What it is and why I love it
The rosary* is a form of meditative prayer focusing on the life of Christ. It is constructed from repeated prayers that act as a foundation for communication with God. It is prayed using a set of beads, also called a rosary, that allows you to keep track without having to count or remember where you are. It starts with the sign of the cross, then the apostle’s creed. This means that from the very beginning you are looking to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and re-affirming belief, trust, and commitment in Him. It ends with the Hail Holy Queen which sums up being made part of God’s family and trusting in His goodness, His grace, our interdependence in Christ, and the special role of Mary in this family. The body of the rosary is made up of the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be. These three prayer together express confidence and trust in God and His love for us, and our love, praise, and worship of Him. Each Hail Mary re-affirms the reality of the incarnation, God’s love for us, and the wonder of being in the family of God. The centre of the Hail Mary is “blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus”. This means that the name of Jesus runs through the centre of the rosary prayers like a heartbeat, reminding, confirming, and inviting trust in Him and what He did for us. There are four sets of mysteries, traditionally prayed on specific days of the week, each one focusing on a different phase of Jesus’s life, ministry, and the plan of salvation. Meditating on these mysteries embeds one in the gospel and makes it present and real and relevant. The structure of the rosary prayers make it with Mary, and about or oriented to God. That in itself reminds us of our real inclusion in God’s family, and is a way of experiencing unity with and participation in the rest of the Body of Christ. One focuses on and can sense God our Father, Jesus our saviour, the active presence of the Holy Spirit, and Mary our mother.
The rosary when everything’s falling apart
I find it very difficult to pray and focus on God during times of intense stress, anxiety, or when the world is overwhelming and inhospitable. He feels absent rather than present, although He hasn’t changed or turned away; it is me who is closed off and feeling disconnected. Feelings of being overwhelmed and stressed are common for me (and probably most autistic people, as well as many non-autistic people), so I had to find a way to pray and stay connected to God during these times.
The answer I’ve found is the rosary. Meditation on the mysteries makes the reality of Christ present again. The structure of the prayers provides a scaffolding for this meditation that is otherwise impossible at times of distress. It powerfully facilitates reconnecting with God, particularly in the person of Jesus, and supports remaining in that awareness and presence for the duration of the prayer. It creates an awareness of the broader story of salvation and God’s goodness to His people and, if I’m willing to see it, reminds me of His love for me as an individual. This gives me a more realistic perspective on things because when I’m stressed and overwhelmed the world tends to narrow to only what is distressing me. Even if it only lasts for the duration of the prayer, it is a valuable reality check.
Sometimes during the rosary something will come up. Maybe one of the mysteries makes me see the current difficulty differently, or helps me see where God has been with me all along, or demonstrates that Jesus understands and experienced similar feelings. When that happens, I pause and pray about it either in words or silently “holding” it and entrusting it to God. I still habitually think I need to articulate prayers clearly, but I’m learning to trust that God doesn’t need me to do that and understands anyway. These insights and prayers help to work through things a bit and begin healing, they are a precious gift from God. If I don’t think of myself at all during the prayer it is still healing because it is looking up from myself and re-orienting to God. Often on rough days the 30 to 45 minutes of praying the rosary is the only time of peace and security I’ll feel. When I feel like I’m falling apart, the rosary holds me together at the seams. It is a welcome and necessary time of connection with God, rest, healing, and gaining perspective.
The feel of the beads and the repetitive prayers are soothing in a stimmy sort of way which helps being able to do it at times when other forms of prayer are outfacing and impossible. The repetition of a small number of prayers makes them easy to learn. I’m terrible at learning words and remembering on demand, but I’ve managed to learn it well enough to use reliably without notes. And if I do forget a part, I don’t worry about it and trust that God knows what I mean anyway, and knowing that Mary is praying with me means I don’t have to cope alone. That’s part of the beauty of structured/formulaic prayers, the whole intention and meaning is there to use and isn’t dependent on ability or imagination at a time when I feel I have neither.
Adapting the rosary for autism and executive function deficit.
