by St. Louis DeMontfort
It is not so much the length of a prayer, but the fervor with which it is said which pleases Almighty God and touches His Heart. One single Hail Mary that is said properly is worth more than one hundred and fifty that are badly said. Most Catholics say the Rosary, the whole fifteen mysteries or five of them anyway or, at least a few decades. So why is it then that so few of them give up their sins and go forward in the spiritual life? It must be because they are not saying them as they should. It is a good thing to think over how we should pray if we really want to please God and become more holy.
To say the Holy Rosary to advantage one must be in a state of grace or at the very least be fully determined to give up mortal sin. This we know because all our theology teaches us that good works and prayers are only dead works if they are they are done in a state of mortal sin. Therefore they can neither be pleasing to God nor help us gain eternal life. This is why Ecclesiastes says: “Praise is not seemly in the mouth of a sinner” (Eccl. 15:9). Praise of God and the salutation of the angel and the very Prayer of Jesus Christ are not pleasing to God when they are said by unrepentant sinners. Our Lord said: “This people honoreth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Mark 7:6). It is as though He was saying: “Those who join My Confraternity and say their Rosary every day (even perhaps the fifteen decades), but without being sorry for their sins offer Me Up service only and their hearts are far from Me.”
I have just said that to say the Rosary to advantage one must be in a state of grace “or at least be fully determined to give up mortal sin;” first of all, because, if it were true that God only heard the prayers of those in a state of grace it would follow that people in a state of mortal sin should not pray at all. This is an erroneous teaching which has been condemned by Holy Mother Church, because of course sinners need to pray far more than good people do. Were this horrible doctrine true it would then be useless and futile to tell a sinner to say all, or even part of his Rosary, because it would never help him.
Secondly, because if they join one of Our Lady’s confraternities and recite the Rosary or some other prayer, but without having the slightest intention of giving up sin, they join the ranks of her false devotees. These presumptuous and impenitent devotees, hiding under her mantle, wearing the scapular and with rosary in hand, cry out: “Blessed Virgin, good Mother—Hail, Mary!…” And yet at the same time, by their sins, they are crucifying Our Lord Jesus Christ and tearing His flesh anew. It is a great tragedy, but from the very ranks of Our Lady’s most holy Confraternities souls are falling into the fires of hell
We earnestly beg everyone to say the Holy Rosary: the just that they may persevere and grow in God’s grace; the sinners that they may rise from their sins. But God forbid that we should ever encourage a sinner to think that Our Lady will protect him with Her mantle if he continues to love sin, for then it will only turn into a mantle of damnation which will hide his sins from the public eye. The Rosary, which is a cure for all our ills, would then be turned into deadly poison. “A corruption of what is best is worst.”
The learned Cardinal Hugues says: “One should really be as pure as an angel to approach the Blessed Virgin and to say the Angelic Salutation.” One day Our Lady appeared to an immoral man who used to always say his Rosary every day. She showed him a bowl of beautiful fruit, but the bowl itself was covered with filth. The man was horrified to see this, and Our Lady said: “This is the way you are honoring me! You are giving me beautiful roses in a filthy bowl. Do you think I can accept presents of this kind?”
In order to pray well, it is not enough to give expression to our petitions by means of that most excellent of all prayers, the Rosary, but we must also pray with real concentration for God listens more to the voice of the heart than that of the mouth. To be guilty of willful distractions during prayer would show a great lack of respect and reverence; it would make our Rosaries fruitless and would make us guilty of sin.
How can we expect God to listen to us if we ourselves do not pay attention to what we are saying? How can we expect Him to be pleased if, while in the presence of His tremendous Majesty, we give in to distractions just as children run after butterflies? People who do this forfeit Almighty God’s blessings which are then changed into curses because they have been praying disrespectfully. “Cursed be he that doth the work of the Lord deceitfully” (Jeremias 28:10).
Of course, you cannot possibly say your Rosary without having a few involuntary distractions and it is hard to say even one Hail Mary without your imagination troubling you a little (for our imagination is, alas, never still). The one thing you can do, however, is to say your Rosary without giving in to distractions deliberately and you can take all sorts of precautions to lessen involuntary distractions and to control your imagination.
With this in mind put yourself in the presence of God and imagine that Almighty God and His Blessed Mother are watching you and that your guardian Angel is standing at your right hand, taking your Hail Marys, if they are well said, and using them like roses to make crowns for Jesus and Mary. But remember that at your left hand lurks the devil ready to pounce upon every Hail Mary that comes his way and to write it down in his deadly notebook. And be sure that he will snatch every single one of your Hail Marys that you have not said attentively, devoutly and with reverence.
Above all, do not forget to offer up each decade in honor of one of the mysteries and while you are saying it try to form a picture in your mind of Jesus and Mary in connection with this mystery.
The life of Blessed Hermann (of the Premonstratensian Fathers) tells us that at one time when he used to say the Rosary attentively and devoutly while meditating upon the mysteries Our Lady used to appear to him resplendent in breathtaking majesty and beauty. But as time went on his fervor cooled and he fell into the way of saying his Rosary hurriedly and without giving it his full attention. Then one day Our Lady appeared to him again—only this time she was far from beautiful and her face was furrowed and drawn with sadness. Blessed Hermann was appalled at the change in her, and then Our Lady explained:
“This is how I look to you, Hermann, because in your soul this is how you are treating me; as a woman to be despised and of no importance. Why do you no longer greet me with respect and attention meditating on my mysteries and praising my privileges.”
