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Fashioning a new setting for an ancient treasure

The rosary is regaining attention in the Catholic world of the 1990s. An intriguing approach is found in Circle of Mysteries: The Women's Rosary Book (Yes International Publishers, 1995). Author Christin Lore Weber combines feminist theology with what has always been considered a traditionalist spiritual practice. In the following interview with NCR's Dawn Gibeau, she explains how she melded the two.

After more than 30 years of teaching, counseling and lecturing about spirituality, Weber now devotes most of her time to writing. Her book Finding Stone: A Quiet Parable and Soul Work Meditation (LuraMedia Publications) was published this year. She lives with her husband, John, on Discovery Bay on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state.

NCR: In recent months Pope John Paul's recording of "The Rosary" (Heart Beat Records) has been circulating; Fr. Basil Pennington, the monk, has published Praying By Hand (HarperSanFrancisco); and your new book, Circle of Mysteries: The Women's Rosary Book, approaches the rosary from a feminist perspective. Are these attempts to reawaken interest in a dormant practice or are all of you tapping into a resurgence that's already underway? In either case, why the rosary?

Weber: Why not the rosary? It is an ancient practice and a beautiful one. Talk with anyone who loves the rosary prayer and you will hear stories at once both common and profound, stories about the mysteries of everyday life. The rosary prayer connects us to a divine reality at life's core. Our hearts touch God when our fingers touch the beads.

People are creating rosaries out of stones. A Baptist woman on the West Coast heard a voice from deep in her heart say, "Make rosaries." She didn't even know what a rosary was! Now she's making rosaries from the gem stones given her by the Pacific Ocean. A woman in Vermont and her little girl are making a rosary of rock in their garden. A rock garden rosary! It will be a path, like a sacred labyrinth. They will remember the mysteries of their lives as they tend the flowers and vegetables. Their tending, attending, intending will lead them into the mysteries of God.

People who put their rosaries down years ago are picking them up once again. They meet in rosary groups. They join prayer circles, and the beads dangle from their fingers. They let their fingers touch the beads while falling asleep at night.

This is why the broad spectrum of interest in the rosary is not so surprising. No one is excluded from this prayer. It reached from end to end of theological inquiry and grounds all our thinking in the rich loam of the heart. Our hearts long for intimacy with God, an intimacy that incarnates, that is, in essence, human.

Maybe what you call a resurgence is simply the heart's way of sharing its joy. Maybe we find in the rosary a prayer focused in the stories of our lives and in the mysteries of our souls. Many people never lost their interest in the rosary. Maybe we look at them and witness something beautiful, something holy and profound. Perhaps we've asked ourselves why and have gone to them to glean of their wisdom.

Certainly Mary has a lot to do with it. We are a world in need of a mother. We live so much in our heads. We feel beset with problems too big to solve. We need to find the mother within us, a living, acting compassion for all that exists. We need a largeness of heart that recognizes the goodness of our being and the innocence of all our striving. We need Mother Wisdom. Mary is one mirror of that mother. The rosary is her prayer; the rosary practice makes us aware of her voice in our hearts.

Where do you find convergence between a practice as traditional as the rosary and the 20th-century-moving-into- millennium phenomenon of feminism? How did you, as a feminist, become engaged with traditional spiritual practices?

The feminist movement, for all its strides, is still in its infancy. Women continue to ask: "Who am I?" and "What am I to do?" It takes time in this process to get around to the task of searching through the treasure trove of ancient jewels, picking them out one by one, polishing them and securing them in a new setting.

Any woman who has inherited her great grandmother's diamond in its original setting knows what I mean. You can't wear it like that. It's paper thin. You would need to take it off to do your work. You tell yourself that next Christmas you'll find a good jeweler, get a new gold band, something that will last another hundred years. But not now. Now you are too busy with the house, education, the children, the job. You drop it into one of the little velvet compartments of your jewelry box.

The feminism I know does not dismiss our traditional spiritual treasures, only their worn setting. Each woman has her work to do. Mine is to search through the treasure trove, polish up forgotten jewels and fashion new settings. There was a time, just after the Second Vatican Council when church renewal was at its zenith, that I put my rosary away and thought I never would take it out again. Theologians of renewal speculated that the rosary was a way the church had of pacifying people uneducated in liturgy -- especially women -- by giving us something to do during the Mass. In those days I diligently avoided anything that trivialized or insulted my womanhood. I gave up the rosary rather than question the speculation. That was a mistake.

