Thursday, May 20, 2010

Seventh day: the Great Novena to the Holy Spirit

Today, the Thursday within the Great Novena, I wish to speak about a prayer very important to me - yet something which may cause a bit of bother to some Christians who are not Catholic. I mean the Rosary. Before we begin, I wish to show something which you might not expect. There is a line in one of the more famous Father Brown stories, a line which was always very suggestive to me, and which became even more powerful once I had parsed it further. Have you ever wondered about it? Check it out:
[The General said,] "I don't see why you should come to me about it. I ought to tell you I'm a strong Protestant."
"I'm very fond of strong Protestants," said Father Brown. "I came to you because I was sure you would tell the truth.
[GKC "The Chief Mourner of Marne" in The Secret Of Father Brown
Do you understand what Father Brown really means here? Here is how I have interpreted it, and how I (for lack of any other evidence) hope to proceed today:
To Father Brown, a "strong Protestant" means that he is strong in Christian faith - that he loves Jesus. Hence he desires truth - and will strive to tell it.
So if you are a "strong Protestant", I hope you will grasp my points here. You may be a bit surprised, because you will hear how a modern high-tech computer scientist looks at this ancient devotion - not in a lot of detail, but enough to be suggestive. I will also bring in some various points GKC makes, not so much to bolster the argument, since I don't really wish to MAKE an argument, but to set forth what it is I do - er - what those who say the rosary are doing, and why they do it.

The first thing to understand is that we are NOT worshipping Mary. That's forbidden. Protestants and Catholics might not number the commandments the same, but nobody who understands the rosary thinks he is "worshipping" Mary. He never says anything more to her than God ordered an angel to say [Lk 1:28], or inspired Elizabeth to say [Lk 1:42] - or (in the second half of the prayer) anything more than St. Paul repeatedly said to the Thessalonians [2Thes3:1] or the Ephesians [Eph 3:13] or the Hebrews [Heb 13:18] or the Romans [Rom 15:30] - that is "pray for me, pray for us". (If necessary we can discuss the phrase "Mother of God" - but then that phrase has always been a sticking point for some people. Another time for that.)

Next, the issue of repetition. We've already seen instances from both the Old Testament (Ps 135 has 27 repeats of "for His mercy endureth forever") and New Testament (Mt 26:39,42,44 where Jesus prays with the exact same words three times) how authentic prayer can be repeated - but - to the amazement of many, including many Catholics, when the rosary is said correctly, there is only an apparent, and not an actual repetition!

Ah... you have never heard this before?

Well... rather than taking examples from computing, let's try this. Have you ever heard of the musical form called a "passacaglia"? That is "a species of chaconne, a slow dance on a ground-bass in triple rhythm."[Elson's Music Dictionary 195] A ground-bass is "a bass line consisting of a few simple notes, intended as a theme, on which, at each repetition, a new melody is constructed." [Ibid.] That - yes - that is what the Rosary is. The series of an Our Father, ten Hail Marys, and a Glory Be - that is the "ground-bass". On this "simple theme" we build a "new melody" based on one or another of the 20 "mysteries" - that is, major episodes in the Birth, Preaching-Life, Passion, or Resurrection-Life of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, the Rosary is simply a method (Greek hodos=way) of studying the life of JESUS.

(Now you see why I quoted that line about Strong Protestants...)

I'm not going pursue this topic at length, since the Rosary, like the Mass, is the kind of thing that can turn into two or three fat volumes. Just to give you a hint or two of the matters which can arise:

There is the amazing discovery I made during my doctoral residency, when I was at a little church with a another tech Catholic friend. There was a public recitation of the Rosary, but to our surprise at one of the decades, the leader changed into another language (one of the central European tongues, I never did learn which, maybe Slavic). We had recently attended a lecture about the various forms of parallel processors in computer science - and the incredible encounter of a group of people speaking to one another in two different languages was most instructive - it gives some very strong hints about the nature of heaven, about the nature of prayer, and indeed the nature of spiritual communication - and many other things - it was the whole Pentecost thing all over again! No, there was no "mystic" experience - it was all there, visible (or rather I should say audible, hee hee) but the intellectual intensity was amazing.

