How I was reminded that focusing on Christ keeps you sane

August 24, 2011 | 33 comments

This post was originally published on April 14, 2010. I originally called it “The Rosary: I’ve been doing it wrong!” but commenters rightfully pointed out that there’s no “wrong” way to pray.

When I was researching Catholicism I constantly heard about the astounding power of the Rosary, so I decided to give it a shot. I’d sit next to my son’s bed at night with the beads in my hand; the only problem was that I didn’t have any of the prayers memorized. Undeterred, I’d make my best guess when I forgot the details, weaving in the parts I could remember with some ad libbed stuff as a good faith effort. It would often sound something like:

We believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of earth…and of all the other stuff too, like the planets. We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sin…and confession…and that the anointing of the sick is good too.

…At that point I’d start rattling off whatever the Church taught that I’d come to agree with, tossing some stuff about transubstantiation and Purgatory into the Creed.

Yeah. It was a mess.

So when I actually got most of the prayers memorized, it was such a step up that I figured I was home free. I’d announce each mystery, say the prayers, and that was that. I didn’t exactly enjoy praying the Rosary (sometimes I would rush through the prayers so quickly that I’d recall Mr. Darwin‘s quip that he had an Irish grandmother who just about got rope burn from her eight-second Hail Mary’s), but this type of prayer brought such tremendous grace into my life that I kept it up anyway.

Then, a few weeks ago, I was in Adoration and suddenly realized:

I never meditated on the mysteries. Ever.

How could a person miss that? All I can say is: I know! I would even tell people that when I explained the Rosary to them! I even wrote about how powerful it was when my favorite Rosary CD brought me into each mystery! So how it was that I went for four years almost never spending more than a couple seconds actually meditating on the mysteries when I prayed the Rosary on my own, I do not know. (Actually I do know, and it has to do with having the attention span comparable to that of a toddler who’s been mainlining sugar, but that’s another story.)

The revelation occurred when I was in the Adoration chapel, looking at my Rosary prayer sheet from Rosary Army. I noticed the quote on the very center of the page that I’d seen a dozen times but had never actually read it. It said:

Without [the Rosary’s] contemplative dimension, it would lose its meaning…Without contemplation, the Rosary is a body without a soul, and its recitation runs the risk of becoming a mechanical repetition of formulas, in violation of the admonition of Christ: “In praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think they will be heard for their many words.”

– Pope John Paul II

Umm…guiltily. Actually, what I’d been doing was worse: I’d drift into thinking about my own problems and intentions while I said the Hail Mary’s; in other words, I was meditating on myself while I prayed the Rosary.

This was the ah-hah moment I referred to in my post from last week where I talked about the stress that comes with making yourself a god. When I turned my attention away from myself and started focusing on Christ instead, the relief was indescribable. It brought to mind a point Thomas Merton made when he said:

To consider persons and events and situations only in the light of their effect upon myself is to live on the doorstep of hell.

Of course it’s important to tell God everything that’s on our minds, but, as I said in that other post, the problem was that those were the only types of prayers I was saying. I’d ended up making my needs and desires and plans so huge that I’d taken over God’s role in being responsible for the entire universe. So when the Rosary finally broke me out of that, it was like being freed from a prison. I felt like I had real inner peace for the first time in a long time.

I should note that I do think that God blessed my initial efforts at the Rosary. As Elizabeth Mahlou pointed out in her great comment to this post, God doesn’t play games of “Gotcha!”, punishing us for making mistakes in form despite good intentions. God managed to use even my misguided actions, some of which were probably the very definition of “vain repetition, ” to bring me closer to him.

I still see that same grace in my life through the Rosary now that I’m actually meditating on the mysteries; the main difference is what it’s done for my peace of mind, thanks to a renewed understand of Jesus, what he’s done for us, and who I am in relation to him. Praying along with the Church by meditating on the prescribed mysteries for that particular day — as opposed to what I might feel like thinking about — allows God to lead me in new directions. I have the freedom to roam wildly with Christ in all the different moments of his life, yet the structure to make me ponder elements that I might not have sought out on my own.

I finally get why so many people are such passionate advocates for the Rosary: not only is there that unmistakable grace that comes with it, but, if you pray it as it’s supposed to be prayed, it’s not only a portal into the life of Christ, but a safeguard against the hell of making yourself a god.


  1. Becky

    I just did a post on the rosary myself a few days ago! But I like what you wrote much better. You have such of gift for writing.

    I love the rosary for all the reasons you stated. That you meditate on GOD for 20 minutes, not yourself.

