Granite & Blueberry Beads

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Photo by Kristen Allen

     Growing up Catholic, I belonged to a parish that did not put a lot of emphasis on the Rosary. I was taught the prayers, of course, and I knew that some of the old women sat in the back of the church with their beads clicking. It was just not a ritual that was impressed upon me. When I left the Catholic church in my early twenties, I became a member of a non-denominational, Evangelical, Pentecostal congregation. Rote prayers and such rituals were actively discouraged, mocked, even.

Then I was taken in by the Church Ladies. This was a group of women that ran the food pantries in my city’s churches. With the exception of the three sisters from Georgia who were leaders in our community’s predominately black Baptist church, and the world-traveling retiree from the Episcopal church, the Church Ladies hailed from the city’s Catholic parishes. I came to know these women through my work in a local social service agency. Over the years, I have joined them (and their congregations) for special prayer services, holiday craft fairs, concerts, weddings, and funerals. Over countless cups of tea and slices of cake, through sharing our stories and rituals, they persisted in cutting through our professional boundaries to develop personal relationships with me.  They have made me a better woman.

The retired Catholic-school PE Teacher that ran one of the larger pantries in the city with the ferocity of a winning coach also organized her parish’s annual retreat. Every fall she invited me to come with her. Every fall I politely declined. Then there was the autumn that every adult member of my mama’s side of the family was hospitalized, one after another. That year, I accepted the invitation. It was in that peaceful chapel in a forest surrounding a tiny bay on Cape Cod, that I joined a group of women for the Sorrowful Mysteries with borrowed rosary beads. I struggled to remember some of the prayers, but was buoyed by the murmurings of the women around me, as the stars rose in the sky through the floor-to-ceiling windows behind the altar.

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Photo by Kristen Allen

When it was over, the eight or ten of us said our goodnights and split up for our rooms. I didn’t feel like I had experienced anything, well, spiritually impactful, as I often felt when leaving a prayer service from my Pentecostal days or even from my childhood youth group days.  I remember that I was disappointed at that. I sorely wanted the experience to be powerful and transformative.

I did not pick up a rosary again until years later during my second trip to Rwanda, where two of my fellow travelers, devout Catholics, both, convinced our tour leader to make a “slight side trip” (read that as  several hours out of our way through difficult, though stunning,  mountainous terrain) to the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows in Kibeho.   I have been a long-time skeptic of Marian visitations. Regardless of what I believe (or don’t), this is one of the few places of claimed Marian Visitations in the world that Vatican officials have deemed authentic.

In any event, I was profoundly moved by my day spent there. The stories of the visionaries’ experiences are chilling and compelling. The visitations (between 1981-1983) predicted the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 with horrifying detail. Among the admonitions the “Mother of the Word” was said to give the visionaries was to pray the Rosary of the Seven Sorrows  .  In the primitive gift shop at the Shrine, I purchased a set of these special beads—beautifully  handcrafted out of jacaranda wood–for a nun who is a dear friend. On impulse, I picked up another set for myself, as a remembrance of my day spent in this place.

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Photo by Kristen Allen

     It is now five years later. The set of rosary beads I got at that retreat center, and the Rosary of the Seven Sorrows I got in Kibeho sit together, unused, in a drawer in my bedside stand. Recently, though,  ongoing conversations with friends who do practice praying the Rosary regularly, have me in a place where I now find myself  thinking about a variety of meditation practices, about Mary, and about the Rosary.

I’ve caught myself collecting 10 small stones on my regular hikes along the river, tiny beads of granite that I finger in my pocket as I move through the familiar trail, thinking through the problems—the mysteries– of my day. I’ve taken to reciting under my breath decades of Hail Mary’s while rubbing a restless preschooler’s back to sleep during rest time. Then just last week, when my stress level peaked and worry threatened to drown me, I fled to my garden, where I hoped the ordinary, mindless task of pulling weeds and picking produce would calm me. Getting scratched by the prickly cucumbers was a tactile representation of what I was feeling in my mind.  Balancing the sheer volume of ripened tomatoes was too overwhelming for me to manage, and I left a trail of tomatoes from the yard to the kitchen. It wasn’t until I got into the blueberry bushes, with the steady “Plunk! Plunk! Plunk!” of the berries, one at a time hitting my bucket, that I began get any relief. The feel of the little round berries in my fingers, the repetitious sound they made as they collected, was a prayer repeated again and again. And just like that, I found a bit of peace.

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Photo by Kristen Allen

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