The Catholic Church is full of prayers. They have prayers before meals, prayers before bedtime, prayers for confession, prayers before Mass and prayers after Mass. And along with these prayers come a variety of devotions which date back to very ancient times. I think that to many people outside of the Catholic Church, it may be our devotion to the Blessed Mother that stands out most. The Rosary and the Catholic Church do go hand in hand and as a religious symbol the Rosary identifies Christianity not only in the church but often in the media as well.
The Rosary itself dates back to the 12th century and by our standards that does seem quite ancient, but the Rosary is a relative late-comer in a long line of devotions which incorporated the counting prayer to pray.
I mentioned in my recent post on the Kyrie, that the Kyrie Eleison is actually the base of another prayer called the Jesus Prayer, which does have ancient origins within the church. It is one of the oldest types of prayers which were counted. In this prayer people used knots instead of beads to create a rope and this counting system was used to pray the Jesus Prayer. Still popular and widely used to Eastern Christianity which goes for the Orthodox as well as the Eastern Catholic rites, a variety of different devotions developed over time. Many of them used 33 beads or knots which stood for the 33 years of Christ life. Others would use sets of 50 keep track of how many of the prayers were being said through the day and the simple Jesus Prayer was used for these. It was a way to continuously pray.
Ropes with knots or beads up to 150 were quite common because the Jesus Prayer was in it’s own way a latecomer too. These traditions of prayer counting come from the early church and the Jewish traditions of praying the Psalms, of which there were 150. Of course the Jesus prayer is a lot easier to learn than 150 psalms and so it was certainly easier to work with. And what was lacking in words would be found in contemplation which is an essential part of these devotions. This of course has carried through to later devotions like the Rosary which has a very developed system of contemplation which accompanies the prayers. When praying the rosary, it is not just a recital of prayers, but a consideration and reflection on several “Mysteries” which are really events in the life of Christ from the perspective of Mary. For instance the Joyful Mysteries focus on The Annunciation, The Visitation, The Birth of Jesus, The Presentation and Finding the Lord in the Temple. It is maybe easier to see how simple prayers, instead of the book of Psalms could still bring to mind a very broad range of praise, worship, petition and adoration, through contemplation.
The Lords Prayer, Pater Noster, was another simple prayer that was used in this fashion, using a straight rope of 50 beads or variations depending on who made or how it was used. These were most likely the direct predecessor to the Rosary which in it’s earlier models also used a straight rope instead of one with a loop. Eventually these kinds of prayers developed into the many chaplets and devotions, of which the Rosary is a part, that can be found in the world today.
But do keep in mind when you hear the Kyrie that you are praying a prayer with a lot of history. You are echoing the contemplation of centuries and reciting a prayer inspired by the words of a man who saw the face of our Lord and found mercy.
The Jesus Prayer has several variations:
- Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
- Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us.
- Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
- Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.[
- Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
- Jesus, have mercy.