The Rosary is one of the most famous and quintessential Catholic prayers. Although the precise origins of the Rosary are lost in the mists of time, what is certain is that this prayer of meditative reflection on the life of Our Lord plays a prominent role in the life of the Church, and of many individual Catholics around the world.
Often a point of contention between Catholics and non-Catholic Christians, the Rosary is sometimes derided as “vain repetition”, with the accusation that Catholics mumble their repetitious prayers while fingering their beads. Its proper function, however, is as a meditation on the life of Jesus. One way to remain focused on each mystery as you pray is with the aid of sacred art depicting that mystery.
Father Lawrence Lew, O.P., is the author of Mysteries Made Visible: Praying the Rosary with Sacred Art (Ignatius Press and the Catholic Truth Society, 2022). The book is full of Father Lew’s photographs of beautiful works of sacred art, and reflections that he wrote for each of the 20 mysteries of the Rosary. Saint Dominic is credited with popularizing the Rosary, so the fact that Father Lew is a Dominican priest makes his authorship of this book particularly appropriate. Furthermore, and quite appropriately, he also holds the position of General Promoter of the Rosary for the Dominicans worldwide.
Father Lew recently spoke with Catholic World Report about his new book, his role promoting the Rosary around the world, and the importance of the devotion in the life of Catholics.
Catholic World Report: How did this book come to be?
Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.: Several people have encouraged me to produce a book of my photographs of sacred art, but it always seemed too self-aggrandising to do such a thing. However, my Provincial, the superior of the English Dominicans, asked me to put together a book of my photos as part of a series of publications in 2021 which were being planned to mark the 800th anniversary of the English Dominican Province. So, I agreed.
Around this time, the Publisher of the Catholic Truth Society in London, which is the oldest Catholic publishers in England and which is known as the “Publishers to the Holy See” had also approached me. In my role as Promoter General of the Rosary, he suggested that I write a book on the Rosary. After some prayer, it seemed to me that I could combine both these requests, and so I produced a book with twenty of my photographs illustrating the Mysteries of the Rosary, coupled with short reflections inspired by the sacred art.
A further impetus was the fact that 2021 was the 450th anniversary of the battle of Lepanto, which was so significant in the history of the Rosary and in the mission of the Church. I wanted to honour this milestone, and I hope that this book contributes to the Order’s work of preaching the Holy Rosary for the salvation of souls.
CWR: What role has the Rosary played in your own life?
Fr. Lew: As a convert from a devout evangelical Protestant family, I struggled initially with Marian devotions, and the Rosary seemed to be too complicated and opaque – how to meditate on the mysteries, the intentions I had, the virtues of the mysteries, and say the words simultaneously? So I struggled to say five decades of the Rosary in one go, and I didn’t enjoy praying it in a group because it seemed so perfunctory and rushed. Consequently, the Rosary seemed to be something desirable in theory, and although I did have periods of positive experiences, I often only prayed it because I felt guilted into doing so, perhaps at Lent or on certain feast days!
However, God’s providence and mercy are, thankfully, more abundant than my own inadequacies and weaknesses. So, God led me, through my love for theology and the Truth, to become a Dominican friar. Ours, of course, is the Order which claims the Rosary as our “sacred heritage and birthright” because traditionally we believe that Our Lady gave the Rosary to St Dominic, our founder. The Dominican Order has been associated with the Rosary for centuries and has preached it in art and song and processions and sermons; have formed and guided the Rosary Confraternity; and had for centuries had the exclusive right to bless Rosary beads. It was also a Dominican pope St Pius V who popularised the Dominican Rosary (with the Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious Mysteries) by asking for it to be prayed during the battle of Lepanto and who subsequently established a Rosary-related feast day on 7 October which is now called the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.