When the rosary is well said it gives Jesus and Mary more glory and it is more meritorious for the soul than any other prayer. But it is also the hardest prayer to say well and to persevere in, owing especially to the distractions which almost inevitably attend the constant repetition of the same words.
When we say the Little Office of Our Lady, or the Seven Penitential Psalms, or any prayers other than the Rosary, the variety of words and expressions keeps us alert, prevents our imagination from wandering, and so makes it easier for us to say them well. On the contrary, because of the constant repetition of the same Our Father and Hail Mary in the same unvarying form, it is difficult, while saying the Rosary, not to become wearied and inclined to sleep or to turn to other prayers that are more refreshing and less tedious. This goes to show that one needs much greater devotion to persevere in saying the Holy Rosary than in saying any other prayer, even the Psalms of David
Our imagination, which is hardly still a minute, makes our task harder and then of course there is the devil who never tires of trying to distract us and keep us from praying. To what ends does not the evil one go against us while we are engaged in saying our Rosary against him.
Being human, we easily become tired and slipshod—but the devil makes these difficulties worse when we are saying the Rosary. Before we even begin he makes us feel bored, distracted or exhausted—and when we have started praying he oppresses us from all sides. And when, after much difficulty and many distractions, we have finished, he whispers to us: “What you have just said is worthless. It’s useless for you to say the Rosary. You had better get on with other things. It’s only a waste of time to pray without paying attention to what you’re saying; half an hour’s meditation or some spiritual reading would be much better. Tomorrow when you’re not feeling so sluggish you’ll pray better, don’t finish your Rosary until tomorrow.” By tricks of this kind the devil gets us to give up the Rosary altogether or else hardly say it at all, and we keep putting it off or else change to some other devotion.
Dear Rosary Confraternity members, do not listen to the devil, but be of good heart even if your imagination has been bothering you throughout your Rosary, filling your mind with all kinds of distracting thoughts—as long as you really tried hard to get rid of them as soon as they came. Always remember that the best Rosary is the one with the most merit, and there is more merit in praying when it is hard than when it is easy. Prayer is all the harder when it is (naturally speaking) distasteful to the soul and is filled with those annoying little ants and flies running about in your imagination, against your will, and scarcely allowing you the time to enjoy a little peace and appreciate the beauty of what you are saying.
Even if you have to fight distractions all through your whole Rosary be sure to fight well, arms in hand: that is to say, do not stop saying your Rosary even if it is hard to say and you have absolutely no sensible devotion. It is a terrible battle, I know, but one that is profitable to the faithful soul. If you put down your arms, that is, if you give up the Rosary, you will be admitting defeat and then, having won, the devil will leave you alone.
But at the Day of Judgment he will taunt you because of your faithlessness and lack of courage. “He that is faithful in that which is least, is faithful also in that which is greater” (1 Luke 16:10). He who fights even the smallest distractions faithfully when he says even the very smallest prayer he will also be faithful in great things. We can be absolutely certain of this because the Holy Spirit has told us so.
So all of you, servants and handmaids of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary, who have made up your minds to say the Rosary every day, be of good heart. Do not let the flies (it is thus that I call the distractions that make war on you during prayer) make you cowardly abandon the company of Jesus and Mary, in whose holy presence you always are when saying the Rosary. In what follows I shall give you suggestions for getting rid of distractions.
A Good Method
Before beginning a decade, pause for a moment or two—depending upon how much time you have—and contemplate the mystery that you are about to honor in that decade. Always be sure to ask of Almighty God, by this mystery and through the intercession of the Blessed Mother, one of the virtues that shines forth most in this mystery or one of which you stand in particular need.
Take great care to avoid the two pitfalls that most people fall into during the Rosary. The first is the danger of not asking for any graces at all, so that if some people were asked their Rosary intention they would not know what to say. So, whenever you say your Rosary, be sure to ask for some special grace. Ask God’s help in cultivating one of the great Christian virtues or in overcoming one of your sins.
The second big fault a lot of people make when saying the Holy Rosary is to have no intention other than that of getting it over as quickly as possible! This is because so many of us look upon the Rosary as a burden which is always heavier when we have not said it—especially if it is weighing on our conscience because we have promised to say it regularly or have been told to say it as a penance more or less against our will. It is really pathetic to see how most people say the Holy Rosary—they say it astonishingly fast and mumble so that the words are not properly pronounced at all. We could not possibly expect anyone, even the most unimportant person, to think that a slipshod address of this kind was a compliment and yet we expect Jesus and Mary to be pleased with it! Small wonder then that the most sacred prayers of our holy religion seem to bear no fruit, and that, after saying thousands of Rosaries, we are still no better than we were before! Dear Confraternity members, I beg of you to temper the speed which comes all too easily to you and pause briefly several times as you say the Our Father and Hail Mary. I have placed a cross at each pause, as you will see:
Our Father Who art in Heaven, + hallowed be Thy name, + Thy kingdom come, + Thy will be done + on earth as it is in Heaven. + Give us this day + our daily bread + and forgive us our trespasses + as we forgive those who trespass against us, + and lead us not into temptation + but deliver us from evil. Amen.