  2. Roxy

    Fantastic post! Meditating on the sorrowful mysteries in particular have helped me tremendously. It always reminds me to work on my kindness and forgiveness, especially toward my family. Sadly we tend to be the most impatient with the ones we love the most, right?

    Roxy @ TSKGS

  3. Kara

    When I first converted, I thought the rosary was horrible. I couldn’t understand how people could repeat themselves over and over and over again. I would go to mass on Wednesday nights which had the rosary and Devine Mercy Chaplet beforehand and I’d purposefully come late so that I wouldn’t have to sit through it uncomfortably.

    After a few weeks, a few many conversations with a couple friends, and some research, I decided to give it a shot. Oh my gosh… I loved it. I understood it. I understood the repetition for the sake of meditating. I finally “got it.” And it truly changed my life.

    I will admit that I very rarely say the rosary these days but I have been contemplating changing that, since my 6 year old is old enough and I’d love to start to share that with her. We say a nightly Hail Mary with our other prayers, but it’s not the same. I want my girls to feel that grace. Because it truly is beautiful.

    Very good timing on this post for me. I was just in adoration last night thinking about how I missed praying the Rosary often. Thank you for this post 🙂

  4. Eva

    I love the contemplative nature of the rosary. Seeing prayer as a meditation makes it seem far more relevent for me.

  5. Claire

    Oh I am impossible with the Rosary! I have experienced and received graces from it, but I still find it so difficult to actually say it.

    I take great comfort from St. Therese of Lisieux when she said:

    “but when alone (I am ashamed to admit it) the recitation of the rosary is more difficult for me than the wearing of an instrument of penance…I force myself in vain to meditate on the mysteries of the rosary; I don’t succeed in fixing my mind on them. For a long time I was desolate about this lack of devotion which astonished me, for I love the Blessed Virgin so much that it should be easy for me to recite in her honor prayers which are so pleasing to her. Now I am less desolate; I think that the Queen of heaven, since she is my MOTHER, must see my good will and she is satisfied with it.”

    Bit of a long comment, but her words are very comforting! 🙂

    • Jen G

      Too often I think we forget how much we are loved.

  6. Cathy

    The rosary is the best way for me to stay focused in prayer! And indeed it is a way to journey with our Lord. For me it is a source of comfort and structure I seem to need in my prayers. Wonderful post!

  7. Peony Moss

    Now, for Rosary beginners – how do you meditate on the mysteries, especially while saying the prayers?

    • Jen G

      After you’ve been reciting the prayers for a while, they become like a mantra, and you can focus on the mysteries while saying them.

  8. Karen LH

    You know, I’ve been a Catholic since 1994 and have never, ever gotten the rosary. I’ve given up on it. It’s very frustrating, because I hear everyone else talk about how fruitful it is for them, while for me it’s almost counterproductive. I can meditate on absolutely anything except the mysteries: what I need to get at the grocery store, what’s going on in the news, how I’m still mad at someone over something that happened thirty years ago… I feel like I’m the only Catholic on the planet with this problem.

    • ARM

      I hear you, Karen! What works for me (the only thing that works, pretty much) is saying the rosary while walking. I don’t know if it’s the serotonin or what, but for me it makes all the difference. I pretty much CAN’T pray the rosary stationary.

      • Magnificat

        I’m walking too!
        The first reason is my peripatetic nature – it’s much easier to concentrate on anything while walking.
        The second is that rosary calms me down uncredibly, so I never manage to finish it while sitting – always fall in deep sleep before 3rd mystery :-))

  9. Barbara

    I adopted the practice of saying the Rosary in part because I didn’t “get” the Catholic veneration of Mary. I was in the process of converting and decided that one way to understand was to go through the form and trust that if JPII thought it was a wonderful prayer, that eventually I would get it.

    These are some of my thoughts:
    – My private recitation has a different quality than the public recitation I do at church. I prefer private because it is more meditative, but I go once a month to join others because I think praying as a community in this way is a great blessing.
    – I love praying the scriptural rosary, saying an appropriate verse relating to the mystery at hand just before the Hail Mary. This method takes longer, but it helps maintain concentration. It also helps develop threads of meditative thought and ties the Rosary to Holy Scripture, always a good thing.
    – For people who have a hard time mentally multi-tasking, understand that for the most part, you are supposed to go on auto-pilot during a particular decade while thinking about the mystery. In other words, the words of the Hail Mary form a rhythmic background that actually helps you ponder.
    – I do my best rosaries on my knees. I discovered that when I was concentrating on the prayer, I didn’t notice my discomfort, so feeling uncomfortable was a signal to me that I was distracted, not in the right frame of mind.