As a novice and a student brother I still struggled and often failed to pray five decades of the Rosary daily, as we are supposed to do, but during my time in Washington DC, where I was doing graduate studies as a priest, I began to pray the Rosary with my Dominican brothers at the Dominican House of Studies. Supported in this way by a praying community, I learnt to appreciate the rhythm and peace of the Rosary, and I started to enjoy praying the Rosary by myself. God gave me further help when I was assigned to the Rosary Shrine in London after my studies were completed, and I began to pray the Rosary more deliberately and conscientiously. I also began to read more about Our Lady and the Rosary. Finally, in 2019 the Master of the Dominican Order appointed me the Order’s Promoter General of the Rosary, and my reading and prayer had led me to realise that I could pray the Rosary better if I said it one or two decades at a time interspersed throughout the day. Our Lady gave me this grace of thus praying even as many as twenty decades a day with relative ease and joy.
The Rosary is now a part of my daily life, and the day seems incomplete without it. It is also one of the first things I turn to when a need arises, or when somebody asks for prayer, or when I feel spiritually restless. Our Lady of the Rosary asked us at Fatima to pray the Rosary daily for peace and for an end to the war, and I know that she grants peace of heart and soul, and an end to the rebellion of our sinful desires, to those who pray the Rosary daily.
CWR: The book is subtitled “Praying the Rosary with Sacred Art”. In what ways can sacred art help us meditate on the mysteries of the Rosary?
Fr. Lew: Because human beings are bodily creatures, our eyes will wander, our thoughts will stray, and our bodies (and other people) will distract us during prayer. St Thomas Aquinas and other great spiritual masters remind us that when we are conscious of being distracted from prayer, we should not be anxious but simply re-focus on the object of our prayer. I have found that sacred art can help me to focus, and it engages the imagination, allowing me to reflect on the Mystery I am praying, and to draw me more deeply into it.
The reflections on the sacred art that accompanies each of the twenty photos in this book are an example of how praying with sacred art, an act of ‘visio divina’ as I term it, might proceed. However, as I say in the book, my hope is that the reader will not be restricted by my reflections but rather inspired to do their own meditations on the mysteries of the Rosary using the photos provided. Ultimately, we must let the Holy Spirit lead us in prayer, and God uses art and imagination to engage us in body and soul.
CWR: You are the General Promoter of the Rosary for the Dominicans. What exactly does that role entail, and how does this book play a part in that?
Fr. Lew: The Promoter General of the Rosary is one of several general promoters who serve in the Curia of the Dominican Order. This means that we work with the Master of the Order and in particular under the guidance of the Socius (or Assistant) for the Apostolic Life to promote and coordinate different aspects of the Order’s apostolic activities. The preaching and praying of the Rosary is therefore seen as an apostolic endeavour. Indeed, the General Chapter of the Order in Mexico this year (2022) affirmed that the Rosary is a fruitful and effective form of preaching and evangelisation. Consequently, Dominicans were exhorted to “to preach through the Rosary, about the Rosary and from the Rosary.” As Promoter General of the Rosary for the Order, therefore, my principal duty is to help my brothers and sisters in the Order to do this.
Secondly, I try to work with lay Catholics around the world who promote the Rosary – and there are truly so many beautiful initiatives and groups. The chief of these is the Rosary Confraternity which is affiliated to the Dominican Order as a spiritual network of people who pray and promote devotion to the Rosary. I learn from the members of the Rosary Confraternity to love the Rosary, to preach the mysteries of the Rosary, and to engage the imagination through processions, art, and popular devotions that are inspired by the Rosary.
My book is part of my work as Promoter General of the Rosary, and so it carries a foreword from the Master of the Order, and speaks about the Rosary Confraternity, and I hope will contribute to our devotional life as well as to a theological understanding of the Rosary. So far, we have sold thousands of copies, and I am always grateful to God for his graces when people tell me that the book has helped them to pray the Rosary or to deepen their love for the mysteries of our salvation in Christ.
CWR: Catholics are often accused of “vain repetition” when praying the rosary. How do we avoid making the repetitive, meditative prayers of the Rosary “vain”?
Fr. Lew: You rightly imply that it is not the repetition of a prayer that is problematic. For as Chesterton is supposed to have said, God delights in the repetition of good and beautiful things and so he is so delighted by the sunrise that each morning he says to the sun, “Do it again”! In a similar vein, our mothers delight in hearing us say to them, “I love you”, and so it is for our Blessed Mother when we repeat our “Hail Marys”.
