Waiting with Mary

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.

Detail of “Our Lady of the Rosary” by Caravaggio (1607)
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

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Lifting A Prayer on the Elevator

Much to my surprise, I was asked by Father Roderick Vonhögen to be a return guest on “Catholic Weekend” this past Saturday; you can download the episode in iTunes or listen to it on the show website.  I enjoyed myself once again, and thank both him and SQPN for the opportunity to reach an audience that might not spend a lot of time reading blogs – or at least, blogs as arguably esoteric as this one.  And as often happens in my experience, though perhaps this is simply how my brain works, a detail of the show got me to thinking about the intersection of prayer and technology.

In Saturday’s episode, Father Roderick used the audio conceit of visiting an imaginary, giant headquarters for “Catholic Weekend”, which was spread out over several virtual floors, and required the use of an elevator to reach the different parts of the building.  This got me thinking about a type of Victorian-era passenger elevator called the “paternoster”,  which I suspect few of my American readers will be familiar with, unless they have studied architecture and engineering, or have traveled to places where they are still in use.  Although there are still some of these in existence, today they are few and far between.

The paternoster gets its name from the first two words of the “Our Father” in Latin.  Its design is of a continuous loop of chain with multiple cars attached, rather than a single car system on cables, which is the type with which today we are most familiar.  This allowed the chain of compartments to slowly continue rotating, so that a passenger would not have to wait more than a few seconds for a car going up or down.  The name stuck because it was reminiscent of the rosary, which of course we Catholics use for prayer and meditation, as each decade or cycle of the rosary begins with praying the bead for the “Our Father”.

We do not see paternosters much any more, for they were an efficient but somewhat slow way to move people from one part of a tall building to another.  They could also be incredibly dangerous, depending on how they were designed.  For example, people could injure themselves getting into or out of one of the constantly moving cars, or they could fall into an open shaft between the cars, and be caught or killed.  In many places, paternosters have been banned or taken out of service, although there are a few buildings where they are still in operation and can be seen or ridden at one’s own peril.

I have always found it curious that the name “Jacob’s Ladder” wasn’t applied to this type of elevator instead.  For those of you who have forgotten your Bible stories, in Genesis 28:10-19 the Patriarch Jacob has a dream of angels going up and down a ladder from Heaven to Earth, in a continuous cycle.  This would seem to be much more analogous a popular religious concept to apply to naming this particular type of elevator.  The praying of the “Pater Noster” is the beginning of a cycle in the rosary, yes, but the rosary does eventually come to a definite end, unlike Jacob’s Ladder.  Perhaps the choice of this term betrays a lack of understanding of Catholic practice on the part of the Protestant English marketing experts who so named the device.

Although one rarely sees paternosters anymore, modern life in the West would be unrecognizable if we did not have the elevator.  Our commercial and civic buildings would be considerably shorter, for one thing, as would many residential structures.  I suspect that we would also be thinner and healthier from all the walking we would have to do, and that the landscape would be more beautiful, dotted by trees and church or city hall spires, rather than by boring glass and concrete boxes dedicated to the worship of Mammon and Narcissus.

I wonder how many of us stop to think, when we board an elevator, that we are embarking on a risky journey.  We assume that the engineer has done his work properly in designing the elevator, and that the workers have done their job properly in installing it.  And we can see the certificates placed in the car by the local authorities, telling us that the car has been inspected and met the government-required safety standards satisfactorily.  In other words, we have every possible human assurance that the elevator ride we are about to take will bring us safely to our destination.

And yet, once we step inside that car, our lives are quite literally hanging by a thread.  It is a very large and strong thread, to be sure, but that steel cable is a thread nonetheless.  We are told by our fellow human beings that it is very unlikely that anything bad will happen to us, and yet they cannot absolutely promise us that this will be the case.

I am not trying to create phobias for anyone, of course, since I have no doubt of the good work done by modern engineers to keep us safe.  Elevators are a necessary part of modern life in many instances, at least insofar as we have come to design our structures with them in mind.  Yet perhaps it would be a good practice for us, once in awhile at least, to say a prayer not only for our own safety when traveling in an elevator, but also for others who do so, and for the men and women who work to build and keep these devices safe.  As to what we ought to pray, at least for my Christian readers, saying an “Our Father” would seem to be entirely appropriate.


Detail of “Jacob’s Ladder”, Unknown Sculptor (c. 1500-1535)
Abbey of Sts. Peter & Paul, Bath, England