ORIGINS OF THE ROSARY
One of the most misunderstood aspects of the catholic church is the rosary. Even many Catholics are fuzzy and vague when they give answers about this beautiful form of prayer and meditation. Many Catholics think that St. Dominic had an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary and *poof* the rosary was invented. This simply is not the case. Although many children are told this story, it is not entirely correct, and is lacking much of the detail as to where the rosary truly originated.
Ever since the finalization of the cannon of scripture, popes, cardinals, bishops, monks, priests and deacons all had a form of praying that included scripture. The church took (and still takes) Jesus' command within scripture to "Pray constantly" very seriously. The practice of using scripture, song, and prayer together as one is as old as the Old Testament in scripture. The Israelites used what is documented within the book of Psalms as not only songs of worship but as forms of prayer. If you read Psalms, you will find that many different conditions exist with each chapter. We find songs of thanksgiving, songs of sorrow, songs of request, and even songs of repentance. In order to incorporate this into the daily life of the religious, a system was developed for praying all 150 psalms very early within the church. A typical monk or religious' schedule included the following:
1) Morning prayer (Recital of the first 50 Psalms) / Mass (Called Lauds in modern speech)
2) Morning work
3) Noon prayer (Recital of the second 50 Psalms) / Lunch
4) Afternoon work
5) Evening prayer (Recital of the third 50 Psalms) / Dinner (Called Vespers in modern speech)
6) Night prayer (Private prayer and meditation) / Sleep (Called Compline in modern speech)
With this standard list of daily events, the religious would literally recite the entire book of Psalms every single day. It became so routine that most of the religious that were very dedicated to this schedule simply memorized the entire book of Psalms.
This was a wonderful and beautiful way of combining prayer, thanksgiving, and worship all in one, but it had a flaw. The main problem that existed was the majority of the laity (common people of the church) could not even read. The select few that actually could read were hampered by their daily lives which may have required them to labor for long hours outdoors. The common people wanted to pray as well, but with the shortage of bibles and the inability to comprehend or even read the text made it an even more complicated problem.
Eventually sometime around 800 AD, a practice started to develop among the laity of the church. Every day, a person who wanted to pray along with the entire church would get up before his work day began and collected 150 pebbles and put them inside a small pouch he kept on his belt. Every time he heard the bell at the local church ring to signify whatever prayer service during the day, the devoted laity would say the Lord's Prayer for every psalm. After they said one they would pull out a pebble and toss it on the ground. When they got to the end of their pebbles, they knew they were finished. Soon this became so popular that instead of pebbles, the laity would get a large rope and tie 150 knots in it and use this to count their prayers, and eventually this was shortend even more to a rope with 50 knots they simply said 3 times each day. This shortened version originated within Celtic cultures.
As this devotion became more and more popular, the church decided to use it as well. Beginning around the 13th century, church theologians began to attribute specific psalms about the life of Christ. The theologians had always attributed the Old Testament being completely fulfilled and revealed in the New Testament of scripture. After all, the bible itself is an account of salvation history. They attributed each of the Psalms to be about the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. They then developed phrases of meditation and meaning to each of the Psalms. Around the same time, the church began to see how devotedly and special the Blessed Virgin Mary was to the prophesies within the Psalms. Mary was seen as the way the fulfillment of the prophesies of the Old Testament came about. After all the prophet Isaiah constantly said in his prophesies that Christ would be born of a virgin. Soon 150 meditations on the Blessed Virgin Mary's life were developed as well as a further meditation in the way the Psalms were used as prayer, and when the 150 meditations of the Blessed Virgin Mary were used in prayer, the part of scripture when Mary visits Elizabeth was used (which is the first part of the prayer recited in the modern rosary): Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
In order for the new devotions and meditations to conform to the existing prayer strings that were so popular, the church divided all of the meditations into three sets of fifty. This was the custom that existed at the time of St. Dominic when the Blessed Mother appeared to him. Before him, the word "rosary" or "rosarium" was not used. The word "rosarium" is where the term "rosary" comes from and is a Latin word that means rose garden or bouquet of roses. Not only was that term not used, but prayers such as the complete Hail Mary (only 1/2 of it was recited), the Glory Be, and even the Bless us O Lord prayers (prayers that make up part of the modern rosary) were not used at this time.
