On every bead of the rosary, we say a prayer from Holy Scripture or from Christian tradition. The word is something very rich, alive, even mysterious: a formation of sounds and consonances by which the speaker gives the listener a glimpse into the inner realm of thought.
A word comes into existence if the sound expresses not only an emotion or a situation but also an association, a perception, and a reality.
While I speak, the word floats in space, as it were, and what was formerly closed within me is now open. Those who hear the word can grasp its meaning. Then it fades away, and its meaning is inside again, in my own self and in those who understood it.
But with all this something has changed: the meaning became a word and it remains a word. Before it was only the gist of being and life, the inner word that man speaks to himself because he cannot live a spiritual life without living in words. Now it has been spoken, pronounced, and stands open for all time. After speech has died away, its place is no longer in outward audibility, but in the memory of those who heard it. But this memory is a real place in which the word can be found again and examined, and from which it can at all times step into open speech again.
Something else has happened, too: so long as I keep silence, I carry the meaning within myself and am master over it. Even if the other person guesses the meaning, I still have not spoken. But when I speak, I transfer it from my own reserve into the domain of the other. I risk taking it out into the open and thus into danger. Now I cannot extinguish it any more, because what has been said has been said. So speech is the beginning of history — the beginning of that which happens, with all the consequences.
It is said sometimes that the word is spiritual, but that is not true; the word is like man. It has a body like a mortal: the form of notes and sounds. It has spirit, again like man: sense that becomes manifest in the audible. And it has, like man, a heart: the vibration of the soul which fills it. The word is man himself, in his finest and most agile form. That is why the word has such power.
No, the power of the word is explained by the fact that it exists like any mortal, and therefore penetrates into the very essence of life. Who has not come to know the sustaining and comforting effect of a “good word”:5 how its truth engages the mind; how its beauty gladdens the senses; how its sweetness can actually be tasted? But who does not also know how an evil word sinks like a thorn deep into one’s soul, so deep that even after years it seems to smart? The word is more than mere communication; it is power, substance, and form.
This is not only true when the word has just been spoken; it is true also when it continues to vibrate in our memory. The word is not only the self-expression of the person who speaks, but also the assumption that this person can speak at all: it is speech. In the course of time, words and their arrangement have expanded and developed into a world of sense-configurations within which the individual has his roots.
The language a man speaks is the world in which he lives and strives; it belongs to him more essentially than the land and the things he calls his home. This world of speech consists not only of the words that put it together, but also contains sentences filled with meaning: proverbs, for example, thoughts of wise and noble men, songs, or poems. They can confront the individual at any time and exercise their power.
This is true of all words of wisdom, love, and beauty that are retained by man’s memory. It is true of religious words that are derived from the experience of pious people; it is particularly true of the words that contain God’s Revelation in human terms, namely, the words of Holy Scripture.
Such words express more than mere truth or good counsel. They are a force that stirs up the listener, a room which he may enter, a direction that guides him.
Mary of Egypt was a courtesan in Alexandria, known for her beauty and passion. One day she began to see the light; she went to see a holy man and asked him whether she could be saved. The man of God answered her, “Leave everything behind; go into solitude and constantly say the words:
`Thou who hast created me, have mercy on me!’ ”
She did as she was told, prayed incessantly, always using the same words. After a number of years, the chronicler tells us, she became as pure as a flame, and the angels carried her to God. Those words were not only a petition or a lesson, but a force; and the woman had such a great heart that she gave it full sway to work her conversion.
The Rosary consists of holy words. The Hail Mary takes precedence over all of them. Its first part is derived from the New Testament. The prayer begins with the message of the angel to Mary in Nazareth: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” This greeting is then followed by the words with which Elizabeth greeted Mary when the latter had crossed the mountains to visit her: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.”
The second part is an ancient appeal for Mary’s intercession. The Lord Himself gave us the Our Father as the perfect model and substance of all Christian prayer. The Creed constitutes the first expression of Christian conviction. The “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit” is the glorification of the triune God in its simplest form. Finally, with the Sign of the Cross with which the Rosary begins and ends, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” Christians from the time of remote antiquity have placed themselves under the name of God and the sign of redemption.
The words of these prayers are recurrent. They create that open, moving world, transfused by energy and regulated by reason, in which the act of prayer takes place. As soon as the person praying utters the words, he has built for himself a home by his speech. The history of his own language and life becomes animated; behind it is the history of his people, interwoven into that of humanity. But when these words are taken from Holy Scripture, they become an arch in the sacred room of Revelation, in which the truth of the living God is made known to us.