I remember playing with my cousin in my aunt’s basement when I was around 8 years old. We used to chase each other around and try to scare each other for fun. I hid around the corner at the bottom of the stairs after chasing her around the rooms. I peered around the corner for a split second and I was certain I saw a tall, pale, scrawny and goulish figure passing directly in front of me as though it were just nonchalantly walking by. I remember the image of a lanky arm with long, bony fingers directly in front of my face. I was so terrified by this vision that I immediately pulled back around the corner and cried in a panic. My cousin called to me from across the basement,
“What?! What is it?!”
In the midst of my hyperventilating, I peered around the corner once again but the supposed ghoulish figure was nowhere to be seen. My cousin ran towards me to see where I was at. I asked if she saw anything and she said she did not. Looking back, I’m almost certain what I saw was a figment of my imagination running wild while playing. But what strikes me is the sheer detail I remember of the grisly hand as well as the seemingly graceful movement of the figure.
This vision, although very brief and obscure, haunts me to this very day.
Similarly, I also remember how my mind used to conjure up other very strange sights when I was young. Sometimes at night I could visualize ghastly faces in the wood-grain panelling of my bedroom. Once in a while in between dreaming and waking up, I swore I could see terrifying skeleton-like apparitions with enlongated craniums lingering in the doorway of my room, glaring and smiling at me so dauntingly while I lay helplessly. There was something about lying in bed at night that made me feel extremely vulnerable, as though I could be abducted and swept off into the night by some hellish entity. I can’t say that I’ve ever experienced sleep paralysis, but these visions could easily be dismissed as half-dreaming hallucinations.
As a child, when it came to dealing with these fears, I used to say the rosary for comfort. While I didn’t usually have the beads conveniently in my hands while lying in bed, I would often keep track of the prayers by counting them on my fingers as I would recite them. Like counting sheep before sleeping, repetitious prayer was a means of distracting my mind when I felt like it was spinning out of control. Even with the knowledge that my parents were sleeping in the room down the hall from me, there was something especially soothing about praying the Our Father and Hail Mary prayers as though I was replacing any unwanted entities with a Fatherly and Motherly presence in my room.
Admittedly as I grew older, the rosary began to lose its attraction. Sometimes I only recited it out of obligation because it was just something we did. I remember going to the confessional when I was 11 and the priest told me to say 50 Hail Mary’s as part of my penance. When put into that perspective, it seemed on-par with writing lines on the chalkboard for getting in trouble in elementary school – but realistically it was almost the equivalent of reciting the rosary in its entirety.
I think it was around that era of my life when I started to view the rosary as a form of punishment.
But everything I once found comforting about the rosary was ripped apart when I was 17 years old. After opening up my life to a guest speaker at a Christian youth camp I attended one summer, I was manipulated into believing that the rosary was a form of idolatry. I was told by this man (whom I soon found out was staunchly anti-Catholic) that it was a recycled pagan occult ritual used to deceive people into worshipping Mary instead of Christ. And so my impressionable mind ate it all up, all under the guise of believing it was completely unbiblical.
My decision to convert to Protestant Evangelicalism was largely done out of fear, and not one I took lightly despite my disdain towards ritual. Even though I grew up in a Catholic home, I had absolutely no understanding of what the foundations of my faith were, nor could I grasp why the Catholic Church teaches what it does. I refrained from praying the rosary in fear of invoking the wrath of God upon myself for worshiping someone in His place.
In all fairness, Protestant Christians are right to be hesitant to embrace the Catholic understanding of prayer. But after realizing that there is a reason to every teaching, I decided to start digging into my old roots. While most Christians believe that prayer and worship are synonymous, the Catholic Church teaches that prayer is apart from worship.
In my bachelor days after high school, I often cycled between living alone and having several roommates. While I preferred having a place to myself, I sometimes had moments when I walked into a room to find the air had turned cold and the hairs on my neck stood on end. Even though I had faith that Jesus would protect me from any weird spiritual attacks, I often avoided any place or situation where I felt even slightly creeped-out. Because of my drastic conversion out of Catholicism, my method of prayer was completely overhauled from so-called ‘vain repetition’ to flying by the seat of my pants and relying on the Holy Spirit to give me the words to speak on the spot. What was once a meditative calming technique to ward off the darkness suddenly became a means of provoking it because I was taught by my peers that behind every idol is a demon.
Granted this, I often felt like I had very few words to say other than filling in the blanks with, ‘Lord God Lord Father oh Lord Father God Lord Jesus’. Some could say that my lack of improvisation is evidence of a Christ-less void in my heart. But I would argue that in some ways, vain repetition isn’t limited to robotically reciting the same prayer, but also babbling empty phrases to make myself appear pretentiously holy to those who might be listening.
When it comes to praying the rosary, one of the most common misunderstandings about Catholics is they place Mary at a higher level than Jesus. Most Christians would argue (often by quoting 1 Timonthy 2:5) that people shouldn’t pray to Mary or any dead saints because they can pray to Jesus directly as the only mediator between God and man. But if God hears all of our prayers, then why do we feel it necessary to ask others to pray for us? Are our sole personal prayers not sufficient enough to acquire results? And if God hears the collective prayers of those on earth, why wouldn’t the saints in heaven be aware of the events on earth and pray for us as well?
