Monday, March 19, 2007

The name of the rosary

I've been working on a booklet about historical rosaries for re-enactors this month, and it's required me to go back to my sources, where I've turned up some interesting nuggets. One of them is that I've finally sat down and worked out some dates for various rosary-related words, with the help of the Oxford English Dictionary.


To start with, English is decidedly unusual among European languages in having adopted the word bid, which essentially means a prayer or request, and transferring it to the small round object pierced with a hole. The English word “bead” for small round objects on a string, which dates from at least 1377 in this sense, comes from the Old English ebed, meaning “bid.”

The other languages of medieval Europe refer to beads of any material with words related to “pearl” (Dutch parels, German perlen, French perles, Swedish pärler, Italian perline or pallina), or “grain” (Spanish granos, Portuguese grânulos, Italian grano, German Korne). Russian calls them “balls,” Romanian calls them mărgea (“pearls”) or “globes,” and Greek has several words, most of which seem to mean something like “bubble.”

Comparative word origins are a fascinating study, full of little mysteries, though answers to "why" a certain word became the accepted usage are usually impossible to prove. English has its share of oddities: for instance, most other European languages call that wall-opening with glass in it by some version of the word fenestre, but in English it's a window, from the Norse vind-auge ("wind-eye"). All over Europe that four-legged friend of ours is called something like a hund, except in English, where it's a dog -- and no one seems to have a good idea where that one came from.

To get back to beads, however, traces of the earlier meaning of bid/bede as "a prayer" still remain. For instance, a wealthy patron in the Middle Ages may have supported poor bedesmen, who had promised to pray for the patron, and may have provided a bedehouse for bedesmen or bedeswomen to live in. Likewise, “bidding one’s bedes” in the Middle Ages does not so much mean praying with a literal string of beads, as it means praying for one’s bedes, that is, the people or requests one is obliged to pray for.

However, the expansion of the meaning of bede from the prayer to also include the object had already occurred by the time of Piers Plowman (c1377), who mentions someone with “... A peyre bedes in her hande And a boke vnder hire arme.” Incidentally, “a pair of beads” simply means a complete set, using an older meaning of the term “pair.”



As has been mentioned, this name for the string of beads, and for the practice of saying a series of Pater Nosters and Ave Marias, have both been derived from the Latin name of the prayer that begins, “Pater noster, qui es in caelis...” The use of this word to refer to the bead string dates from at least as early as 1250, and in a 1317 inventory we find mention of a paternoster of pearls. In Mandeville’s Travels (c. 1400), he mentions that “The Kynge...hathe abouten his Nekke 300 Perles oryent, gode and grete, and knotted, as Pater Nostres here of Amber.”

By further extension, anything that resembles beads on a string can suggest a paternoster, and so the word has been applied, for instance, to a string of lakes by geologists (paternoster lakes), or to a variety of mechanical devices that operate like an endless wheel or string of buckets. (For more on this, see here.)


The word “rosary” originally meant a garden devoted to the growing of roses (c1440, “This mone is eke rosaries to make, with setes [seats]”). Chaucer also cites Rosarium Philosophorum in 1386 as the title of a treatise on alchemy by Arnaldus de Villa Nova. Probably both the rose-garden concept and the book title contributed to the idea of referring to a collection of written prayers and devotions as a (metaphorical) rosary, such as the 1526 Rosary of Our Savyour Jesu or the 1533 Mystik sweet Rosary of the faytheful soule.

From here it was a short step to applying the term “rosary” to the specific prayer practice we have been discussing, including its string of beads.

Other European languages also call the rosary by a name referring to roses. In German it is a rosenkranz, in French a rosaire, in Italian and Spanish a rosario, and in Hungarian it is a rózsafüzért (literally a “rose string”). However in Austria it is more commonly a betschnur (“prayer string”) and in France, often a chapelet.

This was also probably encouraged by a secondary meaning of “rosary” as a wreath or chaplet of roses. A popular legend of the time helped to spread this metaphor widely (if you're familiar with the Paternoster-row website you've already heard this one).


In the legend, bystanders — actually robbers! — saw a young monk, stopping to rest in his journey, kneel down in the road and begin reciting “Ave, Maria...” As each prayer dropped from the monk’s lips, it turned into a rose, which was gathered up by the Virgin Mary standing nearby (the monk evidently didn’t see her, but the robbers did). The Virgin showed her pleasure at the gift of prayers by weaving the roses into a garland for her head. And since this is a legend, of course, the story adds that the robbers immediately repented and hastened to a priest to confess their sins, became monks, and died a holy death in the best legendary style!


