The Venerable Bead
A nonbeliever seeks comfort in the ritual of the rosary.
My mother was raised Catholic, but the only useful thing she ever imparted to me about her faith was that I once mispronounced Our Lady of Fatima, rhyming it with “Katrina” instead of...well, if I knew, maybe I would have said it correctly. She died when I was twenty-five, and that was the sum total of my religious instruction. I was never baptized, but also haven't taken advantage of my free-agent status and explored my options in detail. As the sort of person for whom buying coffee in a restaurant alone can provoke a minor nervous breakdown, walking into a church where people might want to shake your hand or, you-know-who forbid, hug you, is simply not going to happen. However, the rosary still has a hold on me.
The itch comes regularly, just shy of once per decade, like cicadas. It's shameful and hard and I often cry. If there was a move or yard sale in the intervening years, I've likely lost the necessary equipment and have to score a new rig and instructions for use again. I balk at obedience, and this, I know, is half the problem at least. But I'm insistent, and begin to make the necessary gestures. The words are slow in coming but I finally find a pace and rhythm. “Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name.”
For my entire adult life I have been approaching, then running away from, the rosary. I can't tell you exactly why, just that each time the logic of giving up seems to have won out—I'm not Catholic, after all, and the prayers are less a source of comfort than its opposite—the calendar works its magic and the cycle begins again. And ends disastrously. At this point I feel like I'm throwing myself on Mary's feet, only to have her kick my head like it was a soccer ball. Yet, when the opportunity cropped up this year, old familiar rash, I jumped in to scratch with both hands, running to the local thrift store to drop three bucks on a cute little number with blue plastic beads and a crucifix of bland stamped silver plate.
I've come close to understanding some of the rosary’s pull but the Mysteries have always been a stumbling block for me; the instruction to announce a mystery and then meditate on it include no indicators to show what it should look or feel like when you're doing it correctly. The other night, while flipping through a tiny pamphlet, a commentary on the Third Joyful Mystery, the birth of Christ, struck me: Jesus trusts God so completely that his first significant act of surrender is his birth, entrusting himself to the care of two ordinary human beings as a step toward fulfilling God's plan for him. Wow. Even for someone like me, who struggles with belief, the idea of a trust that great stopped me cold. It wasn't until later that I flashed back to Linus spelling out the meaning of Christmas for that blockhead Charlie Brown, but my tears continued to come down just the same.
And, of course, now I'm stymied again. The rose bushes that surround my home mock me with each new bloom that opens. But I'll be back someday to try again, hoping to establish a secure tether to that string of faith.
Heather Seggel is a freelance writer based in Mendocino County, California.