Many people would condemn prayers to the dead as a form of necromancy. The problem with this charge is that necromancy is defined as a method of prying information from the spiritual realm through the use of occult mediums – like an Ouija board for example. I remember trying out an Ouija board with a friend for the first (and last) time when I was 12. At the time, my preteen self was only focused on video games and Star Wars, so I asked it if I would eventually get a Nintendo 64 gaming console. Of course, it replied ‘yes’. And sure enough, 6 months later I bought myself an N64 after raising enough money for it by doing chores on my parent’s farm.
Am I guilty of necromancy for asking an Ouija board about the future? Sure, I won’t deny it. But, in my own opinion, there is a difference between asking for help and prying for answers. I could have prayed to God to help me get an N64, but it certainly doesn’t mean He would actually let me have one. Sometimes prying for answers can be rooted in selfish motives like cheating on a written exam. According to Catholic teaching, asking the saints to pray for us isn’t any more different than asking our earthly brothers and sisters to pray for us is. After all, the dead in Christ are more alive than they ever were on earth.
As far as praying the rosary is concerned, I’ve written a previous article regarding how my love for Mary deepens my love for Jesus – which expands on how, despite very deep misunderstanding, the Catholic view of the role of Mary is deeply rooted in Scripture. I am in no way trying to convince people to pray to someone who isn’t Christ Himself. But what I would like to emphasize is that prayer is communicating an earnest request between living beings. Prayer requires some form of relationship, or communion. And if I ask a dear friend of mine to pray for me, I am essentially ‘praying’ to them to pray to God. And, like a relationship with a friend, the meditative qualities of the rosary not only reflect on a relationship with Jesus, but also with His Mother.
As Catholics, we are not required to pray to Mary. We can pray directly to Jesus anytime just like our Protestant friends. But the way we see it, getting to know Mary helps us better get to know Jesus.
Prayer has always been a habit I was absolutely terrible at maintaining. I’ve grown up with the practical mindset that God gave me a brain and two hands to put to use, but prayer was always something lacking in my life and is (still) always the last thing on my mind. I’ve also developed a certain skepticism about whether or not my prayers were actually really effective. Sometimes I would think to myself, ‘If the only time I talk to God is when I need something, why would He want to follow through?’ In some ways, I feel like the son who barely talks to his own father unless he needs money to bail himself out for some stupid choices. This goes back to the emphasis on prayer requiring some kind of relationship. If someone was disowned by their parents, asking for money for whatever reason would be kind of awkward. But, like the prodical son, we are always welcome to come into a relationship with God anytime.
After reconnecting with a few of my Catholic friends when I was 29, they invited me to join a weekly rosary group. Unlike the way I used to say the rosary growing up, nobody in the group was ever trying to power through it quickly to get it done. I’ve always remembered the prayers being long and repetitious, but there was a sense of passion in everyone’s words. Even though repetition can easily get old fast, there was a level of intensity in these prayers I had never experienced before. I’m convinced it had a lot to do with the people whom I had been praying with. Their hearts were in their words. I also have to admit, I was quite rusty. I messed up many times but nobody made a big deal out of it. There were even parts of the rosary I did not remember ever praying when I was young. This only proved how out-of-touch I really was with the church I grew up with.
As for myself, I am a man of few words when it comes to prayer. Sometimes, I don’t really know what to say. And sometimes, it’s okay to not be a huge talker. Since I am awful at flying by the seat of my pants, I’m the kind of guy who needs a little bit of structure in my life. I use the rosary for not only the meditative and reflective qualities, but also the ‘spending quality-time’ factor. Usually it takes me about twenty minutes to recite it, but sometimes I’ll sit on the couch or lay in my bed and pray it because I have nothing better to do. Sometimes I’ll even fall asleep in the middle of it. Or sometimes I’ll be going through an extremely stressful situation where I need to distract my mind by immersing myself into the repetitive words when nothing else will calm me down.
Going back to the paranormal topic, the most recent experience I’ve had with sensing a dark presence was in my own basement. There was a chill down my spine as I walked down the stairs and I felt as though I was not alone, like I was being watched. It was as though an unwanted house-guest had overstayed its welcome and started to become territorial. I called my Christian friends to pray for my household and then I stood in the middle of the room in the basement while praying the rosary. And strangely enough, the hostile presence I felt had lifted.
With the combination of my friend’s prayers as well as Mary’s intercession to Christ, there is sure comfort in knowing we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.
As much as I’d like to consider myself a bit of a skeptic, I don’t know how to further explain these metaphysical happenings other than that my experiences are the reason why I try to put my faith in something that is bigger than myself. There are powers and principalities in this world beyond our understanding. Hate cannot exist without an absence of love. Darkness cannot exist without an absence of light. Evil cannot exist without an absence of good. And sometimes, the knowledge of hate, evil and darkness is so overwhelming that it is difficult to know where to rest my weary head.
That is the reason why I pray the rosary, and why I carry it with me wherever I go.
“The Rosary is the best therapy for these distraught, unhappy, fearful, and frustrated souls, precisely because it involves the simultaneous use of three powers: the physical, the vocal, and the spiritual, and in that order.” – Archbishop Fulton Sheen