Thursday, March 15, 2007

Protestants IV: Can Protestants hail Mary?

protestants and the rosary, conclusion

There are three basic prayers in the Rosary: the Our Father ("Our Father, who art in heaven..."), the Gloria ("Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit...") and the Hail Mary.

The first two are not controversial: in fact, many Protestants say them quite routinely, especially in weekly church services.

Even for Protestants who might otherwise be comfortable with the repetitive and meditative aspects of the rosary, however, the "Hail Mary" may still give them pause. I've already outlined some of the reasons why. Here's what the prayer says:

AVE MARIA, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.

"HAIL, MARY, full of grace; the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen."


One of the classic Catholic stories of Protestants "discovering" the rosary shows the Protestant suddenly realizing that the first words of the "Hail Mary" prayer come straight out of the Gospel of Luke. "Aha!" crows the Catholic, "See? It's right out of the Bible!"

Well, sort of. :)

Certainly it's partly true that this comes out of Scripture. "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee... blessed art thou among women" is the angel Gabriel's salutation to Mary, who has been chosen as the mother of Christ (Luke 1:28).

The second phrase is also a direct quote from the Bible. "Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb" is the greeting spoken by Mary's cousin Elizabeth when Mary comes to visit her (Luke 1:42).

Protestants, however, point out that the first of these is a greeting spoken by an angel, not a human being. The second is spoken directly to Mary's face by someone she knew on earth. Neither of them is presented as something ordinary believers in later times are supposed to go around repeating -- in contrast, for instance, to the things Christians are directly admonished to do, such as praying after the model of the Our Father, or washing one another's feet.

If the question is whether it's legitimate to use someone else's words to express greetings or praise, of course the answer is yes. But this doesn't answer the question a Protestant would raise: Is there a reason for greeting or praising the Virgin Mary at all? Even Protestants who are comfortable with the idea of asking saints in heaven to pray for us (as we do our friends on earth) might feel this reminds them too strongly of the praise and worship given to God.

There may never be a "Protestant rosary," as such, since as we've seen there are several aspects of the rosary that Protestants may continue to be uncomfortable with.

But I do think there are ways of recognizing Mary's role in salvation history that Protestants and Catholics can agree on, and perhaps pray about. In that sense, and with proper understanding on all sides, perhaps Protestants can find ways to appreciate Mary after all.


I find myself thinking here of the Angelus, a prayer formula that has traditionally been said by devout Catholics at the ringing of a bell at dawn, noon, and sunset (familiar from references like the 19th-century painting "The Angelus" by Jean-François Millet, which shows field workers pausing to pray). While the Angelus grew out of an older custom of saying three Hail Marys at sunset, dawn, and noon, other words were soon added.

In the version I learned, it goes like this:

"The Angel of the Lord appeared unto Mary,
and she was filled with the Holy Spirit.

("Hail, Mary, full of grace..... etc.)

"Behold the Handmaid of the Lord.
Be it done to me according to Thy Word.

("Hail, Mary, full of grace..... etc.)

"And the Word was made flesh
and dwelt among us.

("Hail, Mary, full of grace..... etc.)

"Pour forth, we beseech thee, O Lord, thy Grace into our hearts; that we to whom the Incarnation of Christ, thy Son, was made known by the message of an angel, may by his passion and cross, be brought to the glory of His resurrection, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen."

other posts in this series:

Part I: Protestants and the Rosary
Part II: Worship, honor, and the Virgin Mary
Part III: Addressing saints

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Protestants III: Addressing saints

protestants and the rosary, part 3

As I've mentioned, Protestants have problems with the idea of praying the rosary, and the "explanations" offered by Catholics often don't answer their questions.

The biggest problem is the status of the Virgin Mary, and I hope I've explained here why she is not regarded as a "goddess" by Catholics (as Protestants sometimes believe). The next problem I think Protestants have with the rosary is the one pointed out in the Thirty-Nine Articles that defined the separation between the English and Roman churches that began with Henry VIII. Article 22 describes the invocation of saints as "a fond thing vainly invented and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the word of God." Is it really legitimate to address "prayers" to dead human beings (saints) and to ask them for favor?

