“To Contemplate the Beauty of the Face of Christ”: The Rosary and the Jesus Prayer as Complementary Devotions

Introduction

St. John of the Cross, acclaimed by the Western Church as a true “master in the faith”[i] and “guide of those within the holy Church who seek greater intimacy with God,”[ii] teaches that all Christian prayer must undergo a process of maturation. In the early stages of the spiritual life, prayer tends to be primarily discursive, reliant on words and images, whereas more mature prayer tends to be characterized by wordless, loving attentiveness to the presence of God.[iii] The decisive transition is described by St. John as an interior movement from “meditation to contemplation,”[iv] that is, from prayer which is more active to prayer which is more passive and still. In one memorable passage, the Mystical Doctor compares this transition to God “weaning [the soul] from the delicate and sweet food of infants and making it eat bread with crust … the food of the strong.”[v] St. Teresa of Jesus, for her part, describes the same transition as the change from laboriously drawing water from a well to receiving “heavenly water that in its abundance soaks and saturates”[vi] the soul. In either analogy, it is clear that this maturation in prayer comes in God’s time and as a result of his initiative, not as something achieved by the one praying as a result of willpower or technique. 

The individual has an indispensable part to play, however, in disposing themselves to receive the gift of contemplation. St. Teresa notes that “in the beginning it almost always occurs after a long period of mental prayer.”[vii]The practice of mental prayer is thus recommended by the masters of the spiritual life in order to dispose the soul to receive the gift of contemplation and advance to the more mature degrees of Christian prayer. The Carmelite doctors are careful to distinguish, however, that this mental prayer does not require one to abandon vocal prayer and seek some purely apophatic state of consciousness. “The nature of mental prayer isn’t determined by whether or not the mouth is closed,” St. Teresa of Jesus wryly observes: “If while speaking I thoroughly understand and know that I am speaking with God and I have greater awareness of this than I do of the words I’m saying, mental and vocal prayer are joined.”[viii] Father Wilfrid Stinissen, a spiritual son of Saints Teresa and John, distinguishes

three degrees in the development of prayer. In the beginning, it is often a prayer with the lips. While the tongue repeats the words, the thoughts continue to swarm around. When you succeed in reaching the content of the words, you have reached the second degree—the prayer of understanding … As you rise up to this meaning with your whole essence and not only with your understanding … the prayer sinks down into the heart. This is the third degree. … To a certain degree, the entire spiritual development, especially for us Westerners, deals with this transfer from the head to the heart.[ix]

When vocal prayer is prayed with understanding, and preeminently when it is prayed with the engagement of the heart, which is “the place of this quest and encounter”[x] with God, “this vocal prayer is now in fact mental prayer.”[xi]Progress in prayer, then, consists most essentially not in the renunciation of words and images, but rather in engaging the heart in what is said with the lips and meditated upon with the intellect: “to stand before God with the mind in the heart,”[xii] as the Eastern spiritual master Theophan the Recluse has it. The one who begins to pray “whole-heartedly” in this way opens himself up in time to the possibility of a purgative interior transformation, effected by God, who leads the soul into new, supernatural degrees of prayer. 

In the Churches of the East and West, two highly distinctive traditions of prayer have arisen, reflective of deep and irreducible differences in their theological and devotional “styles.” Arguably the most characteristic devotion of the Western Church is the Holy Rosary, in which it meditates, with the words of Scripture, on the central events of the life of Christ. The Rosary is “a form of Christocentric contemplation,”[xiii] according to the phrase of St. John Paul II; it is a meditative gaze fixed on Christ, seen through the eyes of his Mother. In the Christian East, the tradition of the Jesus Prayer likewise aims to maintain a simple, insistent focus on Christ the Redeemer by the repetition of His divine name, a repetition which “simplifies and unifies” the soul and “gathers everything into itself,”[xiv] integrating body, mind, and heart in the loving contemplation of the LordThese two forms of vocal prayer, with due respect to their irreducible distinctness in style, nonetheless have the same end, which is to integrate the whole person in prayer and so dispose the soul to receive the gift of contemplation. Furthermore, far from being mere culturally conditioned (and therefore interchangeable) expressions of a basic impulse of Christian prayer towards integration, contemplation, and union, the Holy Rosary and the Jesus Prayer are mutually enriching approaches in disposing the soul to receive those gifts. While it is no doubt true that “the best prayer is for everybody the prayer to which he or she is moved by the Holy Spirit,”[xv] all Christians, whether in the East or in the West, ought to consider making use of these two priceless treasures of devotion, which so complement each other in the integration and maturation of the soul towards perfect prayer and union with God.

