When we see someone with a rosary, we quickly assume they are Catholic. Since the rosary is so quickly identified with the Catholic faith, many think that it is a uniquely Catholic idea to pray with beads.
Such an assumption is incorrect. Praying with some form of beads is not uniquely Catholic or Christian, but part of the tradition of world religions. Many religions, including the Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim religions, use prayer beads in their faith tradition.
Praying with prayer beads in the Catholic tradition dates to the monastic period. The monks, like the desert fathers that proceeded them, prayed first every day, then every week, the Book of Psalms. This practice was lengthy, as there are 150 psalms to pray. To number them, the monks would count pebbles or rocks on a string or put loose pebbles into a bag as they prayed the psalms.
Such a practice inspired the laity. They wanted to be prayerful like the monks. The expense of books, low literacy rates, and the amount of time needed to pray the psalms barred most people from exactly imitating the monks. Instead, they would tie 50 knots onto a piece of string, and over the course of a day or a week, pray 50 or 150 Our Fathers. This became known as the “poor man’s breviary.”
Slowly, this prayer tradition shifted, becoming more Marian over time. St. Peter Damian, who died in 1072, first suggested praying the Hail Mary on the beads instead of the Our Father. In 1365, Henry of Kalkar, a Carthusian monk, divided the 150 Hail Mary’s into 15 groups of 10 with an Our Father after each decade. Another Carthusian monk, Dominic of Prussia, tied each Hail Mary with a thought or phrase about Mary or Jesus. This was modified by an anonymous Dominican, who proposed the 15 mysteries of the Rosary around 1480, making the Rosary much easier to pray.
Many tie the development of the Rosary to St. Dominic. The root of this belief is from a story told by Blessed Alan de la Roche. He wrote that St. Dominic had a vision of Mary who gave him the Rosary, instructing him to pray and preach this devotion to defeat the Albigensian heresy that was sweeping the Church. This account given by Blessed de la Roche’s came more than 250 years after St. Dominic’s death. Due to the amount of time between St. Dominic’s death and the recording of the story, scholars today question its authenticity. We can say for certain, however, that St. Dominic did preach the Rosary and that no fewer than a dozen popes have honored St. Dominic with a close connection with the Rosary.
This column appeared in a previous edition of the St. Louis Review.
Father Mayo is pastor of St. Raphael the Archangel Parish in St. Louis.