Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.
~ St. Basil (CCC 336).
When I’m driving to work, I have a choice. I can either turn on the radio and listen to my friends on NPR go blah, blah, blah about whatever – or I can pray a rosary. I confess I don’t always choose to pray, and sometimes I feel justified in that if there’s something hot in the news I want to get the latest on – especially if it pertains to my local community or the Church.
Usually, however, I have no excuse, and so ideally I’ll leave the radio off and grab my beads. Or sometimes, if I put it on automatically, I might catch sight of that little statue of the Blessed Mother on my dashboard and think twice. She’s not judging me or scolding; she’s just inviting me and waiting: How about spending a little time with Mom? Headlines and movie reviews can wait.
Here’s the problem, though: The trip from home to the college where I teach nursing is precisely four decades long. If you pray the rosary in your car, you’ll get what I mean immediately. You have your regular routes down to a prayerful science and you know how many decades (or full rosaries in the case of longer trips) each one “takes.” For me, it doesn’t seem to matter when I commence – in the driveway, after the first turn – or how I adjust my list of intentions at the beginning, I’m always pulling into the parking lot behind my office just as I’m about to begin the fifth decade.
If I arrive with time to spare, there’s no problem. I just park, turn off the ignition, and finish up. Of course, it might seem strange to my coworkers who are also pulling in, or students walking by on their way to class. But if it’s still dark outside (like when I get there for 7 a.m. labs), then I can find a spot out of the way and stay out of sight.
Usually, however, I’m on the fly and I only have minutes to spare before I’m supposed to be someplace. In such cases I could probably rely on my guardian angel to complete the prayers – like when we depend on our angels to finish our bedtime rosaries when we fall asleep. I’ll never forget hearing about that pious practice in my heady post-conversion Catholic Worker days. A friend of mine mentioned it as an inspiring tradition her mother passed on to her, and I haughtily dismissed it. “If you start a rosary, you should finish it – period,” I think I told her, probably imagining that Dorothy Day, a rigorous spiritual warrior and my hero, would’ve insisted on the same. Ah, how times have changed – and how I have mellowed. I regret not only my rude response, but also the belligerent pride that lay behind it.
Now, of course, I depend on my guardian angel for all kinds of things, including his assistance with my sloppy and incomplete prayer. The whole sleep-rosary-angel connection might be pure legend, but it’s a legend I hope has roots in reality.
Even so, I feel funny about not finishing the rosary myself – like one day last week when I got to campus well before the Hail Holy Queen. I made a quick sign of the cross, draped the beads around my dashboard Mother, and hightailed it to class, sheepishly making a mental note to pray the last decade on the way home – although, truthfully, I usually forget. (Sorry, Mom!)
When I got to the lab, my colleague, Lisa, was just about to start her presentation on head-to-toe assessment – a staple of the nursing profession and a truly vital skill. Beginning with observation, and then by means of touching (“palpation”) and listening (“auscultation”), nurses review their patients’ body systems, literally top to bottom (or, “feet” in this context). The head-to-toe provides the nurse a snapshot of her patient’s overall condition, and it allows her to pick up on anything new, abnormal, or unexpected. Nurses perform this standard assessment in some form or another whenever we take charge of new patients, no matter how briefly, and it’s always performed systematically – although “not always at the same time,” as Lisa explained to our beginning students.
“‘Not always at the same time’ – just like my rosary,” I thought to myself. “You might start with listening to lung sounds and the heart,” Lisa continued, “and then the patient has to leave for an x-ray or some other test. As long as he’s stable, that’s OK, because you can just finish with the other body systems when he gets back.”
Thus, the head-to-toe assessment done in stages has a moral unity, even when there are significant time gaps between the different parts. That’s certainly also true for our sequential rosaries, isn’t it? Come to think of it, I remember Fr. Giles Dimock, O.P., telling me as much way back in my Franciscan University days. “It’s what I do on very busy days,” he told me, “even if it’s just one decade at a time.” And that’s coming from a Dominican – an eminently trustworthy source when it comes to the rosary, which is particularly associated with the Order of Preachers.
Besides, as much as I like the idea of spiritual beings tying up my prayerful loose ends, it’s not like Mary is keeping score – like, “Tut, tut, that Rick just dropped another decade, so no spiritual benefits for him unless his angel picks up the slack!” Moreover, she doesn’t depend on our rosaries, complete or not. While it’s true that the rosary prayers undoubtedly please her, prayer in general is chiefly for our benefit – it’s primarily a gift that leads to our being shaped and transformed. “Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours,” writes St. Augustine. “God thirsts that we may thirst for him” (CCC 2560).
That’s why I like St. Bernadette’s take on the sleeper rosary tradition. According to Ann Ball, the Lourdes visionary didn’t think twice about unfinished bedtime rosaries, and even urged a fellow sister to “do the same as little children who fall asleep saying ‘Mama, mama.’” No worries about incomplete decades or prayers; only childlike abandonment and trust, and the accompanying comfy security of being nestled in a mother’s embrace.
“Invoke your Guardian Angel that he illuminate you and will guide you,” wrote St. Padre Pio to a correspondent. “God has given him to you for this reason. Therefore use him!” Sound advice – and it gives me an idea. October is right around the corner, a month connected with both the rosary and our guardian angels, so I’m cutting a deal with mine: “Instead of finishing all my incomplete prayers this month,” I’ll suggest to him, “how about nudging and reminding me to finish them myself?
“Done!” I envision him replying as he shakes my hand. “Only don’t try my patience by flipping on that car radio so often.
Ouch – point taken, but I know it’s for my own good, as is the whole mystical set-up: a personal angel, the Mother of God, and they’re both constantly beckoning me, pulling me, dragging me to Jesus. How can I lose with a team like that in my corner?