What do you suppose would happen if someone were to mention the title of your favorite song? Wouldn't you, almost unconsciously, begin hearing the tune in your mind? Maybe you'd even start tapping your toes to the rhythm and humming along with the music. All it took was the mention of one song, and suddenly your body has begun to act differently.
Think also about the last time you saw a football game-whether live or on television. Immediately after a stunning play, doesn’t the crowd go wild? Don’t you see people jumping up and down or shouting out with approval? Who knows? Maybe you even join in the celebration yourself. You’re so excited by what you’ve just seen, you can’t help but make some noise. On a more spiritual note, Scripture is filled with stories of people who have been led to kneel or bow down when they have a powerful experience of God’s presence in their midst.
All these examples can help us understand how praying the rosary can bring us to new depths of faith as we engage our bodies as well as our minds in praying through the great mysteries of the gospel. Let’s take a look at how this can happen, beginning with the relationship between body and soul that these examples illustrate.
The Concept of Body and Soul. As we begin to look at body and soul, we should be careful not to overemphasize the differences between them. Both the Bible and the church teach that body and soul are fully unified within the human person. For instance, when Genesis speaks of the first man and woman formed from earth and brought to life with the “breath of life” by God, it also teaches that human beings are made “in the image and likeness of God.” Although we are complex beings, “fearfully and wondrously made,” each of us still mirrors God’s unity and oneness (Genesis 1:27; 2:7; Psalm 139:14).
We are all familiar with the make-up of our bodies: our physical shape, our internal organs, and the marvelous complexity of our circulation or respiratory systems. We know that to stay healthy, we need the right balance of food, sleep, and exercise. We also know that just as a child’s body grows and develops over time, so too will our bodies grow old and slow down with time.
It is through our bodies that we relate to the world around us: We see with our eyes, feel things with our hands, and taste with our tongues. Our bodies are also the means by which we communicate with one another. A simple touch of the hand can express a wealth of emotions-from grief and sadness to joy and gratitude. With the words coming out of our mouths, we tell others what we think and who we are, just as we use our ears to listen to those around us.
Just as the body reflects these “outer dimensions” of our lives, the soul reflects the more “inner dimensions.” It’s through the various faculties of the soul that we understand the things we experience in the world around us. It’s through the soul, for instance, that we learn and remember, and it’s through the soul that we imagine and dream, contemplate and choose. The soul receives data from the body, analyzes it, and decides how the body should react to what it has experienced. For instance, if we think about the example of the football game, we can tell that the body is doing the jumping and shouting, but it is because the soul has understood that a really exciting play had just been made. Without the soul’s understanding, there would be no reaction of the body. And without the body’s reaction, there would be no way we could show other people what we think about what we’ve just seen.
As amazing as all these functions are, one dimension outshines all of them. Because we are created in the image of God, we are spiritual beings as well as physical and psychological beings. We all have the potential to communicate not just with those around us, but even with God himself. It is through the spiritual dimensions of our nature that we can hear God’s voice, experience his love, and undergo a transformation in our lives that can make us more and more like Jesus every day. This spiritual dimension has been called our “spirit,” our “inner man,” and even our “heart.”
Soul and Body and the Rosary. How does all this relate to the rosary? In its most basic form, the rosary is a series of prayers to be recited in an established pattern. We know these prayers by heart, and the words come quickly to our memories. We usually don’t have to think about them very much. However, if we were to pray the rosary on this level only, we might be keeping our bodies busy-our lips forming the words and our hands fingering the beads-but not really engaging our souls in the fullest way possible (1 Corinthians 14:14).
But it’s precisely because it involves our bodies in this way that the rosary can be so effective a way to pray. Remember, we are physical as well as spiritual beings. We are not unattached souls who can successfully direct our thoughts without any help from our bodies. We’ve all had the experience of trying to relax in prayer, hoping that the distractions of life will fade away-only to find ourselves either nodding off to sleep or filled with yet another set of distractions.
We’ve also had the experience of coming upon important insights while we were driving somewhere, or shopping, or exercising, or even watching television. Haven’t there been times when your body has been occupied and active, making it easier for your soul to focus on higher questions? It is sometimes when our bodies absorb some of the “fringe energy” of our hectic lives that our souls are freed up to focus on higher things (Colossians 3:1-2).
This is part of the reason why gestures like kneeling, standing, singing, and even dancing are such an ancient part of our tradition. In a very real way, our bodies need to become engaged in prayer just as our minds do-and this is precisely how the rosary works. Outwardly, we may be kneeling and reciting prayers. But inwardly, we have a great opportunity to ponder the mysteries of the gospel and to know intimacy with Jesus. So, when we are praying the rosary, we are allowing our bodies to become occupied with the rhythm of the prayers so that we can free our souls to draw closer to Jesus and treasure his love and his presence.
“When I Was a Child.” Have you ever noticed how appealing the rosary can be to young children? The prayers are so simple, and even praying just one decade can give them a sense of accomplishment at having spent time with God. It’s not uncommon for children to feel secure and peaceful, that God is on their side, as they pray through the rosary. Not surprisingly, much of this sense of satisfaction comes because the rosary offers them a simple structure for prayer and because it can feed their imaginations with stories about Jesus.
Much the same can be said for adults, but with another, deeper dimension added in. As the apostle Paul wrote, when we were children, we thought and acted like children. But as we grow up, we learn how to move beyond the ways of childhood and embrace the excitement and responsibilities of adulthood (1 Corinthians 13:11). In the realm of faith, it’s as we grow up into Christ (Ephesians 4:15) that we can begin to experience the potential within the rosary to bring us to an ever deepening understanding of Christ. The more we grow up, the more fully engaged our souls can become in prayer. Childlike joy can grow into a deep, abiding peace and confidence in God’s love. Simplistic faith can develop into simple trust, enabling us to weather every storm of life. Knowing about Jesus can evolve into knowing him with an ever increasing intimacy.
Mary knew Jesus more intimately than any other person. She watched him grow and develop. She witnessed his miracles, heard him preach, watched him die, and rejoiced in his resurrection. In a unique way, Mary shared in all the joys, sorrows, and glories of Jesus because her whole life was fixed on him. So, when we pray the rosary with hearts open to pondering the same mysteries Mary experienced, we too can fix our hearts on Jesus and come to know him as Mary did.
Penetrating the Mysteries. For centuries, people have experienced Jesus’ love and transformation as they used the rosary to meditate on his birth, death, and resurrection. Now, Pope John Paul II has added the Mysteries of Light, which focus on five significant moments during Jesus’ public ministry. He is convinced that praying the rosary-including these new mysteries-can help us become more like Jesus. He is convinced that as we contemplate the gospel in this way, we will be united more and more intimately to Jesus. Dwelling on the mysteries of the rosary is a powerful way for the Spirit to penetrate beyond the surface of our lives and lift us up to heaven.