Friday, July 1, 2016

The Science? of the Rosary

Hanging Rosary (from Papal Blessed Rosaries)
“For those who use their intelligence and their study as a weapon, the Rosary is most effective. Because that apparently monotonous way of beseeching Our Lady as children do their Mother, can destroy every seed of vainglory and pride.” – St. Josemaria Escriva
“Never will anyone who says his Rosary every day be led astray. This is a statement that I would gladly sign with my blood.”
Saint Louis de Montfort


I pray the Rosary every day;  at home, when driving*, and before Mass at Church, I use my finger to replace the beads (even though I have one thumb rosary wheel, and three rosaries given to me by my children).    At Adoration, however, I use one of the many rosaries set out for the faithful.   


While praying the Rosary in the Adoration Chapel, my physics Screwtape often gets to me, and I wonder about the physics of the hanging rosary, how one takes account of the hanging crucifix, the beads separating the decades, and the length of chain held between the hands while the rosary hangs.   I know that if you 
Catenary Curve for a Hanging Chain
(from code golf)
suspend the rosary from the first and fourth separation beads, you'll get a catenary, as in the catenary for a suspension of strands in a spider web or suspension of a weightless bridge.

While I try to focus on the Rosary prayer, Screwtape asks me how will the hanging crucifix affect the curve?   Do you add in the extra downward force at the point of suspension and solve the dynamics or do you do a perturbation analysis?  How does  the curve change when there are only three beads between the two suspension points, instead of a full decade?   And so it goes, until I finally push Screwtape back into his cubby and focus on the Monstrance in front of me, the crucifix hanging above it, and my Rosary prayer.


Our brains are affected by contemplative prayer, as has been shown in a large number of imaging studies.  (See "Are We Hard-Wired for Faith", the web page of Professor Andrew Newberg and his review article "The Neuroscientific Study of Spiritual Practices". )   What his and other studies have shown is  that areas in the brain governing language and higher intellection are made more active by contemplative prayer (including, presumably that of the Rosary), while areas governing sense of place and location are made less active.     Newberg interprets the latter result as accounting for the sense of disembodiment and withdrawal that often happens during contemplative prayer.


The short and correct answer to the above is "very little".   To make a computer analogy:  if you know that one output connects to a monitor, one input to an audio source, another to a mouse, etc., you've obtained some operational information about the computer, but you don't--without additional information--know how a computer works, what goes on inside of it, and how to make another.

And so it is with the spirituality of the Rosary.   It is unique, it is powerful, it is a force given by God, to help us conquer ourselves and make peace with the world.   Our Lady has recommended in many visions that we make Her prayer daily and thereby improve our world.      It can not be explained by science, and it need not be explained by theology.

As was shown in the Battle of Lepanto,
. “Give me an army saying the Rosary and I will conquer the world.” – Blessed Pope Pius IX
(For many other fine quotes about the Rosary see  "The Catholic Gentleman".)

*My wife read this and admonished me, "You can either drive or do the Rosary, but not both without doing each poorly." (I guess this is a version of Our Lord's comment, that one cannot serve two masters.)   So, I've promised not to pray the Rosary while driving, except as a passenger, and I recommend others do the same.

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About Me

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Retired, cranky, old physicist.   Convert to Catholicism in 1995.   Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.   Intermittent blogs and adult education classes to achieve this end (see   and

Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC.
Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group.

And, finally, my motivation:
“It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking.
Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.”
St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.