“Even if you are on the brink of damnation, even if you have one foot in hell, … and even if you are a heretic as obstinate as a devil, sooner or later you will be converted and will amend your life and will save your soul, if … you say the Holy Rosary devoutly every day until death for the purpose of knowing the truth and obtaining contrition and pardon for your sins. … Never will anyone who says his Rosary every day become a formal heretic or be led astray by the devil.”
— Saint Louis de Montfort (1673-1716), The Secret of the Rosary, “A Red Rose” & “25th Rose”
I’ve never been a big fan of the Rosary.
Or, more accurately stated, I’ve never been a big fan of sacrificing time to sit (or kneel) in one place and pray the Rosary from start to finish. My flesh resists it like no other. My mind wanders like…
Where was I?
Knowing that prayer is crucial, however, I have internalized other favorite prayer habits (especially the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, the Jesus Prayer, etc.) over the years, but I can only claim a sporadic devotion to the Rosary.
Nevertheless, I’ve always had a great devotion to the idea and the reality of the rosary. I love Mother Mary, I love the brown scapular, I love indulgences, and I love the lore of the Rosary as a chain of grace binding us to the Lord.
But I’ve just never been able to get into it like a good Catholic should.
Oh, I’ve been reassured that it’s not essential to pray the Rosary, so etc. but it’s always been a hollow spot for me. A sort of spiritual color blindness.
But I’m here to thank Pope Francis for my newfound devotion to the Rosary.
Well, more accurately stated, I’m thanking God for the F1 F/X (the Francis Effect) as a catalyst for taking my Entish ways less for granted. (Ents are probably my favorite being in Tolkien’s universe: beings of great but almost unknown power when the good is at risk, wedded to the ancient roots of the world––much like Catholics humbly steeped in the Tradition.)
We know how Pope Francis mocks the counting of decades, yet we also know how his defenders count his daily decades. We know how Pope Francis denigrates the saying of prayers in favor of “prayer” as such, yet we also know that he prays the rosary every day. By now this papal ping-pong is old hat for me and my reader, and thus no cause for consternation. It’s just another of Pope Whitman‘s trademark “tensions” (if not contradictions). Because, I know, I know, I know, there’s a perfectly consistent and profoundly orthodox message coming from Pope Francis on traditional prayers and devotions––it just takes a little, and then a little, and then a little more cognitive collating to bring into focus.
Here’s the point:
It was in the course of threshing out the real Pope Francis, as I’ve been trying to do for the past month, that I came upon this video featuring Michael Matt and Christopher Ferrara doing their threshing of the Pope’s litany of head-scratchers.
It’s all about the baffled head-shake.
If you advance to 3:20 in that video, you’ll hear Ferrara mention how Catholics praying the Rosary are “doing violence to themselves” even when they “don’t feel like it” (cf. Mt 11:12 and blue note). He then adds, around 9:00, that our loving God gives us an “A for effort” if we pray the rosary “even when we don’t want to,” for God sees how we “struggle” to stay close to the Son.
TOUCHDOWN! That has set my brain on fire, thank you, Mr. Ferrara! For the past few days I have made my daily rosary the summit of my spiritual life. I schedule my evening around it, rather than vice versa. I had once again succumbed to the delusion that my wordless, groggy “prayer” life was enough to get me by on the path to sainthood. In fact, however, what I need, and always need, is a coherent, simple, traditional way of life that is strengthened by fixed prayers like rebar in the soul. If that means that, according to Pope Francis, I have toked from the crack pipe of restorationism and doctrinal security, then so be it. The Entish Old Ways––say the prayer even if you feel no consolation––trump his stumping for Clever New Ways, every time. Recall a point he made to Fr. Spadaro:
“Ignatius [of Loyola] asks us to open our spiritual sensitivity to encounter God beyond a purely empirical approach. A contemplative attitude is necessary: it is the feeling that you are moving along the good path of understanding and affection toward things and situations. Profound peace, spiritual consolation, love of God and love of all things in God – this is the sign that you are on this right path.”
That may be true, but all it does for me is reinforce my laziness, if not valorize my acedia. Pope Francis goes on and on about joy and smiles as proof of one’s faith, which is well and good, but I myself frequently derive an icy pleasure (Pelagian, as he would probably call it) in communing with God, as He specifies in the authority of Holy Tradition, even when I derive no sense of joy from it. I frankly don’t know what “the feeling that you are moving along the good path” is like, but I do how to put one foot in front of another, one word after another, in the obedience of prayer, praise, and penance. I also know that such drab loyalty makes me feel better than waiting for a positive feeling to inspire me to “pray” without words.
On October 8 Pope Francis made a related “off-the-cuff” point (emphasis added):
“And the Lord tells us: ‘the first task in life is this: prayer.’ But not the prayer of words, like a parrot; but the prayer, the heart: gazing on the Lord, hearing the Lord, asking the Lord. We know that prayer works miracles. … And not praying is this: closing the door to the Lord, so that He can do nothing. On the other hand, prayer, in the face of a problem, a difficult situation, a calamity, is opening the door to the Lord so that He will come. … This is what praying is: opening the door to the Lord, so that he can do something. But if we close the door, God can do nothing!”
And on 17 October he made these related points (emphasis added):
“…when a Christian prays, he is not far from the faith; he speaks with Jesus.” And, the Pope said, “I say to pray, I do not say to say prayers, because these teachers of the law said many prayers” in order to be seen. Jesus, instead, says: “when you pray, go into your room and pray to the Father in secret, heart to heart.” The pope continued: “It is one thing to pray, and another thing to say prayers.”