The Holy Rosary

The Holy Rosary is first and foremost a Marian prayer, yet it “belongs to the kind of veneration of the Mother of God described by the [Second Vatican] Council: a devotion directed to the Christological centre of the Christian faith.”[xvi] In each decade of the Rosary, the faithful meditate upon one of the central mysteries of the life of Christ; each decade, in fact, is a “‘meditation’ with Mary on Christ.”[xvii] This insight is the key to praying the Rosary with understanding. The style of the Holy Rosary is entirely Marian, inasmuch as it is prayed with Mary and in “the school of Mary,”[xviii] but the content of the Rosary is entirely Christological.[xix] The Rosary presents the mysteries of Christ to us precisely as seen “through the eyes of her who was closest to the Lord.”[xx] Like the Mother of God herself, who at the Wedding of Cana pointed the servants toward her Son and instructed them, “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5), the course of Hail Mary’s repeated in each decade of the Holy Rosary bring the soul into “the constant contemplation – in Mary’s company – of the face of Christ.”[xxi]

It is not accidental, then, that “the center of gravity in the Hail Mary, the hinge as it were which joins its two parts, is the name of Jesus.[xxii] Indeed, “when we repeat the name of Jesus – the only name given to us by which we may hope for salvation (cf. Acts 4:12) – in close association with the name of his Blessed Mother, almost as if it were done at her suggestion, we set out on a path of assimilation meant to help us enter more deeply into the life of Christ.”[xxiii] This path is the way of deepening faith and maturation in prayer which Mary herself walked in the course of her earthly life, from the Annunciation (the first of the Joyful Mysteries) to the Crucifixion (last of the Sorrowful Mysteries), and which she completed in glory with her Assumption and Coronation in Heaven. Since Mary has gone before us all on this path, she who is now “more honorable than the Cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim,”[xxiv] opens up “the possibility of us too becoming assenters”[xxv] to the will of God for us. From Mary and with Mary, we learn to offer our own ‘fiat voluntas tua to the Lord, imitating her posture of confident faith, of “silent waiting, humble serving, ready praise.”[xxvi] In the delightful phrase of St. John Paul II, “the Rosary mystically transports us to Mary’s side as she is busy watching over the human growth of Christ in the home of Nazareth. This enables her to train us and to mold us with the same care, until Christ is ‘fully formed’ in us (cf. Gal 4:19).”[xxvii]

Indeed, it is only with Mary—not just by her example, nor even by her intercession, but by joining ourselves withher on this path of faith—that we can attain to the fullness of maturity in Christ.  “If it was only through prayer that Mary trained to utter her own word of assent,” Hans Urs von Balthasar observes, “then we are truly unable to accomplish our assent by our own power: we must remain in an attitude of grateful attention looking to her who has truly been able to assent.”[xxviii] As we attend to Mary, contemplating Christ with her and through her eyes, we find that we are conformedto Christ with her; Mary, who formed the humanity of Christ in her virginal womb, forms Christ anew in us.[xxix]

The Jesus Prayer 

At the outset of his classic work On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus, Lev Gillet, a monk of the Eastern Church, notes that “the invocation of the Name of Jesus can be put into many frames … but, whatever formula may be used, the heart and center of the invocation must be the Holy Name itself, the word Jesus. There resides the whole strength of the invocation.”[xxx] As St. John Paul II observed, the center of each Hail Mary and so the heart of the Rosary as a whole is the repetition of the name of Jesus. Thus, without in any way diminishing its unique and irreducible value in itself, one might call the Rosary an elaborate Marian “frame” surrounding the Name of Jesus, a characteristically Western “formula” of the Jesus Prayer; indeed, “it is, as Frithjof Schuon has stated, ‘the Jesus Prayer of the Western Church.’”[xxxi]

