I wrote this piece in the summer of 2004, and it was published in the May, 2005 edition of New Oxford Review.[i] I thought I would reproduce it here, as a prayer for the new year.
Pray the Rosary.
I went to a Rosary devotion a few nights ago, the first I have ever been to. It is held every Wednesday evening at the small chapel I and my family have been attending for the past year or so, a chapel where the Tridentine Mass is said under the auspices of the Encyclical Ecclesia Dei. We stumbled upon this place after doing what I had sworn we would never do subsequent to our conversion to Catholicism: church shopping. But the parishes we went to early in our conversion were so awful, and the priests taught things contrary to the Faith so frequently, that shop we did, and now here we are.
The chapel began life as a small frame house with large attached garage on a couple of acres of land. The original attached garage was expanded and converted into what is now the chapel proper. Recently a small classroom wing has been added. The fire marshal will allow 160 people to be seated in the chapel; my experience is that it's closer to that number than not on any given Sunday. The fittings are very simple: wooden pews, wrought iron altar rail, a tasteful, modestly carved wooden altar with the requisite marble component. Statues of St. Mary, St. Joseph, and St. Michael guard the altar and the Tabernacle, and the Tabernacle is smack in the middle of it all, right under the golden crucifix and beneath the six high candlesticks, so that you know where the focus of the Mass is and you're never confused about where to perform your genuflection.
The Tridentine Mass itself wasn't totally alien. As both my wife and I come from a "high" Episcopal Church background, and are used to formal liturgy, altar rails, and kneeling for Communion, so we are also used to the idea that the space between the railing and the altar is a holy place; you don't go mucking about in there just for the heck of it whether you're a priest, altar boy or layman. Now, assisting at the Traditional Latin Mass, following the liturgy really hasn't been the problem it is frequently advertised to be: there's lots of simple outlines available. The one put out by The Coalition for Ecclesia Dei costs a couple of bucks, has the Latin and English side by side, and has little line drawings of what the priest is doing, along with marginal comments on what's going on as well as what you should be doing (kneeling, standing, not receiving Communion if you're not in a state of grace, whatever). Follow the booklet and the Mass closely, and in a couple of weeks you'll have the swing of it, and have learned a bit of theology besides. It's not that difficult. The greatest challenge, really, in our family's adaptation to the Tridentine Mass has been managing our four small children. They're not badly behaved, as 6, 4, 2 and two month old children go; it's just that they're, well, children, and the polite 4 year old question, "Is it over yet?" sticks out ever so much more during the silent Tridentine consecration than it ever did in the Novus Ordo liturgy. "This too," I tell myself, "is but a season."
My family is away now, and I am alone, and each day I come home from work to a house which, to my momentary surprise, is completely unchanged from how I left it in the morning. So, I decide to go to the Wednesday evening Rosary.
I'm not a complete stranger to the Rosary. I've prayed it most days for the past few years, having begun back when we lived in Italy, soon after our conversion to the Faith. It was a 50 minute commute to work and I had this Rosary tape which I would listen to, and I gradually learned it as I strove with the Neapolitan traffic day in and day out. Praying the Rosary was better than cursing, I figured, and it is a fact that I was never involved in an accident, nor was my car broken into or stolen, the entire time I was there. Ask anyone who's done much driving in bella Napoli how unusual that is.
So I went to the Rosary devotion at the little chapel after work, arriving there just a bit before 7 PM, when it was to begin. A dozen or so people were there, apparently regulars. An elderly gentleman began the session, dedicating the prayer to the various intentions of both the chapel and the Universal Church and finally, pointedly, for the conversion of Islam. Next came the Our Father and the Creed. Then, the Rosary.
"The first joyful mystery, the Annunciation." Wait a minute. Wednesday is supposed to be the Glorious Mysteries, not the Joyful Mysteries. I figured I must have missed something, but all these were silent thoughts as I kneeled and said the Hail Mary's along with everyone else. I have heard it said that Mary gave her fiat, her assent to the Lord, twice. The first time was at the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel was sent from God to the little Galilean town of Nazareth, and to a young woman barely out of girlhood, a virgin, betrothed to a man named Joseph of the house of David, whose name was Mary. And when the angel came to her he said,
"Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women."
And Mary, though afraid, aligned her humble will with that of the Creator of the universe, and allowed His will to be done to her according to His Word. And the Word became flesh, and Mary bore a son, Jesus, fully human and fully Divine, and Mary became the mother of God. One day God would again ask of His humble creature, and she would again assent, though it would pierce her soul as with a sword, and from that assent it would become possible for all men to be saved.
"The third joyful mystery, the Nativity."
My mind tends to wander during prayers, which is at a minimum poor prayer hygiene, if not an outright venial sin. I try to at least keep it's wandering along paths relevant to the prayer. So. Here we have God, the Creator of the universe, the Creator of time, becoming a man. Not simply God wearing a man-suit, as some of the early heretics believed, but fully human, while remaining fully Divine. Why? It's a big universe out there; can it really be the case that God is that interested in us? Perhaps we really are created in His image. It's a mystery. Our youngest child is a sometimes fussy, sometimes smiley, sometimes spitty-uppy little baby who suckles with earnest intent like the hungry hungry hippo in one of the children's books which litter our house. Our oldest, who is six, so wanted a baby brother, and now he rocks the baby, and holds him, and stares at him. Not too many months ago, this little baby was a zygote, a fertilized ovum, floating down a fallopian tube, silently dividing into a small ball of cells. His first major exercise was to differentiate into an outer cell mass, which would become his placenta, and an inner cell mass, which would become him, the baby proper. He was also, at that point, a rich source of embryonic stem cells because he had only just begun the fantastic process of growing and differentiating into the hundreds of different tissue types, and trillions of cells, which make up a person. Today, in the United States of America, there is no earthly reason that he couldn't simply have been destroyed at that point for his parts, his stem cells. In fact, exactly that is done every day with the "spare" embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics. Indeed, we don't even need the "spares"; embryos are created for the express purpose of "harvesting" their stem cells today, right here, in the good ole' US of A. Some countries, England, for example, have enacted legislation prohibiting a researcher from implanting one of these embryos in a womb and allowing her to grow. So, we have the interesting situation of defining a class of humans – embryos created to harvest for their parts – whom it is illegal not to kill.
