The Atlantic recently ran an article about extremist militaristic groups that have co-opted the rosary and the concept of spiritual warfare in order to push their violent ideology. The buzz generated around the article focused more on the article’s title (which was later changed), rather than the author’s argument about the dangers of unchecked religious fanaticism.
Though I most often associate the rosary with darling elderly church ladies rather than would-be modern-day crusaders, for years I handled my own rosary with the revulsion and begrudging respect I might have had for a revolver and used the rosary in prayer only under duress. Despite my best efforts, the rosary held memories of violence for me.
Witnessing the Violence of the Mexican Drug War
I grew up along the southwest Texas border in the neighboring cities of Piedras Negras, Mexico and Eagle Pass, Texas. For much of my childhood, Piedras Negras was a relatively quiet industrial city, deemed a safe port of entry compared to other cities along the border.
Then the strife of the Mexican drug war reached us.
We were in the middle of it before we realized it had begun. Seemingly overnight, our quiet city and neighboring ranching communities became the backdrop for some of the worst human rights atrocities the country has experienced.
Terror reigned and the violence became unrelenting. Armed conflict between rival cartels and armed forces became a weekly occurrence, and the ubiquitous forced disappearances of people within and without the drug trade soon ceased to even make the headlines.
As a culturally Catholic community, we turned to prayer during this time. Perpetual rosary novenas were on-going. We gathered in homes, at churches, and at big community events to pray the rosary, to beg God, the Virgin Mary, and St. Jude (patron saint of lost causes) for an end to the violence, the safe return of our loved ones, and the conversion of those involved in the drug trade.
For a while, the violence only got worse. At the time, I had the distinct feeling that our prayers fell on deaf ears.
With a faith that hadn't matured, a faith that had never learned to doubt, I began to question the darkness.
“Was God really listening?”
“Did He even care?”
"What good could prayers be against men with a surplus of guns, a lack of humanity, and an insatiable hunger for power?”
Days turned into months, and then into years. The violence ebbed and flowed, and many of our loved ones remain unaccounted for to this date.
I put the violence behind me when I went to college. Eventually, the violence back at home ceased. Piedras Negras is no longer a hotspot of the drug war that still rages across the country.
When the Rosary Brings Back Memories of Violence
During college, I wandered away from the Church for reasons hardly worth revisiting. It’s been four years since I’ve been back. When a lot of my peers were going through their own processes of deconstruction, I was falling back in love with the Church that raised me.
Yet the rosary presented an unexpected stumbling block.
The rosary is often touted as a marker of devout Catholicism and a fail-proof path to sainthood. But I could not reconcile this with the complicated feelings that came back the moment I picked it up. I was bombarded with feelings of terror and despair, images of a silent God, and memories of the numbing recitation of Hail Mary after desperate Hail Mary, of endless litanies that seemed to fall on deaf ears, of nights that only got darker and longer.
What I wouldn’t give to forget what I can hardly bear to remember.
I was living in Atlanta during the time of my reconversion. When the Southern invocation of a beloved “Mama Mary” sounded foreign to my ears, I realized then that I no longer knew her like that. I could no longer relate to the familiarity my faith community had with our Blessed Mother.
As I’d tried to forget how to pray the rosary, I'd forgotten how to love Mary.
I hardly dared voice my disdain for the rosary. God forbid it’d be taken as direct disrespect to the Blessed Mother when I couldn’t be bothered to explain myself.
Re-Encountering Mary through My Abuelita
I thought I could get away with leaving it well enough alone. I’d grown to love other devotions in its place and I’d learned to negotiate for a different penance after Confession. But the rosary remained inescapable. It’s in my middle name, after all.
I was named Rosario after my maternal grandmother. Even though I never got to meet her, I came to love my Abuelita Chayo in much the same way I learned to love Mary as a child.
I’ve known of my abuelita’s love my entire life. Her picture has been ever-present on our home altar and she’s the most influential figure in the lives of the people I love most. And she loved Our Lady so.
So it was her, my abuelita, that I was thinking of when I started a 54-day rosary novena in August so that it would end on her birthday, the feast day of Our Lady of the Rosary.
I kept the requests simple. I set up the alarms. And day after day I held onto the rosary even when I didn’t feel like it.
About halfway through, I began to look forward to it as part of my daily routine and in many ways, it has become a homecoming of sorts.
For as much pain as the rosary continues to hold, I’d almost forgotten that it also holds memories of a lovely Marian childhood: a childhood of autumns spent as a matachin dancer for Our Lady of Guadalupe, of warm gatherings during Marian feast days, of May coronations, and of pilgrimages across the country to the most beautiful Marian shrines.
It also reminds me of the women of faith who raised me: my mother and her sisters, who love the Mother of Jesus.
Slowly, I am reminded of the way I used to know her as a little girl. This familiarity I’d forgotten has started to reappear because after all these years, the Mother of Mercy still looks at me with tenderness and in my mother tongue eases my fears as she whispers, “¿Acaso no estoy yo aquí, que soy tu Madre?” “Am I not here, I, who am your Mother?”
Reminders of a Faith Forged in Fire
I don’t know if I’ll ever become a daily rosary gal, if my rosary collection will be at all comparable to that of my grandmother’s, or if my faith practice will ever be filled again with many of the Marian elements I grew up with.
Some days the beads still feel heavy and lead-ladden, and the recitation of the prayers feels numbing. I have yet to subject myself to the Litany of Loreto again or any of the special novenas we prayed out of desperation, like the novena to Saint Jude or the Chaplet of the Precious Blood of Jesus.
But I now hold the beads with a faith forged in fire and with a heart that walked out of the darkness, following the Light of Light. I pray the rosary out of love and not desperation, as someone who strives to practice the steadfast love of Mary, the Mother of God, and who has learned to trust God’s mercy and grace above all devotions.