Among other meanings, the dictionaries name three very different things as ‘rosary’: (1) a string of beads, (2) a meditational form of prayer, and (3) a rose-garden. What do these things have in common?
I want to take a look at the second meaning first. In the middle-ages, the hermit-monks in the Carthusian monasteries were praying the 150 psalms of the Book of Psalms every day. To do so, they needed two things: the ability to read Latin and the Book of Psalms. Books at the time were hand-copied, expensive, and hard to come by.
To make it possible for people who could not read, or were unable to afford the book, to still have a similar kind of meditation, the Carthusian Dominicus developed the first version of the rosary. Instead of the 150 psalms, he would pray 150 Ave Maria and add to each Ave Maria a meditation of 150 sentences (called mysteries) about the life and death of Jesus Christ. To keep track of the number of prayers, he would use a string of 150 beads.
Members of the Dominican order would later adopt this mediation for use in their missionary work. They realized, however, that ordinary people might have a hard time memorizing the 150 sentences. To make it easier, they reduced the number of mysteries to 15 and meditated every one of them for ten Ave Maria – these are now known as ‘decades’ of the rosary. They sorted the 15 remaining mysteries into three groups: the joyful mysteries about the birth, the sorrowful mysteries about passion and death, and the glorious mysteries about the resurrection and ascension of Christ.
To separate the decades, the Dominicans added larger beads between every ten beads and prayed the Pater Noster at these. Another addition was a short strand of string breaking off from the circular rosary. This strand would end in a cross and contain one more Pater Noster and three Ave Maria beads. The cross now marks the beginning of the meditation with the recital of the Apostolic Creed. This is followed by the Pater Noster and three Ave Maria asking for the three theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love.
With these modifications, the rosary-meditation became very popular throughout the Catholic world. Since more and more lay people were praying it who don’t have the same time as hermits and monks to dedicate to prayer, the 15 decades were split up into the thematic sets of 5 decades.
In time, people would also refer to the string of beads as ‘rosary,’ but what does this have to do with a rose-garden?
The Church has always associated the Blessed Virgin Mary with the rose. With the Ave Maria, the rosary calls on her help with meditating the life of her son. In an allegorical way, she is opening up her garden of roses to us when we pray the rosary, and every rose therein is one of the mysteries we meditate on.