Unfortunately, this is yet another of the Holy Father’s obscure false dichotomies (mystical mystification!). He says that “praying” works miracles, and the implication is that, by contrast, saying prayers does not. He says that “prayer” brings us close to Jesus, whereas “saying prayers” groups us with the legalists. I can only disagree. It is precisely by adhering to a ‘rigid’ schedule, and resorting to ‘rigid’ traditional prayers, that we force open our lives to God. It is only by setting time and cognitive power apart for regimented prayer that we shut out other competing distractions that close us to God. Prayer is not just a cry for help “in the face of a problem.” It is an ongoing mortification of the old Adam in order to be reborn in joy as sons in the New Adam (Mt 5:30, Jn 12:24, Rom 6, Col 3 (esp. 3:5)). From the beginning the Church has lived by “the prayers,” not merely by “prayer,” and when His disciples asked Him to teach them to pray, Christ taught not an emotional disposition but specific words that have been fixed in the life of the Church ever since. Even that most “heart-based” of prayers, the Jesus Prayer, is explicitly rooted in the saying of specific words, in a specific posture, in a specifically coordinated rhythm. I understand, charitably, that the Pope is trying to tell us to enjoy the mid-air freedom of flying in the Spirit, but the fact is, unless you have attained the mystical heights and can jump down from them into a silent glide, the vast majority of Catholics need the “Pelagian” churning of the verbal propellers just to get off the ground.
I all too easily regress into my old Protestant instincts about prayer as a wordless intention, or prayer as a spontaneous warmth, and when I regress, my life suffers. I become unfixed and infirm. Thank God, though, I have been “restored” by grace to the Catholic wisdom of saying fixed words at fixed times in order to fix myself to the God who wants to fix me. Though Pope Francis says “restorationism” is a “temptation” against the “missionary” spirit, I must humbly confess that “the restoration of outdated manners and forms which, even on the cultural level, are no longer meaningful” (his words from the same address linked just now) has quite literally saved my soul. No mere gazing of the heart has fixed prayers have fixed my prayer life, and good thing, because one’s prayer life fixes one to God. None of this is to suggest, of course, that I do no derive any positive emotions or profound joy in my daily struggle for Christlikeness. It’s just to note another instance of how Pope’s recondite oracles do little to nothing for my own san(ct)ity, and seem designed to challenge even the most loyal sons of the Church (here’s more of the same). I can console myself that Pope Francis might approve of my efforts, not only because I’m using a simple rosary made by an inmate, but also because I don’t even have all the elements of the rosary memorized in Latin yet (Pelagian-restorationist-style).
Meanwhile, and what makes my rosary recovery even sweeter? It came about by using an old-school St. Joseph’s Daily Missal (SJDM) that my dad left me. I have a Spanish, an English, a modern Chinese, an old Chinese, a German, and a Latin guide to the Rosary, but something about that unassuming, battered SJDM provided the perfect enzymes for the catalyst which Ferrara planted in my mind. And even though I pray each decade now in English, now in Spanish, now in Latin, now in Chinese, now in German, it is the simple little headings in the SJDM under the quaint illustrations for each mystery that enrich my prayer like never before.
And maybe it’s just that simple.
Maybe my personal “restoration” in the rosary, despite the pope’s sophisticated (and sophistically obscure) denigration of rosary fetishes like mine, captures why I’m still very far from unequanimously calling him “my pope.” Just because he thinks there’s nothing worth recovering prior to Vatican II (“one feels as if one goes back 60 years!”), doesn’t mean he’s right, and much less that I must heed him in his affable myopia.
[CUE AWKWARD SEGUE.]
One of my favorite songs is “Washed Away” by Arrested Development.
It is a song for Ents.
“The ocean’s owned by the serpent…”
It is a song about the satanic desire to erode the shores of tradition built up by divine goodness in human civilization, and about the divine plan to shore up the traditional boundaries of goodness among humans subject to the devil. “Why do we allow them to wash it away? … Why are we allowing them to take what’s good?” Amen, and amen. Yet–“all of us must swim the sea, because our past’s been washed away.” It would probably mortify them to know this, but Arrested Development’s “Washed Away” played a key though obscure role in my converting to Catholicism, and still informs my sense of why marriage is worth defending against marriage revisionists.
Have you frequented my blog long enough to know how I think the pope’s message is crucially “liquid”? (Congratulations! If you followed and peruse that link, you’ve become a seasoned FCA reader!) Biblically, the open seas are the antithesis of God’s saving order: God made the earth from the watery chaos (Gen 1), the Israelites defeated sea-faring pagans (Exodus, Joshua), God’s greatest victory is in converting water into the means of salvation (Baptism in the NT), and the Lord’s final victory is over the beast who comes “from the sea (Rev 13). So, in worldly wisdom, playing with fire is dangerous, whereas according to biblical wisdom, playing with fire, the vivifying grace of God, is the only thing safe. By contrast, to the world, playing with water is mere child’s play, while in the biblical tradition playing with water is a likely path to doom: to water down the truth, to douse the fire of the Spirit, and to erode the boundaries of the Kingdom. Even though in my higher rational centers I know Pope Francis is not a liberal, my abiding fear is that the more liquid the Pope makes the Church’s message, the less biblical he makes the Church.
Since I’ve sapped your joy with so many words by now, I’ll wrap up this post with pictures for your heart to gaze upon. Is that non-restorationist enough of me?