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The Teacher’s Rosary

30 November, 1999

This article is a chapter from John Bollan’s book on religious education, “The Light of His Face: Spirituality for Catholic teachers”. I consists of reflections on the mysteries which, as he says himself, “cross over into any sphere of life and work”.


Although the Rosary is easily dismissed as an outmoded form of prayer, it can, as I hope I have described earlier, offer a way of reflecting upon those bits of our human experience which we share with the protagonists of the Gospel. When other words fail us, the Rosary can offer a framework for our thoughts or perhaps even a sort of scaffolding to which we can tie our thoughts when everything else seems to be coming adrift. Although I have gathered these reflections under the heading of The Teacher’s Rosary, they are general enough to cross over into any sphere of work or life.

Even if the prospect of praying the respective decades of ‘Hail Mary’s’ one after the other leaves you cold, you might derive some benefit from exploring these mysteries as part of your own prayer. After all, the word ‘mystery’ has more to do with opening windows than solving puzzles. For example, some of these reflections could form part of an exercise in Lectio Divina.

The Joyful Mysteries

The Annunciation: On courtesy
The angel and the woman engage in a gracious conversation. No orders are given, but God’s plan is presented as a scenario which only the most shuttered soul could refuse. The courtesy of this encounter is arresting: Gabriel’s words stir life in the womb of the Virgin and she has shown herself worthy of the greeting ‘highly favoured’.

How do I express my ‘will’? Is it delivered as an ultimatum or an invitation? Am I aware of the power of words and my ability to build up or knock down by what I say and how I say it?

The Visitation: On cooperation
The helping hand extended to Elizabeth is itself a lesson in cooperation. Mary was not sent for but took the initiative; she comes not so much as a helper but as a sharer in joy since Elizabeth had also been touched by the grace of God who had (taken away her shame). Both women are cooperators with God and each other. In a very real sense what Mary does for Elizabeth is not as important as what Elizabeth does for Mary: her greeting confirms what the angel had spoken – she had indeed become the Mother of the Lord.

How ready am I to help others, especially if it makes demands which are beyond the call of duty or contract? Do I take the initiative in offering help to someone who might be slow to ask? By the same token, do I graciously accept support when it is offered to me? Remember that faith is confirmed (or strengthened) in charity.

The Nativity: On difficult births
Beneath the sentimentality which so often attends our recreations of the Nativity story lies a deeply unsentimental truth: God is born into a world of shadows in which shepherds and kings offer us glimpses into the lives of the poor and unregarded or the rich and insecure. In the midst sits Mary who contemplates the raising of the lowly and the fall of the mighty. There too lies the child who is the cause of all this: a new life already overshadowed by the threat of death.

It is important to acknowledge that all births and beginnings carry an element of risk. The risk may lie in our hopes being too fragile or our designs too rigid. Sometimes the struggle comes from the opposition of others who, Herod-like, feel threatened by change or any initiative which is not their own.

The Presentation: On the wisdom of experience
Mary and Joseph encounter Anna and Simeon: the young meet the old in God’s house and something beautiful is exchanged not so much advice as a blessing. Of course the blessing words are also hard-edged, sharp like the sword which will pierce Mary’s soul. Yet here too Mary shows herself to be a woman of reflection, pondering these words and feeling their weight.

The advice of our elders is often a mixed blessing. There can be times when ‘advice’ is merely criticism in thin disguise. But there are times when we should listen to the wisdom of experience, that sense of proportion one acquires simply by being around long enough. Those words of Simeon in particular prove to be a mystery to Mary but she resists the temptation to ignore a message that is hard to bear or grasp. Do I jettison what I find it hard to understand or accept?

The Finding of Jesus in the Temple: On respecting space
Mary and Joseph’s reactions are refreshingly unrestrained: there is that mix of anger, relief and love which any parent would recognise. Perhaps for the first time, Jesus is behaving in a way that is marking him out as an individual in his own right. He may not quite be ‘testing the limits of his freedom’ as children on the cusp of adolescence tend to do, but he is certainly showing a desire to communicate his inner world to those on the outside. This is a tentative step on the journey towards selfhood and a rehearsal for the Gospel.