Therefore, the prayers of the Rosary need to be said with love, and with a delight in the good and the true that is disclosed in the mysteries of the Rosary. So, if we find ourselves praying out of fear or superstition or scrupulous anxiety, then we should beware and maybe stop and recollect ourselves, and remember again the love of God who desires our salvation and indeed has become Incarnate and died in the flesh in order to save us from eternal death and the punishment of sin. This is the central Mystery of divine love that the Rosary and the ‘Hail Mary’ focusses on, and we do well to pause and tarry over our prayers and focus on the goodness and truth and beauty of the saving love of God made visible in Jesus Christ.
One way of praying more reflectively, I think, is to break up the Rosary throughout the day, praying a decade or two at a time, interweaving the mysteries of the Rosary throughout the day so as to surround our activities with prayer, and to “pray at all times” as St Paul encourages us to do. The idea is to pause at moments throughout the day, and to turn to our Saviour in the company of Mary, and to invite God’s saving love into our lives.
Although we do this repeatedly throughout the day, this is surely not in vain if we can hear the Lord say to us, “I love you”, even as we say the same to him in response.
CWR: What do you hope to accomplish with the book? What do you hope people will get from it?
Fr. Lew: I hope to help people love and appreciate the Rosary more, to pray it better through the help of sacred art, and to help them to understand the mysteries of the Rosary with more theological and Christological depth. My reading of the Mysteries of Light as a meditation on the Sacraments of the Church whereby the Christian is incorporated into the saving Mysteries of Christ will, I hope, also help us to recall the necessity and importance of the Sacraments and our life in the Church.
I also hope that these photos of sacred art, which are principally drawn from churches rather than museums, will encourage people to look at the stained glass and mosaics and statues and paintings in our churches with fresh interest.
Finally, I hope to reconnect the popular association of the Rosary with the Dominican Order, and I have included Marian prayers, which are particular to our 800-year-old Dominican tradition because I wish to share the riches of the Order with more people.
CWR: Do you think the book could be of value to non-Catholics?
Fr. Lew: I know it is because several non-Catholic Christians have bought it and told me they’ve enjoyed it. Some have even started praying the Rosary because of it. I trust that the photos will be attractive to look at for many people, even non-believers, and I hope that the texts that accompany the photos will be attractive too, drawing people closer to a knowledge of the Saviour. The popes have all stressed the Christological focus of the Mysteries of the Rosary, and I hope that I have sufficiently done this in my writings and in my photography so that non-Catholic Christians will all benefit from this book.
Certainly, any Christian who can profess the Apostles Creed should not find anything objectionable in this book or in the Mysteries of the Rosary. To this end, I think my book will be of value to our Christian brothers and sisters.
CWR: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Fr. Lew: Several images in this book, and at least one photo out of five in each of the four sets of Rosary Mysteries (Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious, and Luminous) that are featured in this book, have come from the sacred art of the Rosary Shrine in London, England. This is the church where I serve as Rector and Pastor, and it is one of the largest Catholic churches in England. It was built in 1883 as a votive church, offered to Our Lady in thanksgiving for favours granted through the Rosary. This Marian Shrine has distinct altars and chapels for each of the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary, and each Rosary Altar is adorned with hand-carved stone statues depicting a mystery of the Rosary.
When this church was completed in 1883, it was the first church in the world to have Rosary Chapels for every mystery of the Rosary; there are now 17 side-chapels in total and 20 altars in the church, as well as a Luminous Mysteries Rosary Garden. My hope is that people will be able to come to London and discover this Rosary Shrine for themselves because, in my personal experience, the Rosary comes to life in a new way when it is prayed in these chapels. I call it the “stational Rosary” because we process from one chapel to the next, moving from one image to the next like we would with Stations of the Cross, and then, standing inside each chapel we pray a decade of the Rosary while contemplating the sculpted depiction of that mystery.
If you’re interested, you can visit our website and try the VR tour of the church at the top of this page.
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