By Maria Massei-Rosato
Prayer beads are used by many different religions, including Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Catholics use a form with 59 beads and pray the Rosary.
I don’t remember owning a set of rosary beads when I was young, although I’m sure every Catholic girl did. My memory of rosary beads is of a cranberry colored glass “necklace” resting on my mother’s nightstand. I rarely saw her pray with them, but when she did, she fingered each bead with eyes closed, in silence. I wondered what she was telling God. At some point I understood that when you held a smaller bead you recited a Hail Mary, and when you held a larger bead you recited The Lord’s Prayer: the mother and son duet first taught to Catholic toddlers.
Later, I learned about the “Mysteries,” vignettes meant to focus the Rosary recitation on the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. There are the Joyful Mysteries which begin with the Angel Gabriel telling Mary she would conceive a son of God, and end with the young Jesus teaching in the temple; then there are the Sorrowful Mysteries representing the pain and suffering of Christ culminating in his crucifixion, and the Glorious Mysteries that exalt Jesus’ resurrection and Mary’s ascension into Heaven.
If I had attended Catholic school, these Mysteries and the recitation of the Rosary might have been performed by rote quickly breeding contempt and contempt breeding rejection. Instead, twenty years later, I was intrigued to discover something familiar yet unfamiliar. I found a particular connection to Mary, mother of Jesus, mother to all, perhaps because her prayer is the dominant force of the Rosary: ten Hail Mary’s are recited for every Lord’s Prayer. Perhaps, I also felt connected to Mary because I became a mom.
Joyful Mystery #1: Humility
Originally the rosary had 150 beads, the same number of psalms in the Bible. In the twelfth century, religious orders recited together the 150 Psalms as a way to mark the hours of the day and the days of the week. Those people who didn’t know how to read wanted to share in this practice, so praying on a string of 150 beads or knots began as a parallel to praying the psalms. It was a way that the illiterate could remember the Lord and his mother throughout the day.
Sue, my mother-in-law, died in 1999, the year my son was born. At sixty-six it was unexpected. She had broken a hip. Then the doctors discovered bone cancer and told her she’d live because they had caught it in time. But when you don’t want to live, your body listens to that desire. She recovered from hip surgery in a nursing home – a rehab center with overworked nurses’ aides and a community of residents parked in wheelchairs along the hall waiting for visitors, the next Bingo game, Jell-O dessert, death. She felt old, her mind stifled by years of living with a man who floated through jobs, leaving them with no pension, no hope, no desires, and no money. Her voice had been muted, her life force sucked out.
My husband and I bought Sue a clear set of rosary beads in a gift shop at the legendary New York City, St. Patrick Cathedral’s. We brought it to the nursing home thinking they’d provide a sense of peace while she waited. But she insisted on using the white plastic set provided by the nursing home. “I don’t want anyone to steal my rosary; you don’t know the people here.”
Soon after, I coordinated the details of her wake so my husband and his father could grieve. I searched Sue’s closet for the rose colored chiffon dress she wore to our wedding, the matching pumps, her glasses. Wanting to bury her with the sparkling translucent beads, I searched for them in the two black Hefty bags sent by the nursing home stuffed with her personal belongings. A pair of sneakers, a silk jogging style jacket interlaced with gold thread, a well-worn cardigan, a bunch of nightgowns. I searched the bags three times but never found the beads. I thought, maybe Sue was right; maybe someone had stolen them. She was buried right hand on top of left, holding the rosary beads provided by the funeral home.
A day later I opened one of the garbage bags. I froze. The beads lay atop a sweater, cradled by the gentle folds of the fabric, in plain sight. I sucked in a deep breath and knew with certainty that these rosary beads were meant for my daughter, a daughter yet to be conceived.
Joyful Mystery #2: Love thy Neighbor
The Rosary gained popularity in the 1500s, when Moslem Turks planned a raid on the coast of Italy. While preparations were underway, the Holy Father asked the faithful to say the Rosary and implore the Blessed Mother to pray for the Lord to grant victory to the Christians. Although the Moslem fleet outnumbered that of the Christians, the Moslems were defeated.
When my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I decided to learn how to say the Rosary. I purchased a pocket guide and began carrying Sue’s beads with me. I learned that the smaller beads represent rosebuds—each prayer like a rosebud being lifted to heaven. Ten beads represent one mystery or one decade, and each decade begins with reciting the Lord’s Prayer. I tried to begin each day praying one mystery: one Lord’s Prayer, ten Hail Mary’s and one Glory Be.