Today women are taking another look at all kinds of traditions our mothers and grandmothers loved and saying, "This is my heritage. How could I have let it go so easily?" Because I want to understand what gave our mothers such strength, depth and wisdom, I now want to take to heart what they held beloved.

Now that you have, as you say, polished up your rosary and placed it in a new setting, what does the rosary prayer mean to you?

This rosary is a universal prayer. It is one of the wisdom practices that leads to the prayer of the heart. Who can know how or when it began? When did people first begin to finger beads, small stones, berries, carved wood, gems? When did we begin to make necklaces of them? There must have been a time when some woman felt a calm settle in her soul as she strung beads into a necklace. Did she wonder? Did she feel entranced? Did touching the beads take her beyond her limited mind? Is this when she began using the beads for prayer?

These thoughts intrigued me as I studied the background of the rosary. Most spiritual traditions have prayer beads. This form of Christian prayer beads, the rosary, originated in 1214 with St. Dominic, who is said to have received them from Mary's hand. But Christians had prayed with beads for centuries before Dominic. St. Helena had prayer beads as far back as the fourth century. And Lady Godiva, in the 11th century, willed her prayer beads to her descendants.

It seems to have been the heresy battles with the Albigensians that promoted the rise of the rosary in its present form. Their dualistic theology, which emphasized spirit and disdained body, violated an essential Christian teaching -- incarnation.

The rosary is a bodily prayer, a prayer of touch. Its mysteries are essentially incarnational -- conception, birth, friendship, rearing of children, loss, suffering, death and the splendor of God in every earthly moment, in each action. This splendor in the moment seems to me where incarnation and resurrection meet and meld. I experience the rosary prayer as a circle, a spiral of 15 mysteries that at each turn carries me deeper into God and, more specifically, into the feminine aspect of God. At the same time, I am brought into touch with the depth at the center of each moment of my own life. I am brought into the heart. The rosary is a prayer of the heart.

Can you explain more about how the rosary is a prayer of touch and a prayer of the heart?

Yes. The rosary touches my fingertips, one of the most sensitive points on my body. I slide from bead to bead. It's a sensuous action. It has a purpose. The membrane between matter and spirit, between human and divine, is very thin. As I touch these beads, so I am touched by God. I am touched over and over, from moment to moment, day to day, and although I cannot know God, I can feel the touch as the membrane that I call "myself" moves in response.

As I touch these beads, so I remember and recognize that every atom of creation is a rosary bead. Everything I touch in this world is a fine membrane revealing and concealing God. The mysteries of the rosary are everywhere and they are here, within myself. I touch them when I reach out and touch another's face. God is there. Here. I touch a leaf, a sand dollar shimmering black, its cilia in constant motion. I touch the earth. I plant a tree. All I touch is a membrane, all are beads. It is the rosary of creation. I touch, I pray, I enter the mysteries.

And the prayer of the heart. How is the rosary a prayer of the heart?

Oh, this is really important. My lack of understanding on this point is the very thing that caused my separation from the rosary prayer for so many years. I was trying to pray this prayer in my mind, using my intellect in an attempt to comprehend its meaning. But the rosary is not a prayer of the mind. It is a gift from the heart.

The prayer of the heart begins when we come to the edge of the known and of our ability to act in our own behalf. There at the edge we experience an unknowing and an undoing. I think of my old mother, sitting in the nursing home, her mind ravaged by Alzheimer's disease, still fingering her rosary beads. I doubt that she remembered the words of the prayer. But the prayer itself gave her face a radiance, a peace.

The heart can be readied by anything. Most of our hearts are readied gradually, and the truth of love dawns on us over a long period of time and through many small deaths. It can be the work of a lifetime. It is the work of life. When we open to the experience of unknowing and undoing in the prayer of the heart, we become love. We embody, we incarnate love. Actually, we recognize what we always have been but couldn't see it, couldn't feel it.