Nonetheless, the Jesus Prayer as it is prayed in the Eastern Church has its own distinctive value, part of which “lies precisely in the fact that, because of its radical simplicity, it can be prayed in conditions of distraction when more complex forms of prayer are impossible.”[xxxii] The spiritual masters of the East recommend that “we daily assign a certain time to the invocation of the Name (besides the ‘free’ invocation which should be as frequent as possible),”[xxxiii]with the result that “in time … the Name of Jesus will spontaneously come to your lips and almost continuously be present to your mind.”[xxxiv] This “one-word prayer”[xxxv] is a concrete and eminently practical means of fulfilling the Lord’s command to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16), of keeping, as Bishop Theophan the Recluse recommends, “the hands at work, the mind and heart with God.”[xxxvi] It is not always possible to meditate; it is always possible to pronounce the name of Jesus, whether with the lips or in one’s mind alone.

The practice of the Jesus Prayer differs most sharply from the Holy Rosary in that it is not meditation, but invocation. The late Bishop Kallistos Ware clarifies this distinction:

According to the teaching of Eastern Christianity, the faculty of the imagination by means of which we form more or less living images according to our aptitude, has only a very limited place in the work of prayer … ‘He who sees nothing in prayer, sees God.’ Our minds, habitually dispersed in a great diversity of thoughts and ideas, should be unified, brought back from multiplicity to simplicity and emptiness; from diversity to sobriety. It [sic] should be purified of all mental images and all intellectual concepts until it is no longer conscious of anything other than the presence of God, invisible and incomprehensible.[xxxvii]

In the evocative phrase of St. John Climacus, “it is necessary to imprison the intellect in words.”[xxxviii] Rather than meditating upon the individual mysteries of the life of Christ, then, the practitioner of the Jesus Prayer binds his mind in a resolute attentiveness to “the Mystery that surpasses all understanding (cf. Eph 3:19): the Mystery of the Word made flesh.”[xxxix] Thus, Gillet’s classic introduction to the Jesus Prayer advises beginners, “Begin to pronounce [the Name] with adoration and love. Cling to it. Repeat it. Do not think that you are invoking the Name; think only of Jesus himself.”[xl] The goal of the practice is for the words of the prayer, even the Name itself, to become imperceptible to the one praying, transparent to the presence of the One who is named. In effect, what is described by the eastern masters is the transition from vocal prayer to mental prayer and on to the prayer of the heart. One recognizes the same integration of the whole person, described by St. John Paul II as the goal of prayer in the school of Mary, in this description of the fruits of the Jesus Prayer: “The participation of the mind becomes more intense and spontaneous, while the sounds uttered by the tongue become less important … Like a drop of ink that falls on blotting paper, the act of prayer should spread steadily outwards from the conscious and reasoning center of the brain, until it embraces every part of ourselves.”[xli]

To be sure, the indispensable Marian dispositions described in the previous section, particularly her posture “of faith, of silence, of attentive listening,”[xlii] are not absent from the Jesus Prayer. Anyone who would be attentive to the presence of Jesus must do so, consciously or not, in the posture and attitude of Mary. Bishop Ware even indicates in passing that Mary is present implicitly every time “He is invoked by the human name, ‘Jesus,’ which His Mother Mary gave to Him after His birth in Bethlehem.”[xliii] The distinguishing characteristic of the Jesus Prayer, however, is its unrelenting simplicity of focus on Jesus, leading to a state of “pure prayer”[xliv] and union with God. This purity of focus can be a helpful complement and corrective to our more discursive forms of Western devotion. 

Conclusion

The most characteristic devotions of the Christian East and West, namely, the Jesus Prayer and the Holy Rosary, are irreducibly different yet deeply complementary forms of prayer. On the one hand, the “Marian posture” inculcated by the prayer of the Holy Rosary is a necessary disposition to receive the gift of contemplation. It is “a constitutive condition for the way which is Christ.”[xlv] Thus the Rosary can enrich our practice of the Jesus Prayer, and indeed of all vocal prayer, by habituating us to the Marian dispositions so essential for progress in prayer and Christian maturity. On the other hand, the insistent focus on Christ alone instilled by the Jesus Prayer forms in the soul a habit of seeking Jesus, which can only lead to more fruitful meditation on His mysteries and encountering Him through the memories of Mary as we pray the Holy Rosary. May the Church strive with ever greater zeal to “breathe with her two lungs,”[xlvi] and may Christians everywhere who desire a deeper life of intimacy with Christ make use of the treasures of her tradition, East and West, to attain to the fullness of life in God.