  10. Abigail

    I am very new to praying the rosary, and I love that it is prayer centered on Jesus and truth that also allows for expression of personal intentions.

    I discovered a little book called Scriptural Rosary (like Barbara mentioned above) that incorporates short scripture verses for each prayer that are related to each mystery. Not only does it guide meditation, but it’s also a beautiful little book! What is wonderful is that as much as my meditative prayer life has grown, my reading of these scripture verses has been enriched, too.

    Thank you, Jen, for your words, particularly for those of us who are still learning!

  11. Margo

    The Chaplet of The Divine Mercy is also an excellent way to focus on the real presence of Christ. It is filled with many blessings and graces for those who faithfully recite it and believe in what the Passion is all about. In fact, I just posted something about this late last night:

  12. April

    This is something I really needed to hear right now – because my Rosaries have recently been getting really distracted by preoccupations with myself. Like, “Hail Mary…remember how much of a jerk that person really was to me five years ago!! I better offer up my next decade for that terrible human being because I bet they haven’t changed…”
    The Merton quote is so so appropriate.

  13. Rowe

    Your faith in God is the only thing that you can hold on to in times of trouble. When you just set your problems free with God, you will surely experience calmness.

  14. R.C.

    Okay, this has long been a problem for me.

    I have attempted to pray the Rosary, albeit without any really serious consistency.

    But “meditation?”

    What does that even mean? What’s meditation? How is it done? What steps does it involve, and how do you know you’re doing it?

    One problem for me is that I have a one-track mind. (No, not like that. Well…okay, sometimes like that, but that’s beside the point.) What I mean is, I find myself unable to think about two things at once.

    I simply can’t find it in myself to think about something else, to visualize something else, while I’m saying the words of the Hail Mary or the Our Father. I don’t seem to be able to do anything with my mind, when I’m talking, other than mean the precise words I’m saying.

    Thus when I read a Catholic author saying that the repetition of the prayers is somehow beneficial for some other reason than that of asking Mary to pray for us sinners or asking the Father to forgive us as we forgive others who trespass against us, I am perplexed. How could there be anything else going on? How could you be thinking about anything else?

    I worry that my brain is simply one which is not wired for this. I’m a very linear thinker and not a multi-tasker; the way some people seem to describe meditating on the mysteries WHILE praying the Rosary, it comes across as an exercise in dividing one’s attention, a bit like learning to sing one song while strumming a different song on guitar.

    What am I getting wrong, here?


    • ARM

      No expert here (see above!) but what I do is picture how the events of each mystery must have looked from Mary’s standpoint, in which case, the words of the Hail Mary fit very nicely. It makes the meaning of “The Lord is with thee” and “blessed art thou among women” very concrete to think in terms of Mary expecting Jesus’ birth, watching Jesus suffer, etc. And in the second half of the prayer, I’m asking to share in the same grace and presence of God. Just what works for me – I don’t think it’s the only way or the best way or anything.

  15. Chantal Chauvet

    I’ve found saying the rosary with youtube. There are various pictures and sometimes there is also a scritural verse.
    Sometimes I say it when folding clothes, or walking. I also say it with the children while they fall asleep.


  16. Karen LH

    Here’s my problem (I think) (possibly similar to RC’s): I don’t think in pictures. I think in words. I can meditate, for example, on the Ascension by reading about it in the Catechism or in a theology book and then using that as a springboard: what really happened, is it like anything in my own experience, what does it mean for the human race, what does it mean for me, and so on. I can’t do that while simultaneously saying the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be. If instead I try to picture what it looked like, all I can come up with is Jesus floating up into the air and disappearing, and then I’m left trying to figure out what else to picture for the remaining 9 1/2 Hail Marys.

  17. Barbara

    R.C. and Karen: Our brains are all different. Do not despair! For the majority of people some cerebral multitasking is beneficial to concentration if the underlying task is “brainless” (in a sense). It helps cut down on random thoughts and distractions when the prayers are rote.

    But and however: I am married to a linear-thinking guy. His powers of concentration are phenomenal, but the notion of thinking of something else while saying the words is incomprehensible.

    Don’t worry: just go with the gift you’ve been given. There is nothing wrong (and a lot right) with actually thinking about the literal prayers. If I may make a suggestion, you might consider pondering the Mysteries separately, maybe using a scriptural rosary text. This would be a form of lectio divina, which is also a prayer. Also, pray in community when you can. Your presence with the prayers would be a real blessing to those you are praying with.