In the time of St. Dominic, there existed a serious heresy that was spreading within the church. A heresy is a belief that has been rejected by the church, and is considered a wrong ideology of anything relating to spiritual events. The particular heresy in St. Dominic's time was wide spread in France, and was called the Albigensian heresy. This heresy simply stated that there were two gods. One "good god" who created the spirit world, and one "evil god" who created the material world. The spiritual world made by the good god was essentially good, and anything made in the material world (including the body of a person) was essentially evil. This idea started to be combined with elements of the church. The heretics believed in Satan, but they believed that Satin had imprisoned spirits made by the "good god" in physical bodies. they also stated that anything that could be done to release that person from this prison here on earth should be done. This included killing of other people and of suicide. The main part of this heresy that got extremely rampant was the belief that Christ could not have been truly a man if he was the Son of God. He could only have been of the spiritual realm. According to this popular thought, the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, the trinity, the incarnation, the sacraments instituted by Christ, hell and purgatory were simply illusions and did not truly exist. It was a complete denial of the crucial cornerstone of Christianity which was Christ himself as our redeemer. It also stated that Satan had as much power as God did, and that good and evil are equally a powerful force in the world and good could not exist without evil (modernly called dualism). All of the concepts listed here are tragically wrong, and the church recognized this quickly as something that was not part of the official teachings of the church, but the heresy began to grow tremendously. It became worse and worse as the clergy in southern France became morally laxed and more and more worldly (yes clergy are human and they do make mistakes). It was also flourished by many French nobility that desired to take over church land and attempted to buy it from immoral clergy. St. Dominic had his work cut out for him when he departed as a missionary to southern France.
It is at this time along St. Dominic's journey that it is reported that the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to him. In her apparition, she told Dominic to teach people the meditations of Mary and of Christ, and if he did so, the heresy would be dispelled from France. This is exactly what occurred. What St. Dominic did was combine the prayers and the meditations of both "versions" of the "rosary." Eventually after widespread teachings on the meditations of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the heresy was ignored and the church regained its original piety. This was the first widespread teaching of the rosary, and is why St. Dominic is attributed with its success and creation.
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After St. Dominic's death and over 200 years had passed, another revision of the rosary occurred. In the 15th century a Catholic scholar named Dominic the Prussian (THIS IS NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH ST. DOMINIC. BOTH OF THEM ARE DIFFERENT PEOPLE) wrote a book describing a new way of organizing the prayers of the rosary. Instead of all 50 different meditations at one time, a new arrangement was developed. This simply changed the organization of the rosary. It was divided into 5 sets of 10 prayers with the Lords Prayer between each set. Each prayer had a different scripture verse that usually pointed back to one of the Psalms or some New Testament reference. Each prayer had its own meditation. This is what developed into the modern form of the rosary. Eventually the meditations were changed during the Renaissance into 3 different sets of 5 meditations which reflected on the life of both Christ and the life of Mary. The meditations are listed below as well as the modern time table of when to say what set of mysteries. It is interesting to note here that the rosary is used as a prayer to God, but in many ways it is simply a meditation tool to reflect on the life of Mary and Christ.
Some people like to say that the rosary fits into what Christ called "repeated and vain prayer" because the prayers of the rosary are repeated multiple times over. Jesus was speaking about people who were saying prayer just for the sake of saying prayer. Their hearts were not into what they were saying or to who they were praying. People practicing this were just saying things to sound good, and even some biblical scholars put emphasis on vain prayers to foreign gods, but with the rosary we should be meditating on the life of Christ and Mary and how Christ is the salvation of the world, and how Mary brought that salvation into the world by conforming to the will of Almighty God Himself. It is also interesting to note that Christ himself repeated prayer. If we look in scripture at the time of his passion, we see that he prayed the same prayer 3 times in a row. Obviously if Jesus prayed in this way and by the Holy Spirit it came to be written down in scripture, then it is ok to repeat prayer as long as we pay attention to what and to who we are praying.
"Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, "Sit here while I go over there and pray." He took along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to feel sorrow and distress. Then he said to them, "My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me." He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will." When he returned to his disciples he found them asleep. He said to Peter, "So you could not keep watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." Withdrawing a second time, he prayed again, "My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!" Then he returned once more and found them asleep, for they could not keep their eyes open. He left them and withdrew again and prayed a third time, saying the same thing again."