A ViewPoint by Mary K. Riley, PhD
My friends, I pray the rosary. It is very much not en vogue in the circles in which I run to do so, nor is to attend or participate in mass. I understand this, of course. Despite the rise of “cool pope” Francis, the Catholic church has an abhorrent history of spiritual abuse, which it refuses to adequately address. Even post-Vatican II, women who are called to the clergy are still unable to pursue ordination as priests. And please do not even get me started on the Church’s position on reproductive rights. I get it, and I have no intention of pushing my own spirituality on anyone, especially those who have been irrevocably harmed by such an institution.
But more common than these objections is cool condescension from the academic-minded elite when I lay out my Catholic proclivities. “YOU?” they cry. “You have tattoos, a PhD in philosophy. You, who are an ardent supporter of women’s rights and social justice, a liberal to the bone?” For most folks I encounter on a daily basis, the resistance toward my spiritual practices is rooted in the notion that, somehow, we should be “smarter” than to buy into a fabricated god and rote exercises in ritual meant to keep us in line. How could I believe? Why would I believe? And what is the point of partaking in all this nonsense, anyway?
You see, for me, Catholic spirituality is not about the doctrine or the metaphysics. Frankly, I do not attend mass because I am convinced there is an all-powerful entity hovering in the sky, directing my daily goings on. I do not seek to be of service because I believe someone out there is keeping score. And I do not pray the rosary because I believe Mother Mary will intercede on my behalf and I will somehow end up in the “good place” after I die.
While many folks in my circles treat religious rituals as rote exercises in compliance, I find in them ways to deepen communion with myself. To quiet my mind and listen to the spiritual voice inside that directs my own personal moral compass, helping me to discern the right path that gets obscured with the mental clutter I accumulate on a daily basis. Praying the rosary is an act of meditation; a chance to breathe deeply, sit quietly with myself, and contemplate my relationship with the universe as a spiritual being. The Eucharist is a physical representation of an emotional or spiritual commitment I make to myself to be the best version of myself, while acknowledging that as a human being I will never be “perfect” or totally “moral.” I like that about humans, and I like that about mass. It reminds me that life isn’t about being “good” but working through my problems and growing as a person – because, for me, this is of what spirituality consists.
Rituals can generally be understood as aestheticized representations of immaterial concepts. That is, they are tangible symbols for ideas that can be difficult to articulate. Ever get hold of one of those cheap plastic rosaries they hand out en masse at big services? It’s plastic junk, pure and simple. But when I use those beads as a meditative tool to deepen the connection with myself and find spiritual satiation, suddenly they begin to symbolize more. This is the rationale behind the great cathedrals: how do we articulate the heights to which the soul can soar, the vastness and beauty of spirit? Architects thought we should draw the eyes upward with lofty pillars and disperse colored light with stained glass windows. Sure, the Notre Dame is pretty, but its beauty moves our souls because it says something about them.
In fact, the whole concept of beauty goes back to the idea that there are aspects of the physical world that make us feel a certain way. Whether it’s watching the sunrise on the beach or observing an incredible painting, there are things in the world that move me. They just make me feel connected to myself and to others and to the universe. This goes way back to St. Augustine and to the Greek thinker, Plotinus, before him, who suggest that this kind of beauty is a material representation of a spiritual nature that resides in all of us. The way I see it, beauty and spirit are all around us, and the rites and rituals of the faith I choose help me facilitate that connection in a way that is moving and meaningful.
So, do I need the rosary or any particular Catholic practice to facilitate this kind of connection? No, it’s not the only way. But I like it. It works for me. It’s a ritual that resonates and facilitates my growth as a person. So why shouldn’t I? I choose these rituals because I connect with them, not because I fear going to the “bad place.” They aren’t for everyone, and that’s okay. But as long as I find them useful and meaningful in a positive way, I will continue to pray the rosary.
© 2019 by Mary K. Riley, PhD