Then there is the idea I hinted at the other day, which so many people know from experience: they hear a song on the radio or their personal music player, and into their minds comes the feeling, the emotion, the whole experience of where they were when they first heard that song. The feeling is likely to be totally disjoint from the music, from the lyrics, from the "setting" intended by the rock group - but the thing happens. This might be called a "little mystery" of your own life, and you re-live it when you hear the tune. Now, there weren't no rock groups in Judea during the reign of Caesar Augustus or Tiberius - so we can't use them to "feel" - but we can come close with the rosary.

The Catholic calls this form of mental work "meditation". There is a bit of confusion about this word, since it is used by another... er, well, I can't say "philosophy" there, and "religion" isn't quite right either. The word "meditation" is used, let us say, by another "view or way of life": for them "meditation" is as distinct from Catholic meditation as darkness is distinct from light. The Catholic meditates with his intellect not only enabled, but running at full throttle, wide open, all circuits active and engaged - it is Reason trying to incarnate the memory. (For the other view/way, "meditation" is an abandonment of reason, a disabling and emptying and suppression of the intellect - but we are not writing about that here.) I must point this out because someone may get confused by the appearance of the same word. But then people get confused about Chesterton's own comments, or with technical terms, and so forth. It's why the Scholastics were always careful to define and distinguish.

One of the most amazing things for a Chestertonian to explore is the application of his writings to the various mysteries. I've not yet made a complete collection, but since Chesterton was extremely interested in the life of Jesus, one can hardly help running into Chestertonian thoughts as one proceeds through the Liturgical Cycle of the mysteries of Christ's life...

I should warn you - some of them are quite profound. If once you read "The God in the Cave" from GKC's The Everlasting Man you will never say the Third Joyful mystery, or go to midnight Mass - or even think of Christmas - in quite the same way. It has a very strong and enduring power, well worth your time reading, and re-reading. I can hardly tell you why this is so (though I might speculate on it). Chesterton does not reveal unusual truths, as (for example) Father Ricciotti does in his wonderful part-archaeology/part-theology text, The Life of Christ. Chesterton merely gives you a new way of looking at something you always knew - he finds an angle from which to view those familiar scenes and you see things you never saw before.

So I will give you just a few examples so you can get a hint of what I mean. Yes, I've intentionally left some empty - you will either have to wait until I have more time, or else try to fill them in for yourself. And you may find far better quotes than I have - this is just a beginning. Certainly TEM has a good deal of material since its entire second half is "On the Man Called Christ".


First: the Annunciation

Second: the Visitation
There is the lesson of "Cinderella," which is the same as that of the Magnificat - exaltavit humiles.

Third: the Nativity
A mass of legend and literature, which increases and will never end, has repeated and rung the changes on that single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle. Upon this paradox, we might almost say upon this jest, all the literature of our faith is founded.
[GKC TEM CW2:301]

Fourth: the Presentation

Fifth: the Finding in the Temple


First: the Baptism in the Jordan

Second: the Wedding at Cana
If there is one incident in the record which affects me personally as grandly and gloriously human, it is the incident of giving wine for the wedding-feast. That is really human in the sense in which a whole crowd of prigs, having the appearance of human beings, can hardly be described as human. It rises superior to all superior persons. It is as human as Herrick and as democratic as Dickens. But even in that story there is something else that has that note of things not fully explained; and in a way here very relevant. I mean the first hesitation, not on any ground touching the nature of the miracle, but on that of the propriety of working any miracles at all, at least at that stage, "my time is not yet come." What did that mean? At least it certainly meant a general plan or purpose in the mind, with which certain things did or did not fit in. And if we leave out that solitary strategic plan, we not only leave out the point of the story, but the story.
[GKC TEM CW2:336-7]

Third: the Proclamation of the Kingdom

Fourth: the Transfiguration
It has always been one of my unclerical sermons to myself, that that remark which Peter made on seeing the vision of a single hour, ought to be made by us all, in contemplating every panoramic change in the long Vision we call life - other things superficially, but this always in our depths. "It is good for us to be here - it is good for us to be here," repeating itself eternally.
[GKC letter to Frances, quoted in Ward Gilbert Keith Chesterton 110]