[i] John Paul II, “Master in the Faith” [Apostolic Letter on the 4th Centenary of the Death of St. John of the Cross] (December 14, 1990), §1, at http://www.ewtn.com.

[ii] John Paul II, “Master in the Faith,” §17.

[iii] See John Paul II, “Master in the Faith,” §13.

[iv] John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1991), I, 10, 1.

[v] John of the Cross, Dark Night, I, 12, 1.

[vi] Teresa of Jesus, The Book of Her Life, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1976), 18, 9.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Teresa of Jesus, The Way of Perfection, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1980), 22, 1.

[ix] Wilfrid Stinissen, Praying the Name of Jesus: The Ancient Wisdom of the Jesus Prayer, trans. Joseph B. Board (Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications, 1999), 92-93.

[x] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 2710.

[xi] Teresa of Jesus, Way of Perfection, 24, 6.

[xii] Theophan the Recluse, quoted in Igumen Chariton of Valamo, The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, translated by E. Kadloubovsky and E. M. Palmer (London: Faber & Faber, 1966), 63.

[xiii] John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariæ [On the Most Holy Rosary] (October 16, 2002), §12.

[xiv] Lev Gillet, On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus (Oxford: Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, 1949), 19.

[xv] Gillet, On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus, 18.

[xvi] John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariæ, §4.

[xvii] John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariæ, §13. Emphasis added.

[xviii] John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariæ, §1.

[xix] This language, however, leaves much to be desired, as the Marian style is itself Christological and the Christological content is itself Marian. “By divine choice,” writes Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis in his preface to von Balthasar’s Threefold Garland, the mysteries of Christ and Mary are “utterly inseparable from one another” (10). 

[xx] Paul VI, Marialis Cultus [For the Right Ordering and Development of Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary] (February 2, 1974), §156.

[xxi] John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariæ, §15.

[xxii] John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariæ, §33.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] “Hymn to the Theotokos,” Orthodox Church in America, accessed November 4, 2022, https://www.oca.org/orthodoxy/prayers/hymn-to-the-theotokos.

[xxv] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Threefold Garland (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982), 20.

[xxvi] Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, “Preface,” in Balthasar, Threefold Garland, 14.

[xxvii] John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariæ, §15.

[xxviii] Balthasar, Threefold Garland, 23.

[xxix] See John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariæ, §15 ff.

[xxx] Gillet, On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus, 1.

[xxxi] Jean Hani, “The Rosary as Spiritual Way,” in Ye Shall Know the Truth: Christianity and the Perennial Philosophy, edited by Mateus Soares de Azevedo (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2005), 101.

[xxxii] Kallistos Ware, “The Power of the Name: The Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality,” in Ye Shall Know the Truth, 79-80.

[xxxiii] Gillet, On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus, 7.

[xxxiv] Gillet, On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus, 12.

[xxxv] Gillet, On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus, 19.

[xxxvi] Theophan the Recluse, in The Art of Prayer, 92.

[xxxvii] Kallistos Ware, qtd. in Rama Coomaraswamy, The Invocation of the Name of Jesus as Practiced in the Western Church (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1999), 245-246.

[xxxviii] John Climacus, qtd. in Coomaraswamy, The Invocation of the Name of Jesus, 235.

[xxxix] John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariæ, §24.

[xl] Gillet, On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus, 9.

[xli] Ware, “The Power of the Name,” 88-89.

[xlii] John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariæ, §24.

[xliii] Ware, “The Power of the Name,” 82.

[xliv] Coomaraswamy, The Invocation of the Name of Jesus, 246.

[xlv] Balthasar, Threefold Garland, 23.

[xlvi] John Paul II, Ut unum sint [On Commitment to Ecumenism] (May 25, 1995), §54.

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