In my poem The Family Rosary I try to express in poetic form of how, as a young child holidaying at my grandparents’ farm in Ireland in the 1960s, the nightly family rosary was an important event in my spiritual growth.
Like most children growing up, religious practice could be boring and meaningless, and enforced attendance could often lead to rows and resentment towards parents who were sincerely trying to do their best. This was especially true in those days before the renewals brought about by the Second Vatican Council, when the Sunday Mass was almost impossible for a child to follow, if indeed any child could be bothered to follow it. And not only was the time spent in devotions difficult for a child, but this was backed up with, sometimes brutal, rote learning of the catechism and religious doctrine, and a frequent inquest as to whether Sunday services had been properly attended. How times have changed!
It was in this context of a child struggling to understand and conform to a traditional Catholic upbringing that the experience of the family rosary (which was also, somewhat sporadically, celebrated at home in London) had I think a quite amazing power.
It’s hard to adequately put into words what those nightly prayer sessions had on my youthful mind and heart. I say mind and heart because in truth this was not so much a mental evaluation of spiritual things but much more a deep touching of the heart. The whole experience of the cosy farmhouse kitchen, with the whole family gathered at the end of another hard physical day’s work, and grandad, without any objecting, suddenly took to his knees and began the prayer. The atmosphere went immediately from general family chit chat to a reverent hush that it seemed even the dogs responded to.
The rosary for those who are unfamiliar with it, is a traditional Catholic devotion that lends itself to group or family praying, being based on the repetitive saying of the Hail Mary within one of five ‘decades’ or sets of ten Hail Mary’s, each decade having a theme based on events in the life of Jesus and Mary as portrayed in the Gospels. As such the rosary easily becomes a communal chant, and in its rhythm and cadence, it becomes somewhat hypnotic – almost an entry point to a mystical experience beyond the actual words. And it doesn’t require a priest to lead the celebration!
The effect of this respectful hush and rhythmic chanting on a child is hard to exaggerate, especially when the atmosphere is effectively generated by the ‘significant adults’ in his or her life. As such, the experience reached deep into my core and while I certainly didn’t try to evaluate its effect at the time I think it’s undeniable to claim that it left a lasting impact. It may well have been the most important factor in my gaining a sense of God.
Cynics will claim that I was psychologically influenced by the overall experience, and that any so-called mystical experience is essentially a self induced ‘mind trip’. We never have definitive proof when it comes to spiritual things – faith is always required, and I have spoken elsewhere of the criticality and logic of faith. Suffice it to say that I believe I was somehow enabled to tune in to a Voice which is always singing in every human heart. God’s Word broadcasts constantly but we rarely tune in to His frequency. Perhaps some kind of a ‘pre-set’ radio button was created in my inner core by those summer nights of long ago which remained and was available to me whenever I felt the need in good times or bad?
For I certainly cannot claim that I have made vital use of this sense of God in my life. God always respects our freedom and never forces His way in. As Jesus put it, the blind cannot be blamed for not seeing – only those who see or claim to see can be guilty of any blame (John 9: 41). Perhaps I early on found the treasure in the field that Jesus spoke about, but unlike the man in the parable, I failed to really ‘sell all’ and go and grab that treasure (Matthew 13: 44 – 46)? I found, I saw, but have never really taken possession?
Whatever about me, surely a sense of God is badly missing in today’s world? Even many religious folk appear to be going through the motions, and their faith doesn’t appear to effect their daily lives or indeed their politics or world-views? For we can never grasp God with the mind alone. We can only really – in this life – attain a relationship of love with our God. As such, having a sense of God, a deep, inner awareness of His love, is that priceless treasure against which all other wealth and possessions are just so much junk.
We believers, of whatever denomination, need to find and make use of those prayer forms that will give us – and our children – that precious treasure. We need to do it today!