Worshippers draw bead on rosaries
February 05, 2005
By Mary A. Jacobs
The request came from a chaplain in Iraq – American soldiers were asking for rosaries. But the chaplain was Episcopalian, and none of the soldiers was Catholic.
"We were surprised," said the Rev. Jim Burns of the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York City, which responded to the chaplain's request. He said he thought the rosary appealed to the soldiers because, Catholic or not, "when you are in harm's way, you want a talisman."
Father Burns organized a group of parishioners to make Anglican prayer beads, a variation of the rosary that omits Roman Catholic devotions to Mary. The group sent about 100 sets, and the project got some parishioners interested enough to try the rosary themselves.
The church's story is one of many pointing to a new trend: growing interest among Protestants in the rosary. It's showing up on Web sites such as www.ecumenicalrosary.org and www.christianrosary.com. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America has on its site a "Lutheran Rosary for Lent." The rosary figures in Protestant retreats and classes focusing on prayer and contemplative practices. Publishers say they're seeing many manuscripts on the subject.
SOME PROTESTANTS ARE GRAVITATING toward the Catholic rosary, a centuries-old devotion that involves repeating a series of prayers – mostly Our Fathers and Hail Marys – and meditating on the mysteries of Jesus' life.
Others, like Dennis Di Mauro of Herndon, Va., are re-casting the devotion to fit Protestant beliefs. Di Mauro, a Lutheran, discovered the rosary while attending a couples group with his wife, who is Catholic. He liked the practice but stumbled over the Marian elements: meditations on Catholic beliefs about Mary's assumption and coronation as queen of heaven.
So he designed the Ecumenical Miracle Rosary, a set of scripturally based prayers that can be used with the traditional Catholic beads. There are no Hail Marys in this version; instead, Di Mauro prays, "Sweet Jesus, I love you with all my heart and all my soul. Help me to serve my family, and everyone else I meet today," a prayer based on "the Greatest Commandment" found in Matthew 22:34-40.
He posted the prayer on his ecumenicalrosary.org in 1999. He now averages more than 200 hits a day from around the world. (The site includes versions in German, French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese.)
Di Mauro is quick to say that his Ecumenical Miracle Rosary isn't meant to replace the Catholic version. Instead, he sees it as a way for Protestants to deepen their prayer lives.
IN THE PAST, Protestants may have dismissed the rosary as a rote exercise, he said, but "people who really pray the rosary aren't just saying those prayers mindlessly. There's a lot more going on. The rosary allows you to get into a rhythm and spend some serious time praying."
Father Burns agreed. "It's a centering kind of thing," he said. "Sometimes, when you pray, your mind goes all over the map. When you have this tactile thing, it focuses you and allows you to go deeper."
George Trauth, a Catholic, decided to teach the Catholic rosary a few years ago at the Dallas Benedictine Retreat, a five-day ecumenical program on traditional Christian contemplative practices. He hesitated, because most of the 40 attendees were not Catholic.
Trauth prefaced the lesson by explaining that the rosary isn't a way to "worship" Mary – instead, Catholics pray for her intercession. The response, he said, was overwhelmingly positive: "Many came up to me afterward and said they were deeply moved by it and would continue to pray the rosary."
Terry Ziegler, co-owner of Catholic Art & Gifts in Farmers Branch, Texas, said Protestant customers will sometimes ask, "I'm not Catholic. Can you sell me a rosary?" His reply: "If you've got cash or a credit card, sure."
Ziegler believes that Pope John Paul II's attention to the rosary has boosted awareness among Catholics and non-Catholics. The pope declared a "Year of the Rosary" from October 2002 to October 2003 and revised the ancient tradition by adding five "luminous mysteries" focusing us on the public life of Jesus – his baptism, the wedding at Cana, his announcement of the kingdom of God, the transfiguration and the Last Supper. (Before, the rosary prescribed meditation on 15 mysteries of the birth and death of Jesus and the life of Mary.)
Debra Farrington, an author and publisher with Morehouse Publishing in Harrisburg, Pa., teaches the rosary at her Episcopal church as part of classes on contemplative prayer. She tweaked the devotion by encouraging participants to add spontaneous, personal prayers between each "decade" (set of 10 beads).
"It's a wonderful meditative practice," she said. "It becomes more and more meaningful the more you do it."
Farrington believes Protestants are getting more interested in what she calls "embodied" forms of prayer. "Praying the rosary involves using the body – you're holding and moving the beads," she said. "It's like walking the labyrinth. People don't want to just live in their heads anymore."
THE APPEAL crosses faith lines. "In the majority of world's religious traditions, there seems to have evolved, independently … prayer beads or some other tangible aid to prayer," said Father Burns. "It seems to be some sort of a common human need."
Growing up in a Muslim family in Turkey, Banu Moore used Islamic prayer beads to pray the 99 names of Allah. Now a Presbyterian minister, she decided to use prayer beads at the Wellspring Christian Formation Center she directs in Jamestown, N.Y.
The result: the Wellspring Prayer Beads, which incorporate elements from the Anglican beads and the Catholic rosary. Moore added beads to represent the Trinity, but prescribed no set form of prayer. Participants are encouraged to select their own Scripture verses or simply offer personal prayers.
She also encourages participants to make their own prayer beads. Some will spend hours picking just the right beads, she said, which makes the devotion more personal and meaningful.
"The beads we use are very colorful," she said. "We're such a visual culture now. You need something to connect you with your faith."
Moore said the idea of praying with beads is readily accepted by Episcopalians and Lutherans, whose religious rituals are similar in many ways to those of Catholicism. But others may require more explanation.
"With Presbyterians, I try to introduce the prayer beads in language that a Protestant will be comfortable with," she said.
She said the use of prayer beads dates back to the Desert Fathers, second-century monks who used beads or knotted ropes to repeat the Jesus prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
"The rosary is not just a Roman Catholic thing," Moore said. "Praying with beads has been part of our tradition since the beginning of the church. We need to claim what is ours, too."