Once upon a (distant) time, I spent my summers in or around water — floating in a pool, dangling my feet in a stream, body surfing at the beach. I throttled a wave runner through the bay and once drove a friend’s boat on a lake, almost taking out the dock at the end of our jaunt.
Over the years, however, my enthusiasm for splashing about has been tempered. Water, essential to life, can so quickly become the instrument of death and destruction, as recent hurricanes have reminded us. Even a gentle stream, swollen by storms, can sweep aside a car and its passengers like a stray leaf.
Yet perhaps the fiercest currents rage within us: anxiety, sorrow, rage, loneliness. Too often, we have no real radar to predict when these will surge. Months of pandemic, social unrest, economic turmoil have caused us to cry out with the psalmist, “I have sunk into the mire of the deep, where there is no foothold. I have gone down to the watery depths; the flood overwhelms me” (Ps 69:3).
One of the surest lifelines we can grasp at such moments is the rosary. Amid the waves, Mary — the Star of the Sea — stands ready to harness herself to her troubled children and lead them to Christ. Reciting the prayers while reflecting upon each mystery, we are lifted from the deluge, bead by bead, and set upon rock.
No matter how violent the vortex, Mary can pluck us from it, since as St. John Paul II reminds us, she “lived with her eyes fixed on Christ, treasuring his every word” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 11).
Her spiritual navigation is perfectly calibrated, for “the memories of Jesus, impressed upon her heart were always with her, leading her to reflect on the various moments of her life at her Son’s side” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 11).
And she has woven those memories into a rope of proven steel, whose simplicity belies its strength: a few essential prayers bind us to the central events of our faith, which are not merely recalled, but relived: “Mary’s contemplation is above all a remembering … in the biblical sense of remembrance (zakar) as a making present of the works brought about by God in the history of salvation” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 3).
The Eucharist supremely makes the “‘today’ of salvation” present to us, but as St. John Paul II notes, the Second Vatican Council also stressed that the spiritual life “is not limited solely to participation in the liturgy” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 12). Called to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17), we find in the rosary “a ‘meditation’ with Mary on Christ … a salutary contemplation” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 13).
One near-drowning victim saved by Mary’s lifeline was Blessed Bartolo Longo, an Italian lawyer who at one point had been “ordained” as a satanic priest. Like many of his countrymen in the turbulent 1860s, he had lost his moorings, set adrift by the occult, nationalism and an active movement to eliminate the papacy. Depressed and confused, Longo was eventually aided by a Dominican priest who introduced him to the rosary — and in his new-found zeal, the former satanist reportedly took the beads to a séance, where he held them up as he renounced the works of darkness.
Later, when his past like an undertow threatened to drag him toward suicide, Longo clung to a promise Mary had made to St. Dominic: “He who propagates my rosary shall be saved.” Falling to his knees, Longo vowed to do just that, and his ardent devotion steered him toward sainthood.
Paradoxically, Longo — and all who pray the rosary — are saved from one drowning through another. Engaging our mind, heart and voice, the prayer deepens our communion with Christ “by immersing us in the mysteries of the Redeemer’s life” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 13).
Our very breathing, shallow and labored under the weight of our woes, is literally restored by the rosary: one study concluded the rosary “might be viewed as a health practice as well as a religious practice.”
The rosary is indeed what Longo called a “sweet chain which unites us to God” and a “safe port in our universal shipwreck.” In waters wild or still, then, grab hold — and never let go.
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