As a little girl, I would quietly walk to my parent’s bedroom, pajamas still rumpled, as my mama was praying the rosary, kneeling against her bed facing a makeshift altar of burning candles, pictures and small statues of Jesus, Mary and a few saints. She would turn and see me at the door behind her, and open her arms to me. Though her embrace was loving and tender, she didn’t stop and say good morning. She kept on praying, reciting the words like a mantra.
Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
From the time I was old enough to kneel myself, she, my brother and I prayed the rosary every day until I was about high school age, almost 15 years. Each day we lit tapered candles on the altar and sometimes I would play with the warm wax when we blew the candles out. We had small prayer books from the Philippines, written in English, and she would choose which ones for us to read and follow. Sometimes she would lead, sometimes my brother. On Wednesdays, it was longer, we had to do the Novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help and sing.
Over time the burgundy carpet along the edge of the bed wore down where we had all kneeled for so many years. As we got older, praying became a chore. My brother and I would try everything to get out of it. We would secretly hope my mother would forget for the day. We wouldn’t mention it, and we would avoid anything that would remind her. But she never forgot, just when we’d relax into watching TV or playing with our toys, she would say, “It’s time to pray!”
At various times in life, I have had to defend and explain both praying the rosary and my mother. Why do you “worship” Mary my protestant friends would ask? What are those beads? Can I wear them as a necklace? Where is your mom from? Why did she come to America? What is she saying, I can’t understand her.
I didn’t know what to say back then, and I wasn’t strong enough to be defensive or try to respond in a meaningful way. I stayed quiet or laughed it off trying to keep the peace.
But it wasn’t peaceful, and I can’t do that anymore.
The rosary is not worshipping Mary, it is a way of asking her to pray for you, the way you would ask a friend, the way you would ask another mother who had survived the most difficult of circumstances, a mother who might empathize with the struggles that you were going through.
For my mother, with her difficult childhood in a small province in the Philippines followed by the challenges of being one of a very few immigrants in our small town in Indiana, praying the rosary was something that she could hang on to for hope, for strength, and for comfort.
Admittedly, I hadn’t prayed the rosary in a long time, until my son was learning how to pray at a church retreat a few years ago. The memories immediately flooded me. All of those days kneeling by the bed, all of those prayers we recited. Saying the rosary with my son, I felt the peace, love and understanding it could bring. I finally understood it as a gift.
*October is the month of the Most Holy Rosary, it is also Filipino American History Month.