Donors of the Gundelfinger family 7006328

(I decided these posts would be much nicer with photos, even if they're not strictly relevant photos. The three here are details of a painting commissioned from Herlin Friedrich by the Gundelfinger family southern Germany in about 1490. The family is shown kneeling at the foot of a Crucifixion scene, hence the bloody feet in the center. The skull and bone at the foot of the Cross represent Adam.)

"Invocation" really means "calling on," so this is really two questions: (1) Can saints in heaven hear requests addressed to them by living people? and (2) Is it legitimate for living people to ask saints for help? By and large, I think Protestants are taught that the answer to (1) is "No," rendering (2) rather pointless. Catholics, on the other hand, would answer "Yes" to both.

Question (1) is really about the different ways Catholics and Protestants see the doctrine called "the communion of saints" (as creeds usually call it). Both will tell you they believe in the communion of saints, but they mean different things by this statement. For Protestants, it means that living believers and dead believers together make up a single (though rather theoretical) body of believers -- but that the two are separated by the boundary of death. We may know that the dead live on in Heaven, but we have no contact with them, although God (of course) has contact with both. Only at the end of time will we all be truly united.

Gents of the Gundelfinger family 7006328

(By the way, he peculiar mark on the little shield by Papa Gundelfinger's knees is the family's "merchant's mark" or logo, telling you who they are.)

Catholics, on the other hand, tend to take the "communion" as a literal, present-day reality: although we don't generally see or hear dead saints, God has made the boundary between death and life porous, at least one way (from us to them) and occasionally both ways (living people having visions -- which Protestants profoundly distrust). This means we can address our thoughts to the saints and reasonably have faith that God will grant them the ability to hear us.

I personally don't think there is clear support for either view in the Bible, although I don't doubt that my evangelical friends can find some that satisfies their view. Both sides seem to believe what they believe simply because that's what they have always been taught.

In part, this reflects the inclination of Catholics to accept "tradition" as a source of truth along with the Bible. In the Catholic view, traditions of belief passed from person to person in the early Church contributed to and shaped what we now know as the Bible, so that if both are transmitted accurately, and correctly understood, they will not contradict each other. But one of the basic tenets of the Protestant Reformation is that tradition has been demonstrably wrong in the past, and is too easily twisted to support illegitimate authority, so only the Bible is reliable.

Ladies of the Gundelfinger family 7006328

I will readily grant, as a statement of fact, the part of Article 22 that says the invocation of saints is "grounded upon no warranty of Scripture," whether this is taken to mean that it doesn't originate in the Bible (true) or that it's not explicitly supported by the Bible (also true, I think). But I would point out that "a fond thing vainly invented" -- which in modern terms more or less means "a fantasy made up out of someone's head" -- and "repugnant to the Word of God" are both statements of opinion, and I think a thoughtful person may agree or disagree with those.

If you believe saints can hear us, it is a relatively short step to believing it's legitimate to ask them for favor -- at least for the favor of praying for us. Many Christians believe that praying for others is a Good Thing, even if we don't fully understand why such a thing would matter to an omniscient and omnipotent God. We ask people we love and admire on earth to pray for us; if we can make ourselves heard to the people we love and admire in Heaven, by asking them to pray for us we are not asking them for anything different or requiring "godlike" powers.

posts in this series:

Part I: Protestants and the Rosary
Part II: Worship, honor, and the Virgin Mary
Part III: Addressing saints
Part IV: Can Protestants hail Mary?

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Protestants II: Worship, honor, and the Virgin Mary

protestants and the rosary, part 2

As I mentioned earlier, many Protestants have problems with the idea of praying the rosary, and the "explanations" offered by Catholics often don't answer their questions.

One point occurred to me after I'd finished my first post on this subject. I was talking about the Protestant objections to repeated prayers, and the explanations I was presenting were about saying the same prayer on a regular basis, such as every day. It didn't occur to me that I should also point out that, to those who are made uncomfortable by the rosary, while it's one thing to say the Our Father every day, it's quite another thing to say it fifty times one right after another. Even if the first of these doesn't seem to qualify as the sort of "vain repetition" counseled against by Christ, it's understandable that the second might seem like a different case.

