Praying the Rosary and Praying in the Spirit

Douglas P. McManaman
October 18, 2020
Reproduced with Permission

My friend and colleague Tim Crowley used to say there is no difference between praying the rosary and praying in tongues, and he would demonstrate with a rapid uttering of a Hail Mary, followed by what sounded like babbling in a foreign tongue. Praying in tongues is, according to charismatic theology, an instance of "praying in the Spirit". St. Paul says: "The Spirit too helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought; but the Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in speech" (Rom 8, 26-27). This text contains a number of interesting points. For example, we do not know how to pray as we ought. In other words, the mind cannot provide direction when it comes to prayer, and so, the Spirit prays in us, that is, "makes intercession for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in speech" - they cannot be expressed in speech because the mind has not the words, for it does not have the specific ideas (it does not know…). The mind is helpless before the mystery of God and the mystery of His providence. But the Spirit within us knows, and the heart that receives that Spirit will thereby be moved to call out with great longing. The soul that is enlivened by the Spirit, in other words, knows what to pray for, while the mind does not. Hence, there is a kind of disjunct here, between the mind and the heart.

There is a natural counterpart of this phenomenon. I have two great nephews who are twins, and before they achieved competency in the English language, they would communicate to one another, babbling, as in a foreign language - they would feign adult communication. A duck in the park walks by and the one twin would turn to the other, grab his arm, and begin babbling and looking out towards the pond, as if to say: "Did you see what I just saw? The other would return babble, with a variety of inflections and clear linguistic animacy. Evidently, the desire to speak is there, but the words were not. We could say that their souls yearn to speak, but their minds have not the words; to fulfil that need, they babble. We could suggest that a part of them knows what to say, but the mind does not have the words that can articulate precisely what it is they want to say - that will come later.

I believe this disjunct between the mind and the heart is important; for God is the unutterable mystery. The mind is feeble before this mystery, but the heart that receives this mystery is moved at a level at which the mind can only become aware of its own incapacity. And this is precisely what takes place in the praying of the rosary. The words of the Hail Mary said in rapid succession are repeated without the mind concentrating at every instant on the content of those words; instead, the mind is focused on a particular mystery (Joyful, Sorrowful, etc.). The heart, nevertheless, cries out, and the words giving voice to that intercession are the words from the angel Gabriel and from Elizabeth: "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with You; Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, amen". The rosary is indeed an instance of praying in the Spirit, not essentially different from praying in tongues. Charismatic spirituality is not everyone's cup of tea, but the rosary has a much wider appeal and is a more fundamental aspect of Catholic spirituality.

I have not witnessed many spectacular miracles in my life, but in the early nineties, I did experience a rather small but definite miracle that I have not forgotten. One summer, I had prayed the rosary faithfully every day, but when September came around and school began, I had stopped - for life had just become too busy. December came around, and my brother, who at that time was the choir director of St. Patrick's Basilica in Montreal, asked me to drive down from Toronto for midnight Mass to sing, because the baritone section was rather thin that year. I had also arranged to have a friend do some practice teaching in my classroom for the last week before the holidays. But then I came down with a very painful bronchial infection and fever, and the slightest exertion would throw me into a painful coughing fit.

December of that year was very cold, but I was not able to stay home; I had to drive my friend to school so that he could take over my classes. While he did so, I went to the staff room and slept on the couch, burning with a fever. After a couple of days of that, I decided to drive myself to the hospital that was just down the road. The doctor took one look at my throat and wrote me a prescription. Every time I got in or out of the car, I underwent a painful coughing fit. I told my friend that he would have to take the bus home, because I was in no condition to spend the day in the school staff room. I also knew that I was not going to Montreal that year to help out in with the choir.

When I got home from the hospital, I proceeded to my room, and of course when I got to the top of the stairs, I had another coughing fit, the pain reaching to the deepest recesses of my bronchial tubes, something I had never experienced before. I got into bed. But within minutes, the phone rang. I got up, had a fit of coughing, and answered the phone. It was my mother. She told me that Geraldo Rivera is on TV and his guests are women who had apparitions of the Blessed Mother. I thought that would be inspiring to see, so I made my way down the stairs to watch it. As I reached the bottom of the stairs, I had another very painful fit of coughing. I watched the show, and I found they were rather inspiring. After it was over, I realized that I had not said a rosary since the summer, so I decided to look for my rosary and for some devotional literature on Mary. I then made my way back up the stairs, had another coughing fit at the top of the stairs and climbed into bed. I was about to pray when the phone rang again. It was our school chaplain, Father Dave Sajdak, a Salesian of Don Bosco, who decided to quote Fr. Anthony DeMello: "God cannot be bothered doing for you what you can do for yourself, so you take care and get well", or words to that effect.

I climbed back into bed, coughing uncontrollably of course, wincing in pain every time, and I resolved not to answer the phone again. I began to pray the rosary, but it was very difficult to do so. Within seconds, however, I became acutely aware of a presence in the room. I felt that the Blessed Mother was right there, standing next to the bed, but with sadness. If I were to put words to what I was experiencing, I'd have to say that it was as if she were asking me: "Why did you neglect me for so long?" - for that was the first time I had picked up a rosary since August. I was very moved by her sadness, and so I had resolved never to neglect her again.

I then started to pray. The distractions I began to experience were tremendous: I felt irritated, my thoughts were scattered, I could not focus on the task at hand; it was becoming a genuine labor to pray this simple prayer. I was determined to finish, however. While I was struggling in prayer, a message flashed in my imagination, like neon lights, and the message was: "You are going to be healed". I dismissed this as my own wishful thinking, recalling Fr. Dave's message: "God cannot be bothered doing for you what you can do for yourself". I continued to pray, and once again, that message flashed rather brightly. Again, I dismissed it as my own wishful thinking.

When I finished the five decades, I just laid there in bed, exhausted, thinking about all that had happened within the past 45 minutes. I then noticed sweat pouring down my face. I was also breathing easier. I sat up and took a deep breath. And then I began to fear. I was in disbelief. I got out of bed and ran down the stairs and back up the stairs, trying to make myself cough, but I could not.

This was a genuine miracle in my life. I did not need the prescription that was given to me, I was able to go to school the next day and later drive to Montreal for Christmas to sing in the choir of St. Patrick's Basilica. This miracle may not be at the level of one that finds its way into the chronicles of Lourdes, but it was real enough. At least it confirmed for me that the daily recitation of the rosary is significant enough for the Blessed Mother to make a special visit to one of her sons to remind him that this devotion means something to her.