For that matter, if the baby's mother took birth control pills he could have been silently and unknowingly aborted because one of the accepted mechanisms of action of oral contraceptives (they have several different mechanisms) is to render the uterine lining unsuitable for implantation. So this tiny baby, at this point called a blastocyst, would have been ejected in what might have seemed to the mother as a slightly heavier than usual menstrual period. I recently had a conversation with a physician colleague, a highly educated, intelligent and articulate man with a strong classical education. He, like most physicians, strongly endorses abortion, contraception, embryonic stem cell research, in vitro fertilization, and all the other derivatives which are just coming into being.
"Humanity is relative," the tall, handsome physician said. "We make these decisions. Those who oppose these things impede progress."
Now, I'm all for progress. I like air conditioning, flush toilets and local anesthetics. On a more serious note, the convergence of multiple fields of research in basic biochemistry and molecular biology has put us on the verge of truly effective treatments for at least some lethal cancers in a way similar to the revolution in microbiology in the last century which lead to the control of many infectious diseases. But there are things we should not do because they are flagrantly immoral and gravely sinful against God, and the field of medicine is becoming that sort of minefield.
By now the Rosary had progressed to the fifth joyful mystery, the decade of Hail Mary's, and the Fatima prayer ("lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of Thy mercy.") I figured things would be wrapping up, and I felt good about it. I'd come out on a weekday evening, prayed with others in a chapel, and now my knees hurt and I needed to get up and go to work in the morning. The elderly gentleman stopped leading, and now a woman's voice from a pew behind me began.
"The first sorrowful mystery: the agony in the garden."
Oh, dear. Now it's clear: we're going to do the entire 150 decades. These people are serious. Well, nobody forced me to come here.
"Hail Mary, full of grace..."
The sorrowful mystery with which I feel the most affinity is "the carrying of the cross". Although I have been showered with blessings, I am all too often more than ready to view them as burdens, and that I must shoulder them as my cross. But in truth they are easy burdens, and their occasional inconveniences count as nothing in comparison to the gift of eternal life my Savior has offered to me, if only I will accept it. But of the sorrowful mysteries it is the fifth one, the crucifixion, that is the most poignant. It is here that the Blessed Virgin Mary gave her second assent to God, her second fiat. Unlike St. Joseph, who tradition tells us died prior to Jesus' entry into public ministry, Mary was not spared the torment of watching her son's crucifixion. She didn't fight God on this, but prayed and accepted His will, all the while allowing her soul to be pierced by the sword Simeon had prophesied in the temple over 30 years before. She gave the assent of her own free will, just as Jesus had in the garden of Gethsemane the night prior to His death: "Not my will, but Thine, be done."
"The first glorious mystery, the Resurrection."
Some years back, the Anglican priest who led me out of atheism and back to Christ observed, concerning the so called "rock opera" Jesus Christ Superstar, that what he didn't like about it was that it ended with the crucifixion, and completely ignored the resurrection. In so doing it missed the entire point of Christianity: Jesus' victory over death.
"What," this fine mentor used to say, "does the atheist have to offer the dying man?"
Almost every day I get stuff in my mailbox from various Catholic organizations needing money to do good things. Every one is worthwhile, and I cannot possibly give to them all, or even most of them. And collectively, their efforts seem so futile, so puny against the massive juggernaut of evil which is engulfing our nation. When we endorsed abortion a generation ago we obscured the moral dividing line between ourselves and Nazi Germany. That line becomes ever more faint. Today, at the dawn of true human engineering, when we are willing to create babies in order to disassemble them for their parts, we are approaching a level of technological barbarity which would have made those old Nazis stand up with applause. Meanwhile the heart of our society, the family defined by God, is being deconstructed by the leaders of our nation, not just the "elected" leaders but the de facto leaders: the judges, the media, Hollywood superstars, all those whom we allow to do our thinking for us. In place of the family they substitute aberrations and downright lies: "blended families", single parent families, and now something called "homosexual marriage." I feel powerless to stop it. I look at my children, who look back at me with trusting, innocent eyes, and I silently grieve and rage at the remorseless destruction of the world I will leave to them.
What came after the Resurrection? The Rosary tells us: the Ascension into Heaven. The Descent of the Holy Spirit. These are the promises of the Christian faith; the promises of God. They are the promises that, no matter what happens in this old world, God has His Providential Plan, and we are part of it. That doesn't mean that we should be passive, and accept the evil which is engulfing us. No. We should resist it, no matter how meagre our arsenal of earthly weapons. We should not despair, and we should never, never give up hope, and we should always remember that this world is not our final destination. And, we should pray the Rosary, and ask for the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She's got some horsepower. After all, she's the Queen of Heaven.
"Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with Thee.
Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
and at the hour of our death."
[i] TP Collins, "Pray the Rosary" New Oxford Review, May, 2005. By permission, New Oxford Review, New Oxford Review, Inc. 1069 Kains Ave. Berkeley, CA 94706.