by Garry Wills
Village Press, 2005
(185 pages, $24.95, hardcover)
reviewed by Michael P. Orsi
The rosary, says Garry Wills, “is situated within the broad gamut of religious phenomena.” The rhythmic repetition of prayers as an aid to contemplation is a technique also found in other religious traditions. The induced change of pace effected by the prayer opens the one praying it to experience a deeper consciousness in order to immerse himself in the mystery contemplated.
But for Catholics it is not just a technique, and The Rosary is not solely a scholarly dissertation, but a spiritual aid designed to help the person praying the rosary to meditate on the mysteries of the gospel.
A Rose Garden
Wills—some of whose writing could be described as questioning traditional Catholicism—begins his discussion by dispelling the myth that Mary gave the rosary to St. Dominic, the thirteenth-century founder of the Dominicans. He presents its complex history, which culminated in the prayer as we know it, compiled by a Polish Cartusian monk, Dominic of Prussia, who died in 1460. Its name, he writes, comes from rosarium, meaning rose garden.
He then examines the individual prayers contained in the rosary: the Apostles’ Creed, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be (or Dox-ology). In doing this, he provides a careful and up-to-date exegesis of the Scriptures, using the analysis of Catholic and Protestant scholars such as Raymond Brown, Joachim Jeremias, and Rowan Williams, as well as insights from the writings of St. Augustine, John Henry Newman, and G. K. Chesterton.
He describes the Our Father, for example, as an apocalyptic expression that looks to the end-time of history. The words “Give us this day our daily bread” should be translated as “the oncoming bread,” referring to the messianic meal at the end of time.
Another example is found in his description of the Luminous Mystery of the Wedding Feast at Cana. Mary’s “They have no wine” is often presented as a petition moving Jesus to perform a miracle, causing pious Catholic preachers over the years to encourage those in need of aid to go to Mary first, since Jesus will not turn down his mother. The truth, however, is that she just states a fact, and advises others to do whatever Jesus says. This exegesis is consistent with her being the model disciple, as Luke presents her at the Annunciation, when she exclaims, “Let it happen as you say.”
Wills also provides a detailed guide for the rosary’s recitation. He explains which prayers correlate to the 59 rosary beads, and how they are divided into five groups of ten, or decades.
He then introduces the four sets of mysteries, each containing five specific meditations on the life of Christ: the Joyful Mysteries, which deal with the events of the nativity; the Luminous Mysteries (added by Pope John Paul II in 2002), which focus on Jesus’ public ministry; the Sorrowful Mysteries, which present the Passion; and the Glorious Mysteries, which proclaim the post-Resurrection events as they pertain to Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and Mary.
The book contains color reproductions of the sixteenth-century Venetian artist Tintoretto’s paintings corresponding to each specific meditation, with Wills’s description of the artistic expression depicted in each. For example, in Tintoretto’s “Crowning with Thorns” (the third Sorrowful Mystery), the color of Jesus’ red, blood-drenched robe runs through Pilate and the soldiers, symbolically indicating that the four Roman figures surrounding him share the guilt for his passion and death.
Last May, the month Catholics traditionally dedicate to Mary, Pope Benedict XVI invited the faithful to pray the rosary to better understand the key moments of salvation history and to aid their growth in holiness. In this book Wills helps Catholics to appreciate the pope’s exhortation, and he also gives other Christians a way to understand why Catholics pray the rosary as a way of growing closer to Christ.
Michael P. Orsi is a Catholic priest and a Research Fellow in Law and Religion at Ave Maria School of Law.