Fifth: the Institution of the Eucharist
They seemed to be saying that God was dead and that they themselves had seen him die. This might be one of the many manias produced by the despair of the age; only they did not seem particularly despairing. They seemed quite unnaturally joyful
about it, and gave the reason that the death of God had allowed them to eat him and drink his blood. [TEM CW2:295-6]

As to Transubstantiation, it is less easy to talk currently about that; but I
would gently suggest that, to most ordinary outsiders with any common sense, there would be a considerable practical difference between Jehovah pervading the universe and Jesus Christ coming into the room.
[GKC The Thing CW3:180


First: the Agony in the Garden

At the foot of the hill is the garden kept by the Franciscans on the alleged site of Gethsemane, and containing the hoary olive that is supposed to be the terrible tree of the agony of Christ. Given the great age and slow growth of the olives, the tradition is not so unreasonable as some may suppose. But whether or not it is historically right, it is not artistically wrong. The instinct, if it was only an instinct, that made men fix upon this strange growth of grey and twisted wood, was a true imaginative instinct. One of the strange qualities of this strange Southern tree is its almost startling hardness; accidentally to strike the branch of an olive is like striking rock. With its stony surface, stunted stature, and strange holes and hollows, it is often more like a grotto than a tree. Hence it does not seem so unnatural that it should be treated as a holy grotto; or that this strange vegetation should claim to stand for ever like a sculptured monument. Even the
shimmering or shivering silver foliage of the living olive might well have a legend like that of the aspen; as if it had grown grey with fear from the apocalyptic paradox of a divine vision of death. A child from one of the villages said to me, in broken English, that it was the place where God said his prayers. I for one could not ask for a finer or more defiant statement of all that separates the Christian from the Moslem or the Jew; credo quia impossibile.
[GKC The New Jerusalem CW20:353]

Second: the Scourging at the Pillar

Third: the Crowning with Thorns

Fourth: the Carrying of the Cross
But if ever realism could be called ruthless, and ruthlessness could be called right, it is in the rending story of insult and injustice that has been imbodied in the Stations of the Cross. Christians are enjoined to think about it; but I must confess that I simply have not the courage to write about it. It is rather too real, or realistic, for one commonly in contact with the milder modern realism. Anything so grim in every detail as that would be recognised as beating all the moderns at their own game, if only it had been on what is called the modern side. Details like the repeated failure to carry the Cross have an inhuman horror of humiliation, that would make the fortune of a modern novelist writing on concentration camps to prove there is no God, instead of writing to prove that a God so loved the world. Now, through this trailing tragedy of torture, this Procession of Protracted Death, to use the phrase of one of our cheerful modern poets, Brangwyn has stuck grimly in the main to the grim old tradition of exhaustion and defeat. He almost exaggerates, if anybody could exaggerate, the paradox of the impotence of omnipotence and the hopelessness of the hope of the world. Christ appears again and again prone as a felled tree or a fallen pillar, faceless in that His face is already turned away to nothingness and night. And yet it all works up, as it seems to me, to one central design in which Christ lifts His head, looks sharply over His shoulder, and his eyes shine with defiance and almost with fury. And that one flash of fierceness is shot back at the Women of Jerusalem weeping over Him.
GKC Way of the Cross CW3:542]

Fifth: the Crucifixion
But there was present in this ancient population an evil more peculiar to the ancient world. We have noted it already as the neglect of the individual, even of the individual voting the condemnation and still more of the individual condemned. It was the soul of the hive; a heathen thing. The cry of this spirit also was heard in that hour, "It is well that one man die for the people." Yet this spirit in antiquity of devotion to the city and to the state had also been in itself and in its time a noble spirit. It had its poets and its martyrs; men still to be honoured forever. It was failing through its weakness in not seeing the separate soul of a man, the shrine of all mysticism; but it was only failing as everything else was failing. The mob went along with the Sadducces and the Pharisees, the philosophers and the moralists. It went along with the imperial magistrates and the sacred priests, the scribes and the soldiers, that the one universal human spirit might suffer a universal condemnation; that there might be one deep, unanimous chorus of approval and harmony when Man was rejected of men.
[GKC TEM CW2:343-4