This is the life of compassion. It is seeing the innocence of everything. It is life without judgment. It is the love of Corinthians -- love that believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It is love beyond ego- involvement. It is the joyful recognition that while God is more than we can know and while we cannot in our own power act to reveal God, we are, nonetheless, the love of God in this world. We embody not our own individuality but the Christ, the body of Christ. The prayer of the heart is the prayer of Christ.

The rosary is Christ's prayer?

Yes. St. Louis de Montfort called it the first prayer, the first liturgy of the church. He meant it was the prayer of incarnation, of the word made flesh. And the heart that prays is not the physical heart, not even the personal heart of the individual soul. The heart that prays is the heart of Christ, the heart of God. This is what happens in the prayer of the heart. I become an opening to the heart of God. And the rosary as a prayer of the heart is the murmur of the Spirit of God in the endless center where I am more than I am, and where the fire of love is ineffable and is God.

Is this incarnation, then, continuing in creation?


And in this incarnational prayer we enter the mysteries of Mary and become, you might say, a living rosary. In your book, three voices describe this movement into the rosary mysteries. Is that right?

Yes, it is. The voices of the woman, of Mother Wisdom and of Mary herself give expression to the spiral of human life into the body of Christ. As I heard these three voices speaking in the deep places of my own heart, I realized the rosary prayer is truly a "circle of mysteries," each voice calling us deeper into the center. The voice of the woman speaks of the ordinary life in this world of joys and pains, hopes and fears, a life bounded by birth and death. The woman's voice calls out and Mother Wisdom's voice responds with the gift of transformation.

This voice strengthens us to let go of our attempts to control life and to awaken to the reality of God in everything. Finally, Mary's voice tells the story of incarnation, which is the completion of human being.

This spiral of voices sounds faintly reminiscent of traditional stages of spiritual development: the purgative, illuminative and unitive ways.

There is some similarity, certainly. As I experience it, though, there is a constant circling around the mysteries, a lifelong rosary prayer, and each of the three voices is always present to call us deeper into love at every turn our lives take, right to the end. If the voices do represent three stages of spiritual growth, they are stages that spiral deeper and deeper as we live our lives. If I had to name them, I would call them paradox, transformation and incarnational compassion.

Is the voice of the woman one of paradox?

It is. It is the voice of mind. It is the thousand thoughts that cloud the heart, and it seeks to create a world of meaning, to control pain, to organize chaos, to make sense, to make relationships, to define, to differentiate. It is the voice of logic, metaphysics, philosophy, theology, of all the logos. This voice prays the prayer of intercession, tells God how things are and asks for change. The woman's voice questions, inquires, explains, complains, argues, but also thanks, blesses, praises, all in relation to specific things the mind judges good.

The prayer of paradox is one of many words and complex thoughts that finally reaches the edge, the limit of knowing and doing. At that edge the woman's voice ceases and the silence leaves space for the voice of transformation.

Is this pretty much like our constant state of mind?

It can be prompted by any event we recognize as beyond us in some way. For example, the Gulf War broke out just as I was beginning to write the mystery in which Jesus is lost and finally found in Jerusalem's temple. Like most Americans, I spent much of my time watching CNN.

On Sunday, Feb. 23, 1991, as the ground campaign progressed into Kuwait, Peter Arnett took a camera into a Catholic church in Baghdad where people prayed for peace in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. Outside the church, Iraqi women in the black robes of Islam gathered at a shrine dedicated to Mary. Against the church wall, a simple plaster statue stood in a niche made to resemble the grotto at Lourdes. Mary wore the traditional blue and white robes, held a rosary in her clasped hands and balanced her bare feet on the horns of a crescent moon encoiled by a serpent. A round font gouged from the stone-strewn ledge in front of her held holy water. The black-robed women came with candles. They set them among the stones. They bowed and prayed.

One woman stepped forward. She held her small daughter's hand. The woman's face was swollen with too much weeping. She lit two candles, one for her daughter and one for herself. Then she cupped her hands and lifted water from the font. Over and over she washed her face with it. She washed the face of her child. "In the style of Islam," the reporter explained.

He translated her prayer. "Woman to woman," she cried to Mary, raising her arms. "Woman to woman, please hear what I have to say. My son is in the south, fighting the war. My husband is with him. I beg you to bring them back. I beg you to stop the war. Woman to woman, I beg you with tears." Mary lost her son in a desert not far from there. Did the Iraqi woman know? She did know Mary's heart. "Woman to woman," she pleaded.

