Ten Hail Marys is a Lot of Blood

I picked out a cheap one, downtown at the Catholic bookstore, for eight dollars.

It’s just knotted black thread, I think, and some kind of glue. There’s a slight irregularity to it in one place, at the beginning of the second decade (or the end of fourth, if you take the other way round), which my fingers recognize upon arrival. I’ll probably use it until it falls apart. There’s something about your first.

I felt a thrill of adrenaline, purchasing it, looking furtively over my shoulder, as if I were buying something illegal on the street. Every stereotype about Catholic piety is tangled up in the Rosary: it’s overly complicated, it’s repetitive and ritualistic, and of course, it’s a prayer to Mary.

There’s truth to that, but not the whole truth. The knots and beads and memorized prayers are only the beginning of the prayer. More than anything, the Rosary is a guided meditation on the life of Jesus, a simple and direct way of contemplating the story of Christ.

If you’re interested, this is a good explanation of how to do it.

Having summoned the courage to go down and buy the thing, I snuck my little black rosary home in my pocket and tried it out, meditating on a different set of mysteries each night before bed. On Sundays, the mysteries of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. On Mondays, of his incarnation and birth. On Tuesdays, his passion and death.

In those days Tuesday night was laundry night, which is how I found myself praying the Sorrowful Mysteries under the flickering yellow light of the laundromat parking lot.

Sometimes when I pray the Rosary the experience is elevated beyond what my meager imagination could ever conjure on its own. This was one of those times. The Sorrowful Mysteries are a 20-minute slow-walk through Jesus’ torture and execution. That night, it was the scourging that got me. The frame of my imagination was filled with his sacred flesh, purple veins showing like spider webs in the cold morning air. The whip arrived like lightning, leaving a red stripe at an odd angle. Then more lashes come, and his skin tears open. Then comes the blood.

Ten Hail Marys is a lot of blood.

The experience was visceral. My gut clenched, my body spasmed; I felt a wave of nausea. There’s no easy triumph nor comforting platitudes to be found in watching someone be tortured and executed. But the Hail Marys kept me in rhythm, kept pulling me through to the end, one step after another. And as I continued, I felt an odd catharsis. Just as the high priest laid the sins of the people on the scapegoat, which was then driven out of the city gates, so this Man of Sorrows was taking on, somehow, my sins. Something was, almost magically, being transferred from my flesh to His. I experienced in my body those words from Isaiah:

“He bore the punishment that makes us whole, and by his wounds we are healed.”

All of this from an eight-dollar necklace.

I had never experienced this kind of prayer. I realized then that in Catholicism I had come across something very powerful. Scary, in a way. Morbid.

But powerful.

I’m still praying the Rosary today, though to be honest it’s been a while since it lit me up like the night I’ve just described to you. Let’s call it a dry spell. But I remain confident that there’s plenty of power in those prayers, in part because that wasn’t the only transformative experience I’ve had while praying the Rosary, not by a long shot.

But you’ll have to keep coming back to hear more of those.

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