I am a Baptist, through and through. I feel it closely in my identity, and know the stories well. I can recite to you Walter Shurden’s work on historical Baptist distinctives. I love the story of Thomas Helwys, who founded the first Baptist church in England and died in Newgate prison for the sin of writing to King James I that the king “The King is a mortal man, and not God, therefore he hath no power over the mortal soul of his subjects to make laws and ordinances for then and to set spiritual Lords over them.”
But I also know, and any good Baptist should know too, that we can get in ruts. After all, plenty of Baptists today insist on the King James as the only authorized text of the Christian Bible. A most interesting rut to get into, given that Thomas Helwys died in Newgate in the same year that King James performed the authorization. But in any case, Baptists have been known for picking a tradition and sticking to it, and clinging to the boat until it’s capsized.
But one way I’ve learned over the years of getting out of my own ruts, of not assuming my tradition’s way is the best or the most significant or the most full of spiritual treasure is the simple practice of praying the rosary.
I try to pray it daily, although I’ll admit that I’m often lax in that discipline. But when I do, I try to do it “correctly.” I don’t just pick a prayer I like or a mantra I enjoy and recite it while counting beads. Part of the goal, after all, is to recognize that I don’t always know what to say. I don’t always have the words. I don’t always make the right choices. It’s not about me. It’s about a history, a tradition; it’s about the living witness of the Christian world of which the Baptists are a part.
And so I pray it as it’s supposed to be prayed, according to any number of tracts you can find from Roman Catholic organizations who probably don’t expect a Baptist to be making use of their spiritual treasures.
And spiritual treasure it is indeed! When I first began praying it, I found the Hail Mary a most difficult prayer to pray. “Why didn’t they design it where you said the Our Father over and over again?” I thought, “Why do we conclude with the Hail Holy Queen, why not a scripture verse?”
But as I encountered Mary, I came to learn that she provides me with a new way to see her Son. She holds him in her arms at his birth; she is by his side asking him for a blessing at the Wedding of Cana; she views him upon the cross, and weeps. I learned that when I prayed the Hail Mary, I wasn’t praying “to” Mary the way that Protestants have often polemicized. Instead, I was praying with her. I was meditating on the most holy moments of my religion, and I had a partner who joined me in that, a partner who knew Christ intimately, a partner who could show me a facet of my Christ that I had never before understood.
I began to see Christ in a new way. An image in a stained-glass window caught my attention, a dark-skinned Mary more akin to what the real Mary must have looked like than the lily-white Jesus that adorns the walls of many of the white Baptist churches I knew.
It was an invitation to see the Body of Christ for what it was; a semitic body, with a dark-skinned face, a face that challenged me to see my Christ in a different form than I had imagined him. I began to speak with him differently, too; my prayers slowed down, and became meditations. They became moments for relationship with God, rather than a laundry list of worries; they became moments when I could allow the words of a tradition that had spoken with many voices over many years to speak for me, to let me silently pour my concerns into words that I did not design, that I did not craft.
The rosary became a way for me to rest, to speak; to feel the Body of Christ slipping through my fingers like beads on a string, to thank heaven for that same Body and its graciousness to me.
I don’t have my rosary down and memorized. I still stumble over the words of the Apostle’s Creed, and more often than not I have to sing a version of it I know from my choral training rather than a memorized version of it you learn from a brochure or a book of discipline. I’m a mess when it comes to reciting the final Hail Holy Queen, because you get to pray it once at the end of every full rosary, and I’ll admit that I don’t always make it through all five decades.
But through the rosary, I’ve learned something new: I’ve learned that my tradition doesn’t always see perfectly, and that sometimes to see the God you thought you knew, you need to see that God in a way you never knew, in words you thought you’d never speak, and in rhythms that go beyond the knowledge of your own community.
Original image of my own rosary hanging in its usual place on my bedside lampshade.