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Posted May 22, 2014 in Word Made Flesh:
The Power in a Word

by Fr. Pat McNulty.

Whoa! That sounds like Sister Good-a-Gunda of the Tower of London, our seventh grade teacher who had a horror list of written punishments for us when we did stuff like that. Who ratted on you?

Nobody. And I think Sister Carlene was right: after all, it was a procession in church and involved a litany honoring the Mother of God.

It was bad enough that we were "otherwise occupied" at such a holy time as we processed around the church singing the Latin response, "Ora pro nobis," ("Pray for us"), but when Sister found out what we were laughing at, that did it.

"Oh, rotten noses?"

We weren’t singing that. It was Billy Brockup, one of the guys from our class, who was in the procession. But that started it all.

You know how it is when kids are in a situation where laughing is totally out of order: a simple giggle can turn into a full-blown-bent-over-double laughing fit if you’re not careful, and with "O, rotten noses" some of us were close.

But Sister Carlene did catch it before it became full-blown, and Billy disappeared quicker than we could sing the next, "Ora pro nobis."

I’ve always said that’s the kind a kid every class needs just to keep things sane and down to earth.

But Sister Carlene wasn’t punishing us so much as cleverly teaching us a profound lesson which I didn’t understand until many years later.

She gave each of the ten of us a different phrase from that Litany of Loreto,* a phrase which we had to write fifty times for homework and bring to school the next day.

I couldn’t believe the one she gave me: Mystical Rose! I didn’t even know how to spell it let alone what it meant, so I just wrote what she gave me fifty times and thought that was it.

Them litanies never did much for me when it comes to prayer. They’re OK for processions’ n’ stuff, so you can just walk and sing and not have to carry a book or concentrate too much, but …

Well, aside from being a wonderful part of our religious tradition, they were never my favorites either, though I enjoyed praying them now and then.

But by middle-age I kept coming across this "Mystical Rose" phrase in other contexts, and there was something about those two words together that haunted me. (Very clever of you, Sister.)

Then one day at some Marian devotion when we were praying that same litany and came to that invocation, I had a very deep sense of Mary and me which none of the other invocations had ever brought about.

I began to enjoy saying and hearing that one all by itself over and over… . "Mystical Rose, Mystical Rose, Mystical Rose."

Gradually, other of the invocations came to mind, and I joined them together; before long I had my own little litany which I could say by heart anywhere, anytime:

"Mystical Rose … House of Gold … Gate of Heaven … Morning Star"—all of them invocations from that same Marian litany which I had never paid much attention to before.

It wasn’t long before I realized that something very profound was happening to my mariology, to my sense of Mary, the Mother of God.

And, it wasn’t happening because of an apparition or a new devotion to Mary, but it was happening by the mysterious power of these simple invocations from the litany itself. I had never experienced anything like that before.

So we’re gettin’ back to weird again, huh, Reverend?

Well, some people might call it weird, but I like to think of it as discovering new "mystical roses" from within the heart of the Catholic tradition, because I started doing the same thing with other litanies.

I would pick them up at a time when I wanted to pray but just focus on one invocation which really touched my heart, repeating it over and over, and I discovered the same phenomenon: there was a new sense of the object of the litany itself, be it the Sacred Heart, St. Joseph, the name of Jesus, whatever.

And I began to realize there might be hidden in all of this, a profound medicine for a particular spiritual malady of this age, namely prayer based only on my feelings, my words, my song, when I feel like praying. Me, me, me.

Because it’s amazing what happens to our sense of prayer in a litany when the object is wrapped up in a whole tradition of prayer, sometimes a centuries-old experience of prayer, beyond mere feelings, and then repeated over and over simply because of the words themselves: "Mystical Rose … House of Gold … Gate of Heaven … Morning Star."

Together they create an image of Faith far more life-giving and profound than my prayers.

Once my feelings are quieted down, then the words themselves can take on their own proper life; they can now do what words of faith are meant to do—indeed what all sacramentals are meant to do: create union between us and the person they focus on.

Not just worship, not just praise, but union, because the words are anointed by ages of faith and now have a power unto themselves: "Mystical Rose" – Yes! "Morning Star" – Yes! "Gate of Heaven" – Yes!

And that, my friend, is key to the sacramental life: words/things anointed by the Holy Spirit that lead to union.

Even if we don’t understand with our minds, our hearts know all about it, because that’s part of the power of the words and the waters of our Baptism.

I don’t have a clue what you’re talkin’ about now, Reverend.

That’s understandable. Sometimes I don’t either, but …

If you ask me I think what we both need about now is a beer with good ole Billy Brockup.

No, "if you ask me" I think what I need to do right now is to pick an invocation from that litany, and what you need to do right now is shut up, sit down, and write it fifty times.

Then maybe you’ll begin to see what is wrapped up in these powerful invocations, these "Mystical Roses," which we know as litanies in our Catholic tradition. You might learn a whole new and wonderful way to pray, my friend.

Whoa, that Carlene Sister really got your number!

Indeed she did, thank God, and I hope she’s about to get yours, too. Here’s a pen and some paper. Write!

But I don’t know how to spell "miss-tickle."

Don’t worry, I won’t give you that one. How about "Mother inviolate?"

What?

 

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