How it evolved, its connection to the Carmelites, and some interesting rosary trivia!
By Pat Morrison
The origins of the Carmelite Order are wrapped in fascinating (and sometimes, for history-lovers, frustrating) layers of myth and mystery.
We have very few details about the little group of 13th- century laymen who gathered at the wadi or “fountain of Elijah” on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land to live in prayerful solitude as hermits.
What we do know is that the short, practical Rule given to them somewhere between 1206 and 1214 by Albert Avogardo, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, called for them to gather daily for the celebration of Eucharist in “an oratory to be built in the midst of the [hermits’] cells.”
An early pilgrim’s account written just a few years later describes the lush beauty of the site, this small group already known as the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Mount Carmel, and their lovely little church dedicated to Mary, Domina loci: “the Lady of the Place.”
So despite the lack of other information we’d love to know about the first Carmelites, history has given us the most important: the call to live a shared life of prayer, in allegiance to Jesus Christ, under the patronage of Mary, honored from the beginning of Carmel’s existence as mother and sister.
Carmel and the rosary: both ‘a work in progress’
Given the love and devotion of the early Carmelites for the Blessed Virgin, it’s not surprising that the rosary devotion and Carmel developed almost in tandem once the fledgling order moved to Europe. Both were a work in progress, evolving and changing according to the needs of God’s people and rooted in the cultures and places where they were planted.
From hermits on a mountain range in Palestine, the Carmelites arriving in Europe made the necessary transition to life in the cities, embracing the challenges of maintaining hermit hearts amid the church’s call to apostolic outreach as one of its new mendicant orders.
At the same time, what came to be a Marian devotion called the rosary was also in transition.
Prayer beads are used in several of the world’s great religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.
In Christianity, the prayer “beads” were originally a simple knotted cord used by desert monks to count the 150 psalms they prayed daily. A few centuries later, the Eastern Churches developed a chaplet, often also just knots, on which monks and nuns pray “the Jesus prayer”: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Over time, the Christian practice of praying with beads became a way for those who could not read to count Our Fathers, and later “the Angelic Salutation,” or the first part of what today is the Hail Mary. The second half of the prayer, beginning “Holy Mary, Mother of God,” was not common until the 17th century. (Interestingly, that means that the Hail Mary St. Teresa prayed in the 1500s was half the length of our own!)
The rosary devotion grows in popularity
While the prayers of the rosary were still evolving over several centuries, the physical rosary itself was becoming fairly standardized throughout Europe. We know that by the 1200s, English anchoresses were praying their Aves on a chaplet made of fifty knots or beads, divided in groups of ten—almost identical to our rosaries today.
If medieval people had the internet, the rosary would certainly be “trending.” Thanks especially to the efforts of the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans, the devotion soon “went viral” across Europe, and evolved more closely into its current form.
So many people wanted a rosary of their own that in 13th- century Paris there were at least four trade guilds working full-time making rosaries, crafted from everything from nuts and shells on string or leather to precious stones and ivory strung on chains of silver or gold.
St. John of the Cross probably didn’t know or care about the booming business in rosary manufacture. He doesn’t say much about the rosary as a prayer form, but he is very aware of the penchant of some devotees to accumulate rosary beads, the fancier the better. In his typical practical style of spiritual guidance, the Mystical Doctor urges people to focus on God, not the religious article they’re using.
Soon, in addition to the small personal rosaries, some religious orders of men and women added a larger rosary to their habits, usually suspended from the cincture. The Dominicans and Carmelites were among them. A rich variety of versions of the rosary devotion developed as well.
A contemplative prayer form
One reason for the rosary’s perennial popularity is its genius in weaving together vocal prayer with meditation on the life of Jesus and his mother.
St. Dominic, preaching missions to the common people, is credited with being among the first to offer a reflection after the praying of the Hail Marys, thus helping the rosary move from solely vocal prayer to one that is also meditative.
This blend of vocal and contemplative prayer accounts for the rosary’s primacy of place for Carmelites especially, and indeed for the praying church in general.
The rhythm of words prayed slowly, the calming effect of fingering beads, and the meditation on the mysteries make the rosary an ideal prayer for people of all ages and walks of life.
Popes for centuries have considered the rosary one of the most important prayer practices for Catholics, second only to the Eucharistic liturgy and the Liturgy of the Hours.
In our own day, Pope Francis has praised the rosary as the perfect tool to learn contemplative prayer:
To listen to the Lord, we must learn to contemplate, to feel his constant presence in our lives, and we must stop and converse with him, giving him space in prayer. . . . Here I would like to emphasize the beauty of a simple contemplative prayer, accessible to all, great and small, the educated and those with little education. It is the prayer of the holy rosary… Reciting the Hail Mary we are led to contemplate the mysteries of Jesus, that is, to reflect on the key moments of his life, so that, as with Mary and St. Joseph, he is the center of our thoughts, of our attention and our actions….
(General Audience, St. Peter’s Square, May 1, 2013, and Message to Young Lithuanians, June 21, 2013)
Patricia Lynn Morrison is editorial director of ICS Publications and series editor for the rosary with the Carmelite saints books. She loves Mary, church history, and the rosary (of which she has …. a bunch!). Her favorite is an olive wood one she took on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and touched to/dunked in many of the holy sites, from the grotto at Bethlehem, to the River Jordan and the Sea of Galilee, to Calvary and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. She successfully wrestled it away from a curious and persistent camel who was trying to get it out of her pocket and have it for lunch.