A Lifeline on the Edge of Chaos
In the Mediterranean citadel of Knossos on Crete there is a labyrinth, in which dwells a brooding hulk of malice grown fat on the flesh of seven young men and maidens it devours as tribute each twelvemonth. Anxious to claim his destiny, a young prince spoils for a fight against the foe that would make him a hero. A sword he must have, certainly, and shield and armour too, bright tempered steel from distant lands and burnished bronze dully glinting in the weltering sun.
But our warrior also carries with him a most unwarlike item—a ball of red thread. Pressed into his hands by an unwelcome lover, the thread would wend its way with him through unmarked corridors where death lingered, a testament to the path he had trod, his only tether to life beyond battle. But for that thread, though his foe be vanquished our prince would never become a hero, but lost to the labyrinth, in time to become another beast like the one he slew.
Greek mythology tell us our prince, Theseus of Athens, slays the Minotaur in the heart of the labyrinth and gropes his way back into the light by the red thread given by his lover Ariadne. ‘Is it true?’ would be the wrong question to ask, because truth resides not only in cold literal fact but in the response of our hearts.
Theseus is not only Prince of Athens but each of us, every man, staring into the labyrinthine abyss of choice and consequence, despair and hope, free will and compulsion, taking us on a thousand winding ways to confront the enemy of our human nature. Tightly wound within the myth is our hero, the arena, our battle.
But what is our weapon and our thread?
It is the Rosary.
In the great Marian month of May, a holy priest was once asked: how does one could attain Marian devotion, as if it could be acquired like a certification in permaculture. “Mary loves us first”, he said in a voice gentle like the breath of God, “and then, we learn to love her.” And littered through two millennia of salvation history are men and women for whom this lesson has been branded deep in their souls.
St Louis Grignon de Monfort declared boldly: Ad Jesum Per Mariam, to Jesus through Mary! In that hellish threshing floor of Auschwitz, St Maximilian Kolbe was a living shrine of peace, and nothing troubled him as “the Immaculata is always with me”. (He later volunteered to take another man’s place in execution by starvation after an inmate of his block escaped and the Nazis demanded ten others be executed in punishment. He lasted two weeks and had to be killed by lethal injection.)
St John Paul the Great stamped a great “M” on his Papal coat of arms to announce to the world who he belonged to, and professed in abandon, Totus Tuus! St John Bosco was granted a prophetic dream where the Church, a ship being steered through a tempest, would be guided toward and then anchored fast between two pillars: the Eucharist, and Our Lady. Tolkien wrote that “all my own perception of beauty in both majesty and simplicity” was founded on Our Lady. Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once mused that “May was Mary’s month,” and
Spring’s universal bliss
Much, had much to say
To offering Mary May.
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
And thicket and thorp are merry
With silver-surfèd cherry
And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
And magic cuckoocall
Caps, clears, and clinches all—
This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ’s birth
To remember and exultation
In God who was her salvation. (Gerard Manley Hopkins, The May Magnificat)
How did they learn it? Where was their school? Looking down at my unfinished consecrations and half-hearted novenas, feeble attempts to generate Marian devotion through sheer dint of will, I needed advice. A priest I respected immensely for his keen intellect and his father’s heart baited my interest.
“There are three things which help if you want to grow deeper in your faith,” he said, ticking off an imaginary list with his fingers. “The first is Scripture. The second are the Psalms. The third...”
I sat in anticipation, thinking maybe its some ancient technique of prayer that will lift me to the heights of contemplation! Maybe he’s going to prescribe some regimen of fasting that elevated people to sainthood!
Then he paused slightly and gave a knowing smile, and said “the third is the Rosary”.
The Rosary! Our Lady had given the same answer countless times. God caused the greatest public miracle of the 20th century, the dancing sun, to occur at Fatima, all to wake us up to Our Lady’s message: pray the rosary! But how could it be so? The prayer of little children and of elderly nagging ladies with gold chains swinging over their floral blouses? The prayer of plastic pink beads that clacked and rattled like a cheap trinket?
Inwardly I balked. My family’s nightly Rosary always seemed to be a lightning rod for scenes of ridiculous, almost maudlin impiety. Scenes of children snoring by the third decade rose unbidden before my eyes. Someone’s mind would always drift and instead of responding with “Holy Mary Mother of God...” we’d hear a discordant “Hail Holy Queen...” Even worse, we’d be praying the Joyful Mysteries on a Monday and someone would invariably lead with “the Fifth Sorrowful Mystery...”
The Rosary at the time was a childish, effeminate trinket, the prayer itself boring and repetitive. It had nothing to tickle a puffed-up intellect—no sublime teachings (or so I thought) like the Summa Theologiae or the Confessions, no occasion for spiritual smugness afforded by praying the Divine Office. Growing in holiness through the rosary? No thanks. It sufficed to endure the nightly rigmarole. In the meantime, bigger plans were brewing.