As I watched her, I heard the voice of the woman rise in my own heart. I wrote: "We women, we have deserts in our hearts. We wander there. We know. We all have lost. Someone. Something. We've lost sons. We've lost daughters. We've lost dreams and the innocence of our childhood hopes. We have lost things small and large. A favorite dish, a home. We've lost our truth, sometimes, protecting someone else's name. We've lost ourselves in the cloak of someone else's power. We light candles. We wander at night. We seek to find what we lost. Our eyes become hawklike, looking."

In Circle of Mysteries, you describe a striking image of paradox leading us to the edge of what we can know or understand. Are you saying the Iraqi woman, standing at the feet of Mary, demonstrates the attitude out of which transformation happens?

So it seemed to me. We surrender, "woman to woman," as the Iraqi mother explained, and in the act of surrender, we hear the voice of Mother Wisdom. Hers is an answering voice, heard when the call of the mind to the soul is unequivocal. Hers is the voice of dreams that awakens us in the night.

This voice rises out of silence or out of turmoil. It is the voice not caused, not expected, not deserved -- a creative burst of transforming power that drops us into another level of knowing and experiencing. It confounds the mind and speaks directly to the soul. Mother Wisdom affirms all life in all its aspects. Her voice is devoid of guilt, shame, fear, judgment, anger, coercion. It restores lost innocence, bestows freedom, acceptance and love. It is the voice of the mother we seek during all our lives, whose only desire is that we are. She calls us simply to be.

The experience of such a voice would seem to be rare.

I thought so, too. But I've found it springs up everywhere. It is in each of us. We experience it in a burst of quiet joy, of peace, of the dawning of truth. All at once we are saying just the right words to the one in pain. We are asking just the right question of the one in moral dilemma. We are compassionate with one we had considered an enemy. We are forgiving the unforgivable.

This voice speaks within us always. All we need is to become quiet enough to hear. She says, "There is nothing in you where I am not. I am the ringing in your voice, the light of your truth, the calming of your fear. I am what is smallest in your gestures of kindness and I am the kindness itself. ... I am your joy. I am what turns you into air, what dissolves the hardness of your heart, what melts your fear. I call and you reach out to me. You will never be alone. You will never be alone. You will never be alone" (Circle of Mysteries, page 41).

You mentioned the compassion of Mother Wisdom. Isn't compassion a quality you associated with Mary's voice?

You're right. Transformation leads directly to incarnation. Mary is the voice of the heart, the teller of stories. She lives compassion. She lives everything. Her voice puts flesh to the word of God. This is the voice of rebirth because we live two lives in this world -- the life before and the one after the experience of union with God.

The Mary voice tells the story of the work of union, which is the day-to-day, moment-to-moment living with awareness of who and what we are, truly. It is the work of undoing every lie, of every form that does not fit the truth discovered in transformation, the truth of Mother Wisdom, which is love and joy.

In the Mystery of Resurrection, Mary says, "You wonder how I know. I know. I am a simple woman in a garden on a common day and yet I know. They come to me, these ordinary folk with stories of the miracle they sense and I can only say, I know. I make a circle with the women and we sing, we gossip some, we share our recipes for food and healing and we know, all of us, we know. He is alive. The dream goes on. We share the bread and wine. We hold each other's hands. We offer what we have. We speak the truth. We honor all of life. The new world is a simple one and it has come."

Living our union with God is what we are here for -- living the mysteries, the circle, the spiral that brings to birth Christ's body. We live incarnation. Incarnation is a primary gift of Christianity to the spiritualities of the world. Christ Jesus demonstrates that the ultimate or highest state of being goes beyond the bliss of mystical union, beyond the divine fire at the mountaintop, beyond the absorption of the individual self into the one God.

The step beyond is to incarnate the mystery of God moment by moment in our daily lives, and by so doing to become the body of Christ. The end of all our striving is to bring forth in our flesh, as St. Paul intuits and as Mary actually did, the one, true God. The incarnation of God, the fulfillment of every divine mystery, the completion of the circle of creation: This is the rosary prayer.

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 1996