I found the rosary difficult at first because I have very poor working memory (the number of things one can hold in mind at once) and attention difficulties (concentrating and staying focused). It requires doing multiple things at one; remembering and reciting prayers and thinking about a prescribed mystery. I could see its potential though, and so asked advice and experimented until I found ways that work for me. I’ll share what I’ve found works, and I’d love to hear if you’ve found a method that helps.
- Get familiar with the beads. The beads remove the need to keep track of where you are in the prayer, so becoming familiar with them removes a significant cognitive load. Choose a rosary that you enjoy the feel of, it should be pleasant and comforting to hold and manipulate. There are loads of different sorts available, or you can make your own, so there will be one you like.
- Learn the constituent prayers. Once the basic “building blocks” are memorised, you are free to concentrate on the mysteries rather than reading the prayers or struggling to remember them.
- Use notes. Use notecards, booklets, any prompts that help remember the mysteries of the day and the order of the prayers. There is no need to have it all memorised perfectly, and it takes nothing away from the prayer to look at notes.
- For meditation throughout the whole prayer use a book. There are books of scriptural rosaries and illustrated rosaries available that give a bible verse before each Hail Mary, and pictures for the mysteries. These help meditate more deeply and consistently on the events, and make it easy because you don’t need to remember anything. I like these very much, and it can be a beautiful time of deeper insight into the gospel. But with this method a rosary takes me well over an hour and is quite tiring, so I don’t do it very often. There are free ones available online too, but I don’t like looking at a screen.
- Don’t try to multitask. My biggest breakthrough with the rosary came when someone told me you don’t need to keep the mysteries in mind for the whole time. It’s enough to pause at the beginning of each decade to meditate on the mystery, and then proceed with the prayers on their own. The brief period of meditation is valuable and can still lead to deeper awareness of God, understanding of the mystery, or appreciation of Jesus’s presence in your own life. The prayers have value on their own because they are in the context of the whole rosary prayer, you have the intention of spending time coming closer to God, and they have intrinsic meaning. This is the form I do most often now. It is manageable even when I am feeling very stressed/rough and unable to pray, it helps me reorient to God, and it helps me be aware of His presence and everything He does for me.
- Add in little reminders to yourself. If your mind wanders a lot and it is very difficult to concentrate, it can be helpful to remind yourself of the mystery part way through. One way to do this is to pause and bring it to mind again, then proceed as before. Another way is to add a relevant descriptor after the word “Jesus” in one or some of the Hail Marys. For example, you might say “and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus, true God but with the humility of a child.” I sometimes find this useful, but don’t find it easy to think of the extra words. If I do it, it’s usually only once per mystery and I use the effort of it to deliberately re-focus myself.
- Stop for spontaneous prayer. If something comes to mind, maybe a question, concern, new understanding, or gratitude, stop and pray about it. Use your own words or any remembered prayer than feels appropriate, or no words at all. Keep your fingers on the bead so if you want to return to the rosary you will easily find your place. If you don’t want to return, that’s ok! The purpose is to draw closer to God, so listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and bringing them to God in your own prayer is making good use of the rosary.
- Do what you can. If you are tired, finding it hard to concentrate, or are extremely busy, you can choose to do part of a rosary. I start with the introductory prayers, then pray one or more decades, then finish with the concluding prayers. Even praying one decade is valuable because it is making time to come to God in prayer, meditate on Jesus, and place yourself in His family. I do need to do this sometimes, but I often find that the days when I most don’t want to because of feeling overwhelmed or stressed are the days when I most need to pray, so it is worth persevering.
- Pray where you are most comfortable. Go where ever you are comfortable and relaxed praying. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in a church, your room, or outside either sitting or walking. Some people do it while driving or standing in queues, but I don’t have the working memory capacity to do it at the same time as anything else. When I use a scriptural rosary, I like to be in the quiet of my room or a chapel, but for the easier version I quite like to be outside walking. The added movement helps me relax, and I often feel less stressed just being outside so that helps me focus too.
* I won’t explain how to pray the rosary in this post because there are lots of excellent free resources available. A good starting point for finding out more about the rosary is this letter by Pope St John Paul II. If you would like me to recommend books, ask in a comment and I’ll share my current favourites.