This is especially true if, as Catholics sometimes explain, the intention of the repeated prayers is to induce a meditative state. This may seem to reduce the words of the prayer to a mechanical exercise without meaning. Certainly mechanical repetition, like drumming, can induce a detached state of mind.

Complicating the picture also is the meditation on the "mysteries", incidents in the life of Christ and Mary, which are supposed to accompany the rosary prayers. Can one really meditate on one thing while reciting another?

I think Catholics would respond to all this by saying that in their experience, repeating a prayer in the "background" certainly can be done prayerfully and with intent, even if there's also something else on one's mind at the same time. The "mystery" provides a sort of "flavor" to the repeated prayer. In a way it's similar to the "scriptural rosary" devotion, where each repetition of the prayer is coupled with a different Bible verse or theme. (I'll write about this sometime; it's a variation with a surprisingly long history.)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

To go on to a more major issue, though, the biggest problem Protestants have with the rosary is not so much with the prayers as with the status of the Virgin Mary, on whom the rosary is focused.

Protestants are taught that Mary is an ordinary human being, although it's acknowledged that by mothering Christ she became one of the greatest (if not THE greatest) of the saints. This is actually very similar to what Catholics believe. But many Protestants have the impression that Catholics "worship" Mary as a sort of "goddess." This is an understandable mistake if, like most Protestants, you have been taught that kneeling down in front of something equals worship, since you do often see Catholics kneeling in front of statues of Mary.

Of course, an article I read recently on a Catholic "answers" website pointed out that if kneeling equals worship, that would imply that a Protestant kneeling with a Bible or cross in front of them could be interpreted as "worshipping" the Bible or cross, which Protestants would agree is clearly not the case.

The Catholic church's social customs and gestures often have a long history, in many cases extending back into the Middle Ages. Protestants, on the other hand, mostly originated in the late 16th century and after, when customs were undergoing substantial change. Kneeling, for instance, was not always a gesture of worship; in the Middle Ages and Renaissance it was often merely a gesture of honor or respect, like bowing or curtseying. Children routinely knelt when asking their parents for permissions or blessings -- even when wishing them good night! Commoners knelt to their overlords, and of course everyone knelt before the King or Queen. But the late 16th and 17th centuries saw a gradual substitution of a mere bow or curtsey for kneeling, and kneeling was increasingly reserved in Protestant circles for God alone.

A second point is the difference between worship and honor. Catholics are taught that God is the only one we worship, and that saints are merely "honored." Mary is not by any means God's equal. She is given the highest degree of honor, as the greatest of the saints, but she is not worshipped. The technical words in Latin are latria, worship, and dulia, honor, and Mary is given hyperdulia (which we might translate "super-honor").

To Protestants unfamiliar with Catholic definitions, this may sound like minor quibbling over word choice. But I don't think it is. I think it's a way of expressing the basic dualism of Christianity: there is the Creator, God; and then there is the Creation, including humanity. While the two may become "united" in a loving relationship, they can never actually become each other except metaphorically. So saints, however great, can never be gods, and if we give them proper "honor" it means we are keeping that distinction in mind.

Catholics are at a disadvantage in that the quality of their religious education in the past has sometimes been very poor -- badly educated teachers passing on their misconceptions to hordes of school children, with virtually no adult education to correct the misconceptions later. (One thing I've always thought Evangelical Protestants do right is that everyone, adults and children, has Sunday School every week, as well as worship time.)

As a result of this bad education, especially before Vatican II, some Catholics have tended to treat saints as if they were little "gods" with powers of their own. But there's been a distinct change since then, thank goodness. Saints are no longer officially addressed in the liturgy with prayers that say, "Saint So-and-so, protect me from XYZ" or "Make me XYZ." Instead the typical prayer goes, "God, we thank you for Saint So-and-so, who did such-and-such. By his/her prayers may we be protected from XYZ." This makes clear that saints have no "power" of their own, but only whatever influence is granted to them by God hearing their prayers, and that it's God who we are actually asking and thanking, God who does everything.

This has strayed a long ways from the rosary, but I've taken a long way around to explain why something that looks like "worshipping Mary" is not at all intended that way by Catholics who understand what they are doing.

posts in this series:

Part I: Protestants and the Rosary
Part II: Worship, honor, and the Virgin Mary
Part III: Addressing saints
Part IV: Can Protestants hail Mary?