First: the Resurrection
On the third day the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realised the new wonder; but even they hardly realised that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn.
[GKC TEM CW2:345]

Second: the Ascension

Third: the Descent of the Holy Spirit
The general impression [GKC had of the statues in the Lateran Basilica in Rome] is that the Twelve Apostles always preferred to stand in a draught, but that they inhabited a curious country where the wind blew in all the opposite ways at once. Perhaps some such licence might be allowed to the supernatural wind of Pentecost, which was truly a wind of liberty in the sense of a wind of isolating individualism; bringing different gifts to different people; a good wind that blew nobody harm.
[GKC The Resurrection of Rome CW20:340

Fourth: the Assumption

Fifth: the Coronation

"Long years and centuries ago our fathers or the founders of our people drank, as they dreamed, of the blood of God. Long years and centuries have passed since the strength of that giant vintage has been anything but a legend of the age of giants. Centuries ago already is the dark time of the second fermentation, when the wine of Catholicism turned into the vinegar of Calvinism. Long since that bitter drink has been itself diluted; rinsed out and washed away by the waters of oblivion and the wave of the world. Never did we think to taste again even that bitter tang of sincerity and the spirit, still less the richer and the sweeter strength of the purple vineyards in our dreams of the age of gold. Day by day and year by year we have lowered our hopes and lessened our convictions; we have grown more and more used to seeing those vats and vineyards overwhelmed in the water-floods and the last savour and suggestion of that special element fading like a stain of purple upon a sea of grey. We have grown used to dilution, to dissolution, to a watering down and went on forever. But Thou hast kept the good wine until now."
[GKC TEM CW2:391]

No - I didn't goof, and misplace that last one. I put it there intentionally, since it is in keeping with the whole design of the Detective Story of the Gospels, and because GKC himself liked to speak of the "good wine poured in the inn at the end of the world." [NNH CW6:371] It's something we are looking forward to. And here is the final quote of all. It is a bit tricky to grasp - but perhaps you will see it if you meditate on it for a little...
[Clare Nicholl wrote:] We always made a great feature of our table decorations and used to compete with each other to think up new things every year. This particular Christmas the table was a concerted family effort. We made them wait in the hall while we arranged the final dramatic effect. When the door to the dining-room was opened, the room was in darkness except for the firelight. In the middle of the table was a seascape (the big looking-glass from the hall) and a ship in full sail towards a high rocky harbour (representing the cobb at Lyme). On the edge of the harbour wall was a toy lighthouse. A nightlight inside made the windows revolve so that the miniature beams shot through the darkness and lit Up the sea and the ship, its sails full set for home.
We of course expected pleasure and surprise and plenty of appreciation of our labours. What we were not prepared for was G.K.'s reaction. He came in last, being "taken into dinner" by one of us. He said no word at all, but paused in the doorway and stared and stared. And the sister whose arm was in his was stirred out of all proportion and heard herself muttering her thoughts aloud to G.K. (one of his rarest qualities was that one could literally think aloud to him without fear or self-consciousness). "It reminds me," she said, "of the Salve Regina." And G.K. said below his breath, "Yes - nobis, post hoc exsilium ostende . . ."
[in Ward, Return To Chesterton 315]

I can't leave with out some word to guide you here. The "Salve Regina" is the prayer recited at the very end of the Rosary - in English it is "Hail Holy Queen". The Latin phrase means "after this exile, show"... But here I will let you ponder it for yourself.

P.S. I say the rosary with the hope of getting closer to Jesus... and yes, I say it every day, since I'm in the Confraternity, the same which assisted the Pope by doing back-up support to Don John of Austria during the battle of Lepanto... Oh, yes. If you want to know more, go here.


  1. If protestants could understand why Catholics pray the rosary they wouldn't be protestants. You're wasting your time trying to explain it (which probably has already been done a zillion times with no effect).

  2. AT: I disagree. If we are wasting time trying to help people understand the true faith, then we probably don't have faith enough in the true faith. If the faith is true, it cannot be a waste of time to help someone understand that truth.


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