At first, you may find it difficult to make these pauses because of your bad habit of saying prayers in a hurry; but a decade that you say recollectedly in this way will be worth more than thousands of Rosaries said all in a rush—without any pauses or reflection.
Blessed Alan de la Roche and other writers (including Saint Robert Bellarmine) tell the story of how a good confessor advised three of his penitents, who happened to be sisters, to say the Rosary every day without fail for a whole year. This was so that they might make beautiful robes of glory for Our Lady out of their Rosaries. This was a secret that the priest had received from Heaven.
So the three sisters said the Rosary faithfully for a year and on the Feast of the Purification the Blessed Virgin appeared to them at night when they had retired. Saint Catherine and Saint Agnes were with her and she was wearing beautiful robes that shone and all over them “Hail Mary, full of grace” was blazoned in letters of gold. The Blessed Mother came to the eldest sister and said “I salute you, my daughter, because you saluted me so often and beautifully. I want to thank you for the beautiful robes that you have made me.” The two virgin saints who were with Our Lady thanked her too and then all three of them vanished
An hour later Our Lady and the same two saints appeared to them again, but this time she was wearing green which had no gold lettering and did not gleam. She went up to the second sister and thanked her for the robes she had made Her by saying her Rosary. Since this sister had seen Our Lady appear to the eldest much more magnificently dressed she asked Her the reason for the change. The Blessed Mother answered: “Your sister made Me more beautiful clothes because she has been saying her Rosary better than you.”
About an hour after this she appeared to the youngest of the sisters wearing tattered and dirty rags. “My daughter” she said “I want to thank you for these clothes that you have made Me.” The young girl was covered with shame and she called out: “Oh, my Queen, how could I have dressed you so badly! I beg you to forgive me. Please grant me a little more time to make you beautiful robes by saying my Rosary better.” Our Lady and the two saints vanished, leaving the girl heartbroken. She told her confessor everything that had happened and he urged her to say her Rosary for another year and to say it more devoutly than ever.
At the end of this second year on the very same day of the Purification, Our Lady, clothed in a magnificent robe and attended by Saint Catherine and Saint Agnes, wearing crowns, appeared to them again in the evening. She said to them: “My daughters, I have come to tell you that you have earned heaven at last—and you will all have the great joy of going there tomorrow.” The three of them cried: “Our hearts are all ready, dearest Queen; our hearts are all ready.” Then the vision faded. That same night they became ill and so sent for their confessor who brought them the Last Sacraments and they thanked him for the holy practice that he had taught them. After Compline Our Lady appeared with a multitude of virgins and had the three sisters clothed in white gowns. While angels were singing “Come, spouses of Jesus Christ, receive the crowns which have been prepared for you for all eternity,” they departed from this life.
Some very deep truths can be learned from this story:
1. How important it is to have a good director who will counsel holy practices, especially that of the Most Holy Rosary;
2. How important it is to say the Rosary attentively and devoutly;
3. How kind and merciful the Blessed Mother is to those who are sorry for the past and are firmly resolved to do it better;
4. And finally, how generous she is in rewarding us in life, death and eternity, for the little services that we render Her faithfully.
I would like to add that the Rosary ought to be said reverently —that is to say it ought to be said, as far as possible, kneeling, with the hands joined and clasping the Rosary. However, if people are ill they can of course say it in bed or if they are traveling it can be said on foot—and if infirmity prevents people kneeling it can be said seated or standing. The Rosary can even be said at work, if people’s daily duties keep them at their jobs, because the work of one’s hands is not by any means always incompatible with vocal prayer. Of course, since the soul has its limitations and can only do so much, when we are concentrating on manual work we cannot give our undivided attention to things of the spirit, such as prayer. But when we cannot do otherwise this kind of prayer is not without value in Our Lady’s eyes and she rewards our good will more than our external actions.
I advise you to divide up your Rosary into three parts and say each group of mysteries (five decades) at a different time of day. This is much better than saying the whole fifteen all at once.
If you cannot find the time to say a third part of the Rosary all at one time, say it gradually, a decade here and there. I am sure you can manage this; so that, in spite of your work and the calls upon your time, you will have said the whole before going to bed.
Saint Francis de Sales sets us a very good example of faith in this respect: once when he was quite exhausted from the visits of the day and remembered, towards midnight, that he had left a few decades of his Rosary unsaid, he would not go to bed until he had finished them on his knees, not-withstanding all the efforts of his secretary who saw he was tired and begged him to let the rest of his prayers go until the next day.
And do let me remind you just once more to copy the faithfulness, reverence and devotion of the holy friar who is mentioned in the Chronicles of Saint Francis and who always said his Rosary very devoutly and reverently before dinner.
This article was excerpted from St. Louis Marie de Montfort’s Secret of the Rosary, Montfort Publications, 1991, Part II.