I work two blocks from the World Trade Center and when my son was a toddler, I dropped him off at a daycare center nearby. On the morning of 9/11, I exited the subway station with debris raining from the sky and I realized it was not a day for daycare. So I found myself in the bowels of my office building pointing to comic book characters to keep my 2-½ year-old son from realizing the danger we were in. I didn’t remember that the rosary beads were in my bag. I didn’t remember as we stepped into the white powder of death that lined the sidewalks. I didn’t remember as we walked to the Brooklyn Bridge, hardly able to breathe through the soot that permeated the air and shrouded the trees. I didn’t remember I had them as we sat on a bus that took us across the bridge. It wasn’t until we were on the commuter railroad, on our way home, staring at a woman who was uncontrollably crying that I remembered the beads. I could not comfort her because I feared I would end up crying just like her and I had this toddler who didn’t understand how difficult the world had just become.
“Mama, we’re taking the train. Is this the 4 or the 5?”
“No honey, this is the Long Island train.”
“I want to sit next to the window.”
I took out Sue’s rosary beads. “Anthony, let’s pray together.”
He pulled the beads.
“No Anthony, they’re not a toy.” I tugged back.
He laughed. He was testing me. I didn’t want to be tested. I just wanted to pray.
“Anthony, please let go of the beads, or they’re going to break.”
I pulled gently, and a fragile silver link broke, yet the beads remained intact.
Joyful Mystery#3: Detachment from Things of the World
When England and Ireland were severed from Rome under Henry VIII, Ireland maintained a separate allegiance to Rome. Practicing Catholics carried small, easily hidden rosaries to avoid punishment, sometimes as severe as death. These rosaries, especially the smaller ring-type, became known as soldiers’ rosaries because soldiers often took them into battle.
Mom had been widowed at the age of fifty. When I married, she began her empty-nest stage and then nine years later she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Her nighttime routine: eat dinner in the living room on a snack table watching Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, turn off the television after the Mets lost the lead in the bottom of the ninth and mumbling to her empty rooms “Oh they stink!” climb the stairs, sometimes brush her teeth, change into a flannel nightgown with white anklets so her feet won’t be cold, and reach for her rosary beads on the nightstand as her mattress enfolds the body it knows so well.
At seventy-nine she suffered two heart attacks and congestive heart failure. One of her nurses remarked, “Her breathing sounds like a washing machine.” For the nineteen days of Mom’s hospital stay, I arrived in the mornings elated to see her alive. Her hands were a bruised plum and mustard map of the IV needles and blood tests. I placed her frail hand in mine so her fingers rested gently over my palm. “How are you doing Mom?” I knew she couldn’t answer, but trying to create normalcy was a habit I had developed during the Alzheimer years. I silently thanked her for hanging on overnight, and then, as if I had split personalities, I prayed for her death. I would settle into a stiff hospital chair to begin praying the Rosary on a set of wooden beads. I savored the mysteries – Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious – as part of a routine that would get me through the hospital day.
The set was a miniature version, only 10 Hail Mary beads—the soldier rosary. A woman from my church had given them to me a few months earlier. I didn’t know her name. I recognized her in the emergency room of our local hospital when I had to be intravenously hydrated because a parasite had made its home in my intestines. The woman was lying on a stretcher just across from me, her arm extended over the gurney, her face distorted in excruciating pain. She had dislocated her shoulder and cried in agony even after she had been pumped with painkillers. All I could offer was my prayer card – the one I had searched for before leaving my house for the emergency room; a Saint Anthony’s prayer, the saint of miracles and the saint my husband prayed to when, before his birth, my son was diagnosed with hydronephrosis, a swelling of the kidney area. The saint had delivered on our miracle six months later when the pediatric urologist announced, “I looked over the latest CAT Scan and I don’t understand it, but it’s gone.”
I reached over and handed my prayer card to her husband. He took it, whispered something to his wife and gave her the card. She looked at the portrait and immediately placed the card under her face, clenching it tightly. The next week at church when mass was over we exchanged, how are yous. We both were better. Then she lifted my hand and placed inside the miniature rosary with a wooden cross and beads and a Padre Pio medallion. In her broken English, she said “Pray for Saint Padre Pio.”
