“Gentlemen, I am a Catholic. As far as possible, I go to Mass every day. This [taking a rosary from his pocket] is a rosary. As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that He has spared me the indignity of being your representative.”
– Hilaire Belloc, 1906 speech in Salford
It was a calculated risk, to be sure. A man of French origins campaigning for British office. A man of Catholic devotion running in a Anglican country. What is more, Hilaire Belloc found himself speaking in a fiercely competitive constituency rebutting the rival Tory admonishment, “Don’t vote for a Frenchman and a Catholic”, by reaching into his pocket and pulling out…a Rosary. And when he said what he said about going to Mass and “telling these beads” he finished off by effectively telling this important constituency to simply go to hell if they didn’t like it. Whoa. Imagine the reaction of modern day campaign managers and political handlers if their candidate simply imploded in similar grand fashion. The crowd’s reaction? As biographer Robert Speaight describes,
“There was a hush of astonishment, followed by a thunderclap of applause.”
Belloc would win the election and serve as a Liberal Member of Parliament for South Salford from 1906 to 1910. And, just imagine, part of his campaign involved his very public and ardent conviction about “telling beads”.
Not so long ago, I could have been one of those Tories – a critic of Catholics and Catholicism. As a non-Catholic Christian dating a “cradle Catholic”, I found myself immersed in a world quite foreign and a bit threatening. Attending Mass with my future wife, I found myself uneasily surrounded by ornate cathedrals and icons, votive candles and scapulars, popes and saints, novenas and chaplets. It all seemed a little much…and I have’t even mentioned the beads. The Rosary.
I had never had much experience with the Rosary prior to meeting my wife. Singing with a college choir in Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, I bought a Rosary for a Catholic friend (regretting to this day that I didn’t buy a second for myself). It seemed like a nice enough thing to do. It had a souvenir quality and after all, you wear these things like a necklace, right? I know, I know…sheesh. The Rosary seemed harmless enough and perhaps a bit enchanting.
But, several years later, when I was in the throes of debating my future wife about which church we would attend, the rosary came to represent another thing wrong with the Catholic Church. Isn’t saying the Rosary, I would argue, countering what Christ taught about prayer? Didn’t He teach His disciples the value of being brief and heartfelt when He said,
And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
– Matthew 6:7-8
Isn’t the Rosary a sacrilegious devotion to Mary which, in practice, is a distraction from God? I had concluded that the Rosary was just another wrong-headed, distracted part of a Catholic faith in need of reform.
And yet. And yet…something was amiss. Weeks passed. My relationship with my future wife grew as did our discussions about faith. One Sunday succeeded another and soon I had been to countless Masses. We said little about my misgivings since we had a workable plan to alternate churches every other week. In time, it was agreed, we would have to decide on a “home church” for our wedding and raising children. To my surprise, however, in a slow and (I would argue) imperceptibly mystical fashion, my doubts began to lift (which I have gone into greater depth here, here, here, & here ). I found myself becoming further drawn to the Catholic Church, her Truths and her Sacraments.
What was happening? My slow conversion was a portrait with a thousand strokes, but it partly occurred during one Mass while professing our Faith through the Nicene Creed. I started to consider how often we recite this Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and partake in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Sunday after Sunday, church after church, the Mass is the same. The same order. The same words (with some mild variation depending on the liturgical calendar). Is this useless repetition? Is this babbling like Pagans? Is this was Jesus was talking about? Of course not. The order and structure of Mass are deeply rooted in tradition and along with the Holy Spirit midwife a rich spiritual encounter with God. The Mass prepares us for an encounter with Truth that is Ever Ancient, Ever New. By experiencing this week in and week out, day in and day out, Truth begins to sink deep into our marrow. And Truth does not get old. This is why consuming the Body and Blood of Christ will never fail to stir me with the deep sense of Communion I feel with my God. It is why hearing Christ’s Sermon on the Mount is no less brilliant and enlightening when hearing it for the first or the hundredth time. This structure, order and tradition and the Truth which accompanies it is not only assuring…it is ennobling.
Thus, just as the Mass took on new meaning for me, so did the Rosary. The Rosary, I have found, is no mindless exercise to cheaply ingratiate ourselves to God. Nor is it a superstitious relaxation technique. Rather, it is a Biblically-based walk through the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and nearly two dozen seminal events in the life of Christ. The “Hail Marys” that I resented as “Mariolatry”, I soon realized were actually the words addressed to Mary by the Archangel Gabriel and Mary’s cousin Elizabeth. The intercession with God that I may ask of Mary or the Saints, I can likewise ask of my wife or father since this glorious communion of saints transcends the blurred border between the living and the dead. “Telling the beads”, I have found, is a beautiful prayer, a holy meditation and a welcome respite from the distracting and unforgiving world. Whether it is a Rosary etched on a cold, dirt floor by a beaten prisoner of war or wooden beads gripped in the aged hands of a Catholic nun, it is one of the many blessed forms of Communion with God. Perhaps the most beautiful description of the Rosary that I have read was offered by Robert Llewelyn,
“The words [of the Rosary] are like the banks of a river and the prayer is like the river itself. The banks are necessary to give direction and to keep the river flowing. But it is the river with which we are concerned. So in prayer it is the inclination of the heart to God which alone matters…As the river moves into the sea, the banks drop away. So, too, as we move into the deeper sense of God’s presence the words fall away and…we shall be left in silence in the ocean of God’s love.”
Yes. Yes, indeed. One hundred and eight years ago, Hilaire Belloc told his beads and was a better man for it. I will also tell my beads. I pray that I will be better for it too.