At the beginning of 2019 I drew up an ambitious programme for spiritual advancement that involved 20 minutes of scripture a day, recitation of the Divine Office in the mornings and evenings, daily mass, and half an hour of meditation before the Blessed Sacrament daily.
During Lent, I would wake promptly on the alarm, abstain on Wednesdays and Fridays, and cut out all digital forms of entertainment. I was going to pull my own self up by my spiritual bootstraps! As I write this I hear Divine chuckling.
By the middle of Lent the plan had sputtered out. My hand somehow always involuntarily found its way to the snooze button. I’d be halfway through a char-grilled chicken thigh at a Friday desk lunch before my conscious mind caught up. I’d enter before the Blessed Sacrament and descend into a spiral of spiritual navel-gazing. There’s still dust gathering on my breviary. Oh and the Bible? I gave that up after week three.
Getting stalled in in spiritual first gear made me frustrated and rebellious. In a fit of spiritual pique, on a tropical night with the humidity dial at maximum I broke my Lenten ban and launched Youtube. Before the digital glow could consume my faltering mind and my thumb could begin its mindless swiping, I chanced upon “The Power of Praying the Entire Rosary”.
In it was a bracing but freeing truth from St Louis de Monfort’s The Secret of the Rosary—you say your Rosary has no power? Consider that to pray the Rosary was to pray all the mysteries, all 150 Hail Marys. What we pray today, the five-decade Rosary, was for children. We fight back against principalities and powers with toy swords.
Like any good mother, Our Lady knows exactly what we need, and waits for the exact moment for us to realise that we need it, and need it bad. I had charged, adrenaline-pumped, headlong into the labyrinth to fight my foe, but before I even drew blood I was lost. She offered me the red thread out into the light. My little boat of self-assured independence had been overturned by the coming tempest, and I was flailing. She offered me the lifeline.
Having been burned before on being too spiritually ambitious, and yet desperate for some semblance of a working spiritual regimen, I made a promise to pray the Rosary during “idle hours” like my daily commute, on top of the nightly rosary with the family, and I’d see how far I would get. (This novel idea of mine didn’t turn out to be so original after all—decades ago Archbishop Fulton Sheen had said “all the idle moments of one’s life can be sanctified, thanks to the Rosary.”)
And how Our Mother rewards even our half-hearted efforts. Onto the sterile ground of my soul, where efforts to till were futile, She poured the sweet, life-giving rain of the Angelic Salutation. The graces given were at first practical—clutching a rosary behind the steering wheel was an effective deterrent to yelling “move your bloomin’ arse!” to the laggard in the lane (an uncharitable habit) or checking the phone for new messages (a dangerous one). Getting stopped at the traffic light was less an occasion for frustration than for three more Hail Marys. Relieved of the stress of deciding which #radtrad podcast to put on to stoke righteous indignation, the car was now a mobile shrine of peace to meditate on the mysteries. And after a long day of hard work that scattered mental faculties to the four winds, the Rosary would gently, loving, collect them back.
But like Theseus’ thread, Our Lady was unwinding her spool of thread through every corner of the heart, every quotidian care. The Rosary’s prayer would faintly hum in a persistent melody beneath the clang and clatter of industry. It measured out the day in hours but in lengths of golden cord: the Annunciation while heating up packed lunch, the Transfiguration while climbing the stairs, the Crowning with thorns in the gathering dark, and the Coronation of the Queen of Heaven before bed. It was St Paul’s dictum to “pray always!”, to have a life soaked in the unreachable depths of mystery. It could be carried around everywhere and in every circumstance, unlike the Bible or the Breviary. (Try saying that while driving.)
With each successive Ave, the rosary became more than a cord on which the hours of my day were strung together like beads. Having derided it as a prayer only for the simple-minded, the rosary now gleamed in my eyes as the beacon of simplicity and humility in souls, the foundation of holiness. In a Church where even her shepherds occasionally devoured their lambs, my heart would warm when I would see a priest still faithful to the Rosary and I would know he could be trusted.
In the mysterious realm of mental prayer with its bewildering array of choices, the rosary offered the only sure path. Faced with a surplus of writers offering spiritual advice, those dedicated to the Virgin Queen of Heaven had their own glowing imprimatur. Having exhausted the contours of my own labyrinthine mind, the beads were a reminder that I was not a disembodied spirit wandering in an interior maze. Contained within was the mystery of the Incarnation glanced at in the Exsultet , “when things of heaven are wed to those of earth”, when Divine love could be bound by string, and heaven grasped in a set of beads.
