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I practiced meditation for a half hour each day after school as a kid in elementary school.  Sometimes I fell asleep, but mostly my mind raced.  I learned the rosary as an adult to help fight off panic attacks.  Despite not being Catholic, it occurred to me because of movies about exorcisms because panic is like a demon inside of me.  After using this method for more than a year, I discovered that repetitive prayer or actions can actually help meditation.

I have a hard time sitting still and letting go of my racing thoughts when I try traditional meditation, but I’ve discovered that doing certain things at the same time can help me stay in that state of mind.  For instance, if I just think about a bible verse on worry, it’s not enough to hold my attention, and I’m soon pulled under again by whatever anxious thought is stalking me.  However, if I visualize in my mind writing that verse out in cursive, it’s a sufficiently difficult task that I can focus on it.  I have to think hard about how to make some cursive letters, and the visual component of this makes doing it in your mind absorbing.

Another example is the rosary.  I used to just say the prayers over and over again during panic attacks because repeating something I had memorized helped distract me.  Then I learned the way the rosary was meant to be prayed by people who are actually catholic and don’t just suffer from anxiety.  After you say the creed, on the first 3 beads above Jesus’s head you say one hail Mary each for the increase in the world of faith, hope, and love.  That’s my very favorite part.

While your mind is babbling (I prefer to say my rosary in Spanish) the same repetitive prayer, you can hold the intention in your head of there being more hope in the world.  I think of something different all the time – children in armies in Africa who need to believe there is life outside of war, people who’ve made such terrible mistakes that they think no one will forgive them, families who don’t know where their next meal will come from.  I imagine the hope growing in their hearts while my mind carries on with the prayer.  I can hang onto this train of thought without getting sucked back into my worry because saying a prayer in Spanish while you visualize sending hope to the hopeless is complicated.

When you get to the decades of the rosary (the 10 little beads between each big bead in the chain), Catholics meditate on one mystery per decade.  (There are luminous mysteries, joyful mysteries, sorrowful mysteries, glorious mysteries…there’s a schedule for each day of the week.)  For instance, if they were doing the joyful mysteries, they would meditate on the first decade about the annunciation, on the second decade about the visitation, on the third about the nativity, then the presentation of Jesus at the temple, and then finding Jesus at the temple.  I don’t know the mysteries unless someone is announcing them (which they do when you pray the rosary in a group), but I like to think about one problem per bead or per decade, depending on how big the problem is.

Thinking about both the prayer and the problem simultaneously helps my mind not to wander off.  I don’t need a rosary to pray this way anymore – I can do it in my head or on my fingers, in English or in Spanish.   I think I associate the litany now with peace and calm, so even if my mind is too full of racing thoughts to meditate, trying to think of two things at once is just my (manic) speed.  When I start to feel panicky, I find myself automatically reciting the words in my head and I begin to calm down.  Dios te salve Maria, llena eres de gracia, el senor es contigo…

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Okay, Catholics.  I know you’re out there.  I want to know why you think the Virgin Mary died a virgin.  After all, she was…married!

*

I studied theology at a Catholic seminary that trained monks and nuns for one semester.  I was the only non-priest, non-monk, non-nun in this class, which in theory was supposed to be about the history of the modern in church.  In practice, the coursework reached the Reformation during the first week and never advanced beyond it for the entire semester.  Periodically, my professor would beseechingly ask me questions about why I was a protestant heretic.

My favorite such encounter was when he stopped mid-sentence during one lecture and said to me, “FierceLinguist, why don’t you love the Virgin Mary?  Your church is motherless!” *cue much gasping from the nuns and monks in the audience*  I offered a halting explanation in Spanish at to why Protestants think the Virgin Mary is a Very Nice Lady and yet not someone who can help you with prayers.

I’m actually a big fan of the Virgin Mary, but I’m really not sure why it’s so abhorrent for people to think that she eventually had sex with her husband.  My husband has requested that I not  ask our priest about this at mass this weekend.  I’m pretty sure he’d just start talking about Tradition with a capital “t” anyway.  Or say it’s a “mystery” of the church, which means, “Bless your heart, it’s rude to ask about the sex lives of saints.  This is why you’re one of the separated brethren.”

*http://blasphemes.blogspot.com/2009_11_01_archive.html

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