The sword mentioned by Simeon makes a brief appearance in this passage. But it is the ‘cord’ binding mother and child which is being severed at this point. Mary must accept and respect her son’s need to flex his muscles and live a life which is not simply an extension of her own. Difficult, apparently thoughtless behaviour is not the end of the world and more often than not the beginning of a new one. Knowing when and how to create respectful spaces for this growth is a grace. As C. Day Lewis has expressed it: ‘Selfhood begins with a walking away, and love is proved in the letting go.’

The Mysteries of Light

The Baptism of Christ: On joining the queue
Christ’s baptism is not like any other; he does not actually need baptism (since he is the sinless Lamb of God). So how are we to account for his appearance at the Jordan? On the one hand, his immersion in the waters of the river is a sanctifying gesture, one echoed in the celebrant lowering the Paschal candle into the font at the Easter Vigil. The Lord’s baptism is also a gesture of radical humility which makes explicit God’s decision to make his dwelling among us. Jesus waits his turn among sinful humanity and allows himself to be ministered to by John.

What defines a really good teacher is not only the ability to stand before a class and teach but also the courage to stand among them and share something of their lives. This is exactly what we observe in Christ our Teacher.

The Wedding at Cana: On asking for what you need
The first of the ‘signs’ worked by Jesus arises from two things: a simple need and a compassionate intervention. A young couple are spared the embarrassment of a wedding without wine by Mary’s decision to ask her son to help. What looks at first like reluctance becomes an action of superabundant generosity.

Sometimes we know what we need but cannot quite find the words to ask for it, whether it be pride or awkwardness which hampers us. If we know someone else is in need, do we know how to intervene discreetly? If we are in a position to help, can we do that without drawing attention to ourselves or the need itself?

The Preaching of the Kingdom: On teaching as kerygma
The core of the Gospel is Christ’s proclamation that the Kingdom is near at hand. He, in fact, embodied this Kingdom he was proclaiming. This message is underpinned by the miracles and healings of Christ’s public ministry and continued in the preaching of the Apostles after the resurrection.

What the crowds heard from the lips of Jesus and the disciples is essentially what we proclaim to our children. This proclamation (kerygma) is the key truth at the heart of all Christian education, namely that the Christ-event changes the way we understand our world and ourselves. Far from being a marginal extra in a busy curriculum, it is the law which underpins all our reasoning and creativity.

The Transfiguration: On seeing through the eyes of love
The disciples are allowed a brief glimpse of Jesus as the Father sees him, as ‘Light from Light’ or even ‘Love from Love’. Jesus is shown in context, between the Law and the Prophets, for that privileged audience of apostles.

Cynics and Romantics both claim that ‘Love is blind’. In this mystery, however, we are shown that Grace lends a real depth to our perception. In a world where judgements both snap and superficial tend to predominate, the Transfiguration challenges us to see into the heart of people and situations.

The Institution of the Eucharist: On the sharing of life
What is about to unfold in the ‘real world’ is sacramentally enacted in the Last Supper with the handing over, the breaking, the pouring out. The Church reads the Passion narrative in the light of the Eucharist and understands the Mass as the death and resurrection of Jesus made real and present once again.

The Eucharist not only makes the Church, it makes the Christian too. Those gestures of blessing, breaking and sharing are written into rhythms of every Christian life and the challenge is to accept them in the same spirit of ‘free acceptance’ as Jesus. This is no mean feat: while we might find it easy to accept a blessing, the inevitable demands of being shared among the many can be such that we wish the cup to pass us by.

The Sorrowful Mysteries

The Agony in the Garden: On being alone with our decisions
The account of Christ’s agony in Gethsemane is reminiscent in many ways of his temptation in the wilderness. Both are times of trial when, explicitly or implicitly, the temptation to be someone else is set before Jesus. Surrendering to the Devil’s suggestions or running from the ‘hour’ would be inauthentic choices. In order to truly be himself, Jesus must see things through to the end.