Choices about how to proceed in the spiritual life were shorn of their exhausting uncertainty. Should one pray with Ignatian contemplation, or the Carmelite Prayer of Quiet? Was I currently in the Purgative or the Illuminative way? Which mansion in the Interior Castle did that correspond to? Should mental prayer be an endless discursive conversation or a silent gazing at God? Was it time to get a spiritual director, and if so, which one? I don’t know, and that’s alright. Hand in hand with Our Lady, I would surely move forward, and meet each choice in trust.
Intractable theological questions were no longer sources of agony—should we receive communion in the hand or on the tongue? Was Vatican II meant to be interpreted in a hermeneutic of continuity or rupture? Is the Novus Ordo valid, or only Tridentine Masses? How do we defend the Truth and keep it free from error, when the smoke of Satan has entered the Church through a perfidious crack?
We cannot dismiss such inquiry and bury our heads in the fiction of a church with no divisions, but neither can we plunge into the fray without a guide. The Rosary was that guide, the lifeline on the edge of chaos, the tether that would yank to safety those teetering on the brink of heresy. I had only intellectually understood, but now I grasped it fully: those who stay close to Mary stay close to Jesus. And the only ones who were with Jesus during His Passion were with His Mother, and those who stayed close to her—beneath the Cross.
The Rosary was not just an infallible guide for the intellectually inclined. As the inimitable Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, “because the Rosary is both a mental and a vocal prayer, it is one where intellectual elephants may bathe, and the simple birds may also sip.” The Rosary casts down the mighty from their thrones, and from their position in the dust they see that the cares of the common man are not so different from their own. How could the prophet Hosea could have known, but for divine inspiration, that through the Rosary
I myself taught Ephraim to walk, I myself took them by the arm, but they did not know that I was the one caring for them, that I was leading them with human ties, with leading-strings of love, that, with them, I was like someone lifting an infant to his cheek, and that I bent down to feed him.(Hos 11:3-4)
The Rosary is our thread, and Our Lady is our guide. But Our Mother is at her mightiest when the Rosary is our weapon. I had clutched at the Rosary when the burden of my personal Cross had become particularly wearisome. Before the Rosary, the trial would be so intense that I would white-knuckle my way through, every sinew of my will fighting the temptation to flee, to cast off the cross by the wayside, to escape.
But with the Rosary, even in “moments when fear, agony and pain make it hard to pray, the suggestion of prayer that comes from merely holding the rosary—or better still, from caressing the Crucifix at the end of it” was tremendous. During a difficult conversation with a boss the Rosary would be hidden in my pocket, a secret source of strength. When the Enemy whispered suggestions to my heart to drive me to despair and self-loathing, Our Lady would come, and they would flee.
In those moments, a child’s desperate plea cast heavenward is most readily heard. Those graces that I received by the Rosary during my trials were the most ineffable, but also the most undeniable. How is it, I wondered, that a little string of beads repeated with a child’s heart can set the devils to flight? Greater minds than mine have pondered this, but my own poor answer is that the graces flow precisely in spite of ourselves. The pipe knows not how the water flows, but only that it flows best when unblocked. We do not choose to pray the Rosary—we obey, and in that act of obedience we empty ourselves of all our own ideas of what prayer ought to be, to pray as prayer really is.
If there’s anything this prayer kills, its pride. Let it be known that you’ve just emerged from a 30-day silent retreat or are fasting on bread and water for Lent, and people will look at you as the next prophet Elijah. Let it be known that you pray all four mysteries of the rosary a day, and people will think you’re a pious nut.
In this light, the medieval tradition of wearing the Rosary on the left made perfect sense, because as with your right hand you would draw a sword from your left, so would you draw your Rosary to do battle. The Rosary was not an archer’s bow, which was dependent on there being arrows to shoot with, nor was it modern howitzer, meant to launch attacks from afar. It is a sword, which we carry intimately on our person and with which we do battle with our enemy hand to hand, face to face.
Daily we plunge into the fray anew, where the battleground is the soul, and the stakes are eternal life. Daily we need to pick up our weapons to fight the enemy that Our Lady leads us towards.
We’d best not be holding toy swords.
Afternote: I confess that the effeminate image of the rosary still bothered me. But Our Lady in her infinite wisdom directed me to www.cordbands.com, home of the creators of the Rugged Rosaries. Their rosaries are, well, rugged, threaded with tough parachute cord (i.e. paracord), and are intended for heavy usage. They best reveal the ontological nature of the rosary as a weapon meant for spiritual combat. If you were ever in my shoes, I suggest you check them out.
Oh, and their rosaries come with handling instructions: for best results, use daily.
 Archbishop Fulton Sheen.
© 2019 Christ Centered Conversations/Jessica Goh
Cover Image Credit: Berendey Ivanov & Andrey Kobysnyn
Image taken from Pexels