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By Arthur Jones, NCR editor at large
The rosary's origins are a subject for fine, if esoteric controversy. That's not the way this conversation is headed. Nonetheless, possibilities are that the rosary was adapted from the worry beads of wandering desert tribes, or imaginatively.
Perhaps someone strung together stones for Paul the hermit. Sozomen tells of this 4th century ascetic who threw away a pebble each time he recited one of his 300 daily prayers. There's a possibility, judging from an edict from a 9th century synod in England, that the first rosary -- by whatever other name -- may have been entirely Pater Nosters.
During the Second World War, G.I.s on the frontlines often had rosaries that were made of knotted string. Silent, the enemy couldn't hear the rosaries jangling in a pocket, and they were darned near indestructible.
The modern rosary is arguably heading for it's one thousandth birthday, give a couple of centuries this way or that. It has become eminently adaptable. So adaptable is it that a quarter-century ago I wrote a booklet that was a "social action" rosary, each bead counted for something: shoes, electric light, laughter.
In County Clare, Ireland, there's a rosary museum. My recollection is there was once one in the United States, too.
But the tale here is more practical that these bits of information.
As visitors to this spot may already know, I once a week say the rosary over the phone -- a truncated and adapted version -- with my 96 year-old mother-in-law, Beatrice. She of the Irish accent. We do but one decade, but what a decade. And whenever I mention this fact in conversation, which occasionally happens, people say, "Wow, that's great. But what do you actually do?"
Well, what we do is begin at the beginning. With the cross.
Then the first bead is always the Our Father bead for whichever member of the family is suffering, whether from sickness or bereavement or whatever. Given that the good Mrs. O'B has nine children, a gadzillion grandchildren and almost an equal number of great-grandchildren, there's usually a minimum three names for the Our Father. Beatrice remains very current on who is ailing.
The first Hail Mary of the three is always for the youngest members of the family. The second Hail Mary is for the extended family, and their extended families. And that's probably two-thirds of the Western hemisphere with strong representation in Latin America and Asia.
The third Hail Mary is for the oldest members we know of that extended brood. Given that Bea's two sisters are 94 and 90, they have pride of place. My contribution is my 86-year-old uncle. And this bead's also for those feeling secret hurts or sorrows, or feeling isolated.
Straight through the Glory Be and then we hit the medallion for the first Our Father of the decade. That's the warm up. Off we go with the 10 swinging Hail Marys (swinging in the sense that a good spiritual is rousing). We're a class act. Under other circumstances we could hire ourselves out for poorly attended wakes to provide the oomph! There were indeed professional "beadsmen" a few centuries back, hired to stand saying the rosary in chill castles while the lords feasted and did whatever else lords do.
One significant thing about Bea's and my rosary saying, I note, is that we never say one for me and never say one for Bea.
So I'll leave Bea to you. She's in hospital as I write getting over pneumonia. Send along a Hail Mary -- I know she'll hear it. She may be 96 but she misses nothing.
Arthur Jones' e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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