I had heard of Padre Pio, something about the stigmata, but the beads prompted a bit more research. Born in Italy, he became a priest in the early 1900’s. He suffered various illnesses most of his life. The stigmata, bleeding from wounds similar to those caused by crucifixion, began early in his priesthood and lasted for 50 years until his death. He believed in the power of meditation, often meditating with the rosary. He is quoted as saying: “Pray, Hope, Don’t Worry.” He died holding a set of rosary beads in his hands.
Mom outlived her rosary beads. On day seven of her hospital stay, the link connecting the cross was broken and the cross was missing. On day twelve the Padre Pio medallion had disappeared. Both times I searched the sheets, the floor, the drawers next to her bed. I asked the nurse’s aide. “I saw them last night after I changed her.” Then she proceeded to look in the same places I had. The day before her death, I walked into my mom’s room and after I kissed her forehead, I searched the usual places for what had been left of the rosary, ten wooden beads held together in a circle. I came up empty. This time I asked the nurse. “Oh, yes. I remember seeing them next to her pillow. Maybe when they changed the sheets…I’ll check with Laundry.” She returned ten minutes later to say nothing had been found. That day I prayed the Rosary using my fingers to keep count.
Joyful Mystery #4: Obedience
In 1917, Mary, the mother of Jesus, appeared before three children in Fatima, Portugal, telling the children she was “Our Lady of the Rosary” and asking them to pray the Rosary to help save the world.
A week into Mom’s hospital stay I became extremely ill; severe diarrhea, like hemorrhaging of a life. My husband visited my mom while I slumped on the couch and my 4-year old son alternated between concern and helpfulness. He handed me the thermometer: 105! I took it again, 104.5. Again 105.2! In a flash of panic, I remembered a vision I had had two days into Mom’s hospital stay as I was folding myself into a hospital bedside chair, half asleep: Mom, dressed in a red and white flowing robe was standing, which was remarkable since she hadn’t been able to lift herself to an upright position in years. She was talking to me, also something she hadn’t done in years. “Maria, I want you to come with me.”
At the time of the vision, I rationalized its meaning. Since my father’s death thirty years ago, it had just been the two of us. Perhaps the reason she had been defying the expectations of doctors, nurses, and me was because she was so worried about me; leaving this earth meant detaching from the bond we had shared for so long.
Processing the vision with a 105 fever, my panic deepened and I found myself offering a silent plea: You can’t take me with you. I need to be here for Anthony. You need to do this on your own.
“Can I read it?” Anthony asked for the thermometer. His concerned face mirrored mine. He walked over to the mantel, opened a red wooden box decoupaged with pansies in search of his children’s rosary beads. Colorful oversized wooden beads; they were a Christmas gift from a very good friend. Ever since receiving the gift, our bedtime ritual had begun with Anthony and me reciting the Rosary – one mystery every night before bed – accompanied by a CD version of children praying with an Aussie accent. It was a bedtime routine unconnected to illness, so it surprised me that he was searching for the rosary beads. He walked back over to the sofa, beads in hand, and said, “Mama, you’ll feel better. I’m going to pray the Rosary.” With that my 4-year old began, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”
Joyful Mystery #5 True Wisdom
Christians believe that those that recite the Rosary are promised during their life and at their death the light of God and His graces, and at the moment of death they will participate in the merits of the saints in paradise.
Mom died in the hospital without her set of rosary beads. I held her hand as her breathing became shallow until there was none. And in that moment, a chilled gust swept through me as if her soul had passed through mine on its way to heaven. On the day we buried her, standard issue funeral rosary beads were placed in her hands.
Author’s note: I don’t attend Sunday mass as often as I used to. I don’t pray the Rosary every night with my son. I believe God loves me even when I don’t show up to mass and even though I don’t pray the Rosary as often. On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I found Sue’s broken set of rosary beads and asked my husband to reattach the links. He did. Then I placed them in my 5-year old daughter’s jewelry box.
Maria Massei-Rosato has taught poetry workshops for adults and children with developmental disabilities and currently teaches a writing/yoga workshop in NYC and in Maine. She bicycled across the country in 1995 and completed manuscripts of a memoir and screenplay depicting how the journey, which began in Seattle and ended in Brooklyn, New York, taught her valuable lessons about caring for her mom.