consider allowing the rosary to be your way of remaining close to God, as you await the outcome of His Will.
Detail of “Our Lady of the Rosary” by Caravaggio (1607)
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.