I heard the story as a teenager — long before I became Catholic — and I cannot now recall whether it came to me through a newspaper, or a human-interest story on TV, but it grabbed me and the images have remained fixed in my mind.
They are that striking.
A young American soldier was carelessly thrown in a heap into his sweltering jungle prison. Sick, sweaty and malnourished, he lay semiconscious on the dirt floor. The beatings he endured now occurred daily and at times, hourly. As night merged with day and week gave rise to week, the steady brutality came without sense, without mercy and without end.
And yet, though collapsed under the weight of excruciating pain and feverish delirium, moments of lucidity found the soldier’s trembling finger tracing – etching — something onto the earthen floor. Ten dots were roughly connected in a circle and in the center, a cross. And then, almost imperceptibly, his swollen, bloodied lips began to mutter,
Hail, Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee…
The Rosary, this soldier later recalled, was what kept him sane in the midst of a time of incomprehensible ruthlessness. To utter the words of the angel Gabriel and St. Elizabeth to Mary, Hail, Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women, to pray the Our Father and the Glory Be, and to contemplate the Joyful, Sorrowful or Glorious Mysteries vividly brought God into that desperately black prison cell. To advance broken fingers along the dots etched in dirt was to feel order momentarily dispel disorder and grace eclipse senseless suffering.
Truly, God was present.
For the Rosary, as this soldier so clearly understood, is not a mindless recitation of phrase after phrase or a spirit-less cataloging of the events of Christ’s life. No. Rather, it is none other than a deeply mystical immersion into God. It is an escape from the callous now into the loving Eternal. It is an opportunity to center oneself in the warm embrace of Christ using prayers and phrases and imagery drawn from millennia of devout worship. Or as one faithful writer warmly expressed,
“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.”
When I first became Catholic, I believed that the Rosary was a thoughtful, admirable prayer of devotion. Perhaps, I reasoned, it is something I should pray from time to time. But it was this soldier’s stirring witness that explicitly proved to me that the Rosary is so much more. It is an incomparable encounter with Christ that is capable of transcending the harshest of realities. It is a prayerful place where words soon fall away and “we shall be left in silence in the ocean of God’s love.”
A soldier enduring hellish torture came to understand and embrace the Rosary as a profound, life-sustaining encounter with God.
Read more: Yes, the rosary is completely biblical