  18. Clark Minn

    I do have my rosary always at my wallet and even at my pocket…Thanks for your post…

  19. Ashley

    The last sentence says it all. What a great message!

  20. Christine

    My husband & I have been praying the rosary daily for almost a year. We started a few weeks after we Enthroned our home to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in August of last year. I hate to admit that for the longest time, I just didn’t get it. I really couldn’t meditate because I was too busy trying to remember what to say and what the mystery was.

    A few months ago, I decided to dedicate a bead to each member of our family – the first 30 are for children, grandchildren, parents & deceased parents & the next 10 are for friends and for those that ask that we pray for them & the last 10 are for everything ranging from priests, to our pets, to homeless, for abortion, etc.

    As we pray I still don’t always remember which mystery we are on but I love knowing that I’ve prayed for everyone I know. As my husband & I pray together, I say the name of the person & for a few seconds, our thought are with that person, that intention.

    It may not be the correct way to pray the Rosary but it works for me!

  21. Trisha Niermeyer Potter

    I used to be much better about praying the Rosary daily. When I was in high school, I’d wake up before anyone else in our house to pray the Rosary. It was on meditating of the Mysteries of the Rosary at that time that I had some very moving ah-ha moments regarding aspects of Christ’s life. Lately, I’ve mostly prayed the Rosary while in front of one of the local abortion clinics when I’m participating in 40 Days for Life vigils.

    One of my favorite thought-provoking inspirations for praying the Rosary for me have been Danielle Rose double CD Mysteries. The CDs include a song for each of the mysteries that is beautifully moving. The images and lyrics from the songs often come to mind when I pray the Rosary.

    One of the books that magnificently describes the significance of praying the Rosary is Total Consecration by St. Louis de Monfort.

    Our Blessed Mother is such an amazing model of being God-focused, Christ-centered, and completely open to the Lord’s will at every moment over her life. What a gift we have in the Rosary, spending time meditating on Christ’s life with the woman who knew and loved him most!

  22. eaucoin

    If you put yourself in the mystery as a witness and imagine meeting Jesus in it, then you will find that the first Hail Mary becomes the gushing prayer it is (you know that if you meet the mother of someone who you think is really awesome, you can’t wait to tell her how awesome her child is and that she must be amazing too). Ask the Holy Spirit to help you do this, then you will find that things occur to you that you would never have thought of. Like, at the baptism of Jesus, people heard God talking, but probably only if they had just made a really good confession and were newly baptized or they were innocent children, but I think parents wouldn’t be letting children near the Jordan if grownups were known to be confessing aloud to John the Baptist. Wouldn’t those people have been stunned beyond comprehension to feel the amazing love for Jesus that would be emanating from God’s voice like a huge warm hug multiplied by infinity. (You know how when someone is talking lovingly about their child it’s palpable in the air.)

  23. Liz Bartling

    Here’s a great quote I thought you would enjoy: “In vocal prayer we go to God on foot. In meditation we go to God on horseback. In contemplation we go to God in a jet” ~ Archbishop Fulton J Sheen

  24. Charie@wsoxfactor

    Living a life with Christ at the center will give you a life that is happy and contended.

  25. Ed

    Couple of years ago, because of the pressures of life, i felt a bit lost and going crazy. Absolutely NOTHING or NO-ONE could bring me comfort or consolation. Not even contemplating the saints.

    Only one person could bring me comfort and that was Christ. He appeared in a dream, accompanied by steel bars. The steel bars represented to me the Absolute Strength and Reality of Christ, of God.

    There just seemed something unreal about life. Nothing i could cling onto. Nothing that quite made sense. Nothing substantial or real. Nothing that is until i had this dream of Jesus and the steel bars. Now things are good. Thank God!

  26. Linebyline

    “I’d drift into thinking about my own problems and intentions while I said the Hail Mary’s; in other words, I was meditating on myself while I prayed the Rosary.”

    Holy cow! that’s IT!

    I do the same thing, almost without even realizing it. Or rather, I do it on purpose without realizing that it’s a problem. When I pray the Rosary, I tend to think of it in terms of what I can learn from each mystery, how it applies to my life, and then end up offering each mystery for a certain intention that more-or-less fits the theme (e.g. offering the Visitation for the grace to recognize the presence of Christ).

    The problem is that I’m still making it all about ME! Even as I offer the third joyful mystery for the grace to make Jesus rather than myself or the world my first priority, I’m framing the whole thing in terms of myself. Kinda undermining myself, there, huh?

    This has been eye-opening. Thanks!

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