Although we can be guided (or tempted) by the advice of others, most of the crucial decisions we must make in life are ours and ours alone. Before all his significant choices Jesus spends time in intense prayer and, in the examples we have just mentioned, the struggle of decision is followed by an experience of consolation. A sense of peace accompanies all genuine discernment.

The Scourging at the Pillar: On humiliation
The Roman custom of flogging condemned criminals was the overture to an appalling spectacle of torture. Whoever devised the stages of a crucifixion clearly had an understanding of how the mind works as well as the body. For not only was it a particularly cruel form of physical torment, but it was also calculated to shame the dying man by exposing his crime and his nakedness.

To be humiliated, either by another person or simply by circumstances, is a deeply wounding experience. While a physical injury may heal and fade, a mark of shame can linger on. Whenever our shortcomings or inconsistencies are exposed to the scrutiny of others, we are often surprised at how vulnerable we really are. To be deliberately humiliated or to knowingly humiliate another is an act of violence: the very expression ‘a tongue lashing’ says it all.

The Crowning with Thorns: On the ambiguity of success
When Jesus is crowned with a crown or ‘cap’ of thorns, it is part of that same routine of humiliation. The eyes of faith, however, are invited to see this as the soldiers prophesying in spite of themselves: Jesus really is a King, really is their King. This surrender to death is the crowning achievement of his life.

The cross does not look like success. What we now regard as the defining symbol of the Christian faith was, for hundreds of years, a concept which caused awkwardness and apologetic stammering. At its heart, the cross is a sign of ambiguity and revolution. The passion of Jesus is revolutionary because it upsets the ‘normal’ pattern of life and death. It is ambiguous because it makes us reassess what we understand by failure and victory.

The Carrying of the Cross: On emerging from the crowd
Jesus is made to carry his cross and we are invited to reflect upon this fresh misery. But this mystery also calls to mind the ‘admittedly forced’ help given by Simon. A reluctant and potentially anonymous figure is changed by this encounter into someone whose name and family would be familiar to the young Church.

A strategy for survival (and even success) is to keep your head down, to say nothing and stand well back trom the action. This was certainly not the case for Simon: although the choice was made for him by the guards he still had the option of sinking back into the crowd once he had served his purpose. Jesus was a dangerous man to know, even in death. Am I prepared to step out trom the crowd to challenge an injustice or indeed to forsake the ‘crowd position’ altogether in order to assume a prophetic stance on life?

The Crucifixion: On confronting death
Any death is an absurdity: to see any person in death whom we have known in life is a shock to the system. The rapid and brutal transition from death to life we witness at the crucifixion is an even more unsettling contrast since it is the dux vitae, the Lord of Life, who is dead.

We are less and less accustomed to being around the dead. A little of that discomfort can even extend to those who mourn – we struggle to find ways of being with them and often feel tempted to absent ourselves from their presence until we can safely join the company of others. Death raises questions for us all and we should not downplay how much havoc it causes in our lives. It is especially important to be attentive to death’s impact on children and young people not just in the immediate wake of bereavement but months down the line.

The Glorious Mysteries

The Resurrection: On the triumph of life
On Easter morning the Church sings of the struggle between Death and Life in which Christ though ‘slain, yet lives to reign’. Of course it is not only Christ who is raised: the shock of Easter brings life to the flat-lining Apostles. The Liturgy describes them as ‘men on the verge of losing hope’ but this seems an altogether optimistic appraisal of the state of their hearts and minds.

Although ‘Love’ is the quality which strikes the loudest chord in the human heart and ‘Faith’ seems inextricably bound up with the word ‘Christian’, ‘Hope’ is the Easter virtue. Surrexit spes mea, intones the Church in that same Easter song, ‘Christ, my hope, is risen’. Hope defines the Christian experience and gives it a shape when the other theological virtues seem to be but words. In the bleakest, sealed-tomb moments in life, the Paschal Mystery must refresh those corners of our hearts which despair of the sun rising and a new day.

The Ascension: On moving on
The forty days after Easter must surely be the most emotionally turbulent in human history – from the abject despair of the cross to the joy of Easter to the strange parting on the hillside outside Jerusalem – all human life is here. The apostles are jolted from their open-mouthed staring into space to the real task in hand: why are the men of Galilee looking into the clouds when there is work to be done beyond the confines of the immediate neighbourhood?

There is a real grace, both required and shown, in moving on in life. We truly need help to leave a place we have known and loved and in which we have been known and loved. The Ascension invites us to adopt the perspective both of the one departing and of those watching the departure: being either side of an airport departure gate is a familiar enough one for most people. The temptation is to wait until the last possible moment, until our loved ones disappear from sight or until we head out of view. Of course departures extend to every sphere of life: the moment comes when we must take a decisive step on our onward journeys or allow others to continue on theirs. Sometimes we need a little shove to get us started.

Pentecost: On the Holy Spirit as teacher
Given their destructive power, the key symbols of the Spirit – wind and flame – are often rendered remarkably tame. The union of these two explosive elements serve to ‘fire’ the Apostles into the foundation stones of the Church.

In the midst of imparting new knowledge, a fundamental element of education is reminding learners of what they know already. Jesus has ‘co-opted’ the Spirit into his teaching ministry, promising that the Holy Spirit would remind the apostles of all he had said to them (cf. John 14:26). Memory is a fluid thing, dependent on many other factors, but the particular role of the Spirit is to ensure that the hearers of Christ’s words were re-minded, somehow made present again at the moment when his words first reached them, and enabled to make the jump between ‘then’ and ‘now’.

The Assumption: On promises fulfilled
This mystery takes a leap beyond the accounts of scripture and leaves us in a place where the faith-story of the Church begins to speak and recount God’s continuing intervention in our world. It is part of that tradition that Mary lived out the rest of her ‘Easter life’ in John’s house. It is, of course, to John’s tradition that we owe the record of that strange event at the wedding feast at Cana, when a mother asked a son to help. At the end of her days Mary fell asleep ‘marked with the sign of faith’, as one ‘who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled’ (Luke 1:45).

The Assumption offers the ‘sacramental corollary’ to Cana: ‘doing whatever he tells you’ flowers into the remarkable revelation of a God who does whatever he tells us. In a world tainted with cynicism, we tend to despair of anything being quite as it seems or purports to be. Having made that step of faith in embracing the message of the Assumption, we are asked to mirror that same faith ourselves, in honouring our promises to others – to the ‘greatest’ and the ‘least’.

The Coronation of the Blessed Virgin amid the Rejoicing of the Saints: On sharing the joy of others
In the last mystery of the Rosary, which surpasses all others in scope, we are finally invited to contemplate an ‘event’ in which we might participate at first-hand. In Mary crowned Queen of Heaven we have a gesture which transcends time and challenges the temptation to saccharine scepticism. Anything which is predicated of the Blessed Virgin is, by extension, applied to us. The crowning of the girl who features in the very first mystery of the Rosary is in fact an endorsement of our whole mixed-up race. We should all rejoice in being so highly favoured since the woman who stands at the end of our race is, quite emphatically, intervening in our lives for the good.

The Communion of Saints is a somewhat whispered presence in the Rosary and yet it is fitting that this great prayer should dovetail neatly with the closing line of the Creed. Every time this statement of faith is professed, we subscribe to a belief that, beyond our sight, there is a vast company of people who care about us. In a passionate negation of the anti-creed which claims that nothing matters, such articles of faith draw our attention to a basic Christian attitude which sees the blessedness of others as intrinsically bound up with our own. On the ground, this mystery invites us to share wholeheartedly in the joys and successes of others. When petty, sin-tainted envies encroach, we should in fact rejoice in the fact that we are all being ‘built-up’ by the victories of God’s love at work. By the same token, our achievements reflect upon others: we are all enriched in the economy of Grace. Here and now, however, how graciously do we deal with praise and commendation heaped upon a colleague?

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