Take Prayer into Your Own Hands: The Rosary's Manual Prayer Has Been Passed Down by Generations of Working-Class Women

Article excerpt

WHEN MY FATHER WAS DYING OF CANCER, my mother said the rosary before bed, and if it was a particularly exhausting day caring for him at borne, she fell asleep with the wooden beads between her fingers.

Some weeks after his death, while cleaning out a drawer, I found my rosary beads and was moved to say it for the first time in years. Later I wondered why I hadn't said it for my father as my mother had done. Why hadn't I prayed to the Blessed Mother in such a hand-intensive way as three generations of women in my family before me?

A legend tells of Mary taking rosebuds from the lips of a young monk as he recited the Ave Marias. She wove them into a garland. In Sanskrit the word rosary means "garden of flowers" or "necklace of beads." The word bead comes from the Anglo-Saxon bede and means prayer. Thus the association between Mary and the rosary.

For me, it's not a question of praying to the Blessed Mother but how. The women in my family regard her as the Queen of Peace, Mother of the universe, and most importantly, Mother of Christ. Our belief is that if we can't pray to her, to whom can we pray? Throughout the scriptures it is suggested that Jesus listened to what his mother had to say. Why shouldn't we?

In many ways, the rosary is the history of working-class people who couldn't afford Bibles or read them but wanted their prayers to count and be counted. According to historians, devoted laity would collect 150 pebbles--one for every psalm--and put them inside a pouch. After they said a Lord's Prayer, they would toss a pebble on the ground, so they knew when their pouch was empty, they had finished. Later a rope with 150 knots was used, then shortened to a rope with 50 knots said three times a day. Wood and clay, then precious metals and gemstones were used for prayer beads. Eventually, the modern, so-called Dominican rosary--with 150 Hall Marys, accompanying Our Fathers, meditations on the mysteries, and Glory Be's--was established in the 16th century.

I thought of my great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother and realized that unlike myself, they used their hands in prayer much the same way they did in their work. Be it at home or in the labor force, their work was a series of methodical hand